Planning Office continues Church mission with closed parishes

St. Joseph Church in Salem closed its doors on Aug. 17 last year, but the Archdiocesan Planning Office of Urban Affairs hopes to continue the Church’s mission on the former parish’s property, opening new doors to the community.

“We’re going to work very hard to honor the legacy of that parish. We’re going to continue on with the mission of the Church even though it might take a different form,” said Lisa Alberghini, executive director of the Planning Office.

The Archdiocese of Boston announced on July 26 that St. Joseph’s had been sold to the Planning Office for conversion to housing. Although no formal plan has been laid out, the redevelopment of the property will include both market rate and affordable housing, along with space for public service organizations, Alberghini said. The Planning Office is currently communicating with Catholic Charities, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and Helping Abused Women and their Children (HAWC), a Salem-based organization that provides services and support to women who live in violent situations.

A significant amount of space for public service organizations will be incorporated into the plan at the request of community members, Alberghini added. While parishioners’ spiritual needs can be met at other parishes in Salem, various community groups used to meet in a large basement room at the former St. Joseph’s.

“What we’re hearing as we have meetings to talk with people in the neighborhood, one of the main functions that church served was a meeting place,” Alberghini said.

The property, near private homes, includes a school, convent and rectory along with the church building. The school, convent and rectory can be easily converted to affordable housing units, but the church — a large, cross-shaped structure — does not lend itself to that use, Alberghini said.

“It’s a very, very, very difficult building. The windows are in all the wrong places,” she said.

A team of engineers hired by the city also found that the church building would be difficult to convert to another use, she added. Replacing the building with new structures would provide the property with more functional space, she said.

The Planning Office’s role of continuing the mission of the Church after a parish has closed did not begin with reconfiguration. The organization, which develops affordable housing units with market rate units in order to cover production costs, has purchased several parish properties from the archdiocese over its 37 year history.

A ribbon cutting will be held on Oct. 5 for the Planning Office’s neighborhood revitalization project in Lynn. The organization bought St. Jean Baptiste Church which closed in 1998 from the archdiocese. The church, rectory, school and parish center were demolished and the space was used for 38 affordable housing units, 14 for first-time homeowners. Catholic Charities North also rents space at the site.

The groundbreaking for another project at former St. Aidan Parish in Brookline will take place on Oct. 21. The church closed in 1999, and will become 59 units of both market rate and affordable housing. The amount of affordable housing will depend on the total cost, and is projected to be anywhere between 65 and 85 percent, Alberghini said.

The church building itself will be made into nine market rate triplexes. Converting the building is a difficult task that includes putting in larger windows and changing their position, but many community members wanted to preserve the exterior of the building because of its historical significance, she added.

The Planning Office also purchased properties from parishes in Waltham and Hyde Park that will remain open. A piece of property from St. Mary Parish in Waltham was sold to the Planning Office in 2000, and a convent was converted into St. Cecilia House, 70 units of affordable elderly housing.

With property purchased from Hyde Park’s Most Precious Blood Parish in March 2004, the organization is building Riley House, another elderly housing project with 42 units. The house includes a renovated convent along with a new building that was built on the backside of the convent, and construction is scheduled to be completed in the beginning of September.

Another project, St. John of God, was formally property owned by Caritas Christi with a critical care hospice, skilled nursing facility and HIV/AIDs facility. When construction is completed, the property will include 289 units of housing — 102 of those will be assisted living. The skilled nursing facility and HIV/AIDs facility will remain.

So far the Planning Office has only purchased one reconfiguration property from the archdiocese — St. Joseph’s. The first 16 properties were put on the market in November last year, and the Planning Office bid on five. The Planning Office plans to bid on only a limited number of properties throughout the process, Alberghini said.

Many properties sold as a result of reconfiguration are less than an acre, which is a smaller scale than the Planning Office’s projects, she said.

The Planning Office is committed to speaking with community members, including former parishioners, before beginning any project. For the most part parishes have been incredibly welcoming, Alberghini said. Although they are sad to see their church close, many are glad the property will be used to help others, especially those in need of affordable housing.

“I was really surprised by the number of letters I received from pastors that said, ‘This is great.’ They are the ones on the ground out there who see people and families struggling — whether staying in the community, buying a house, or making ends meet,” she said. “I’ve found the reaction really positive.”

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