Opinion: Saving or Sacrificing a Grande Dame

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The magnificence, dignity, vastness, and pitch-perfect acoustics of an abandoned church in one of Boston's oldest neighborhoods -- so close to downtown -- it proportionately kisses either cheek of Boston’s Kenmore Square and the South End. The former Blessed Sacrament Church’s basilica towers over the Latin Quarter neighborhood, domiciles and businesses of Jamaica Plain; even from a considerable distance, you cannot miss it.

Blessed Sacrament Church (Hyde Square Task Force photo)

But now this grande dame has sat patiently for 22 years, anticipating her next incarnation. No longer a church, will she be converted into posh condos in a modest end of town, a school, luxury or affordable housing, all rolled-up in an assemblage of tasteless architecture, or will she end up a fatality in a rubble of bricks, peeling frescos, and crumbling marble? As is, the bones of the building create a perfect venue for art exhibits, assemblies, performing arts and live theatre, choirs, orchestral groups, even weddings or conventions.

This 105-year-old church building is still the jewel in the urban crown of Jamaica Plain. But its fate has become the concern and consternation of the people of Jamaica Plain and its century-worth of parishioners who found solace, sanctity, and solidarity with their God in that beautiful space.

The history and tender narratives gathered over generations has multiplied with each generation of congregants, and with much affection for those still alive who, like the "Friends of Blessed Sacrament" recall its halcyon heyday. And so, we cannot let it go or be disfigured by developers with little or no taste nor respect for a specimen of elegance that will not be duplicated in this day and age. This vacant building is our history, heritage, architectural portfolio, and still meant for future generations.

I cite a woman, now deceased, who remembered when the cornerstone—with a time capsule in it—was laid by Cardinal O’Connor in 1913 and built by the pennies of primarily Irish, Italian, and German immigrant-parishioners. And I grin thinking of my yankee WASP mother converting to Catholicism and baptized in this church in 1929, just 12 years after it was built. My parents married there in 1935; myself and my siblings baptized, confirmed, graduated, and married in this revered church we’ve loved all our lives, likewise, all our predecessors, sanctified and buried from this church. These are the sentiments of thousands more of us. Memories like this certainly do take on a life of their own.

In a recent assessment of opinions, along with 1,600-plus signatures, the overall appeal is for the church building to be re-purposed as a cultural center for Jamaica Plain that includes greater Boston. With an emphasis on families and youth, fine and performing arts, local artists demonstrating their talents; this is what is wanted and needed for the Blessed Sacrament building and community. But it must be repaired first; make no mistake, it will be costly. Yet just picturing it restored in all its unmatched grace was a dream aching to come true. With its lavish size, interior beauty, and acoustics, I’m motivated to cry, "Be still my heart!" when imagining Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus at Christmastime echoing through that sacred and once-audaciously grand space. Oh, the arts and expressions of artistic virtuosity that could swell from its great hall!

Point is, this splendid building will never see that celebrated light of day. It’s being sold, and very soon. As of today, three “developers” have put in proposals to repurpose this beautiful Italian Renaissance Revival architecture into—well, apparently housing units. Luxury, affordable, artiste residences? I cringe picturing the possibility of glass and steel surging out of the sides and exploding the roof of Blessed Sacrament.

Sure, promises have been made to keep part of the church building open for art exhibition and performance space, and not to bastardize its exterior dignity. But there are two issues: 1) essentially feels like a bone thrown to those who have worked so hard, so passionately to maintain the beauty of this building for the arts and community; and 2) as is very often the case, there may could be bait-and-switch maneuvers. Some developers may be truthful and honor the worthiness of this structure, but most probably won't. Thus, its glorious architecture may be exploited in a charade of incongruous and frightful design.

The Friends of Blessed Sacrament and its passionate volunteers have no money to save and fix the building, but they do fight for it. They do it to preserve this building’s history, its architectural integrity, for posterity, and always for the enrichment of the people. Ask them and they’ll tell you their crusade is based on reverence, respect and preservation for this hallowed building that should be saved and preserved. To this day, despite its current neglect and what revolting designs modern developers may come up with—it’s still a Boston treasure, this Blessed Sacrament that belongs to us.

For information and advocacy contact the Friends at FriendsofBlessedSacrament.org and by email, BlessedSacramentFriends@gmail.com.

Dorothy V. Malcolm is a writer, author, preservation advocate and original member of the Friends of Blessed Sacrament.