Parish Mourns its Treasures
By Erica Noonan
Published in "Boston Sunday Globe"
Newton – Her parishioners call her “the jewel of Upper Falls.”
More European cathedral than New England church, Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Parish was built by Irish and Polish mill workers who spent their wages to furnish her with elegant stained glass from Munich, and gorgeous wall paintings by renowned turn-of-the-century Italian master Gonippo Raggi.
Now, modern-day parishioners are hoping that Mary Immaculate’s aesthetic appeal will be her saving grace. The church is on the list of 82 parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston slated to close by year’s end.
United behind their rallying cry, “Save a piece of history,” parishioners have been working behind the scenes to gain allies among ecclesiastical art experts.
The lobbying effort landed Mary Immaculate a strong ally in the Missouri-based Stained Glass Association of America. In a direct appeal to Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley late last month, the group asked that the church be spared.
“We are writing to humbly request that you seek an alternative to closing Mary Immaculate,” wrote B. Gunar Gruenke, the association’s second vice president. In his letter, Gruenke praised Mary Immaculate’s towering stained glass windows created by renowned glass designer F.X. Zettler, and many liturgical paintings by Raggi.
Similar works decorate much larger Catholic centers, including Denver’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the Basilica of St. Josaphat in Milwaukee, and the National Shrine of Our Lady of Victory in Lackawanna, N.Y. Painters like Raggi “are the closest thing that our country has ever had to Michelangelo,” Gruenke told O’Malley.
Although Gruenke’s group is rarely called upon to speak out on behalf of endangered churches, association members said Mary Immaculate was worthy of their support.
“In our country, we don’t have a huge amount of community artwork of this caliber. Every loss is hugely significant,” said Patricia Zimmerman of Conrad Schmitt Studios, a Wisconsin-based decorative painting and stained glass studio.
“The people of this church sought out the finest artists of the day,” she said. “I’m sure there was a great investment, not just of money, but of spirit and faith.”
Newton Mayor David Cohen bas been a local ally in favor of keeping the historic church open for aesthetic reasons.
“It would be a shame for such artistic treasures to be lost to public access,” the mayor wrote in his own letter to O’Malley.
Before making their artistic treasures the focus of their survival campaign, Mary Immaculate parishioners tried more practical arguments to remain open, supporters say. They lobbied church officials privately, pointing out that about 425 parishioners, including many senior citizens, attend Mass there weekly, and the parish’s financial situation is strong.
“There is so much pain associated with this. For many people, this is the loss of their home; it is one of the great tragedies of their lives,” said Mary Mullen, a third generation parishioner and Upper Falls native.
Established in 1870, Newton’s oldest Catholic church was such a thriving institution through out the 20th century that it spun off several smaller churches, including St. John the Evangelist in Wellesley, St. Joseph in Needham, and St. Philip Neri and Sacred Heart in Newton.
The planned closing would force Mary Immaculate parishioners to relocate to St. Philip Neri, which has less parking, seating, and handicapped accessibility. Instead of soaring ceilings and a stained glass rendering of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove peeking down on a grand marble altar, parishioners would worship in a building that some have likened to a Tudor-style barn.
Those arguments seem to have fallen on deaf ears so far at the archdiocese, prompting some parishioners to get more creative about their church’s other merits.
“I think many of us didn’t know about the extent of the treasures that our church contained until this happened,” said Brian Yates, a longtime parishioner and Newton alderman. “I wish we had been able to talk about this more at the cluster meetings when these decisions were being made.”
Parishioners are deeply concerned about the fate of the building should church leaders follow through with their plan to close it.
Although the Newton Upper Falls Historic District Commission prohibits the archdiocese from making changes to the exterior of the building – including the stained glass windows – without a full review, the fate of interior murals, the altar, and other treasures is far less certain, said Laura Kritzer, city preservation planner.
But the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said O’Malley was aware of Mary Immaculate’s history before the decision was made to close the church. He said the appeal by the stained glass association was not expected to change the archbishop’s mind.
Mary Immaculate’s artwork could find a new home in another parish, Coyne said.
“The beauty of the stained glass doesn’t mean the windows could not be removed, preserved, and brought to another church,” said Coyne. “The people of Mary Immaculate of Lourdes are not the only ones who have raised concerns about what will happen to their stained glass and other treasures.”
The archdiocese is in the process of clarifying its position on sale and reuse of church-owned objects and will be issuing an updated policy to pastors this week. “We want to put in place a uniform policy, so all people are given clean guidelines on how to move forward,” Coyne said.
But the idea of Mary Immaculate being stripped down and its art parceled out elsewhere horrifies parishioners like Yates. “It would be devastating,” he said.