St. Francis of Assisi Church: 147 Years: 1869-2016
At Sunday morning Mass today, Sunday, May 14, I and others received the stunning news that St. Francis of Assisi
Church in North Adams would be torn down.
According to Joseph Day’s
book “Dew Upon the Mountain, “construction on the massive edifice began in 1864, the cornerstone was laid on Oct.
29, 1867, by the most Rev. John J. Williams, bishop of Boston and in 1869 the roof was put on.” This was the first Catholic
Church in North Adams.
The church was dedicated on July 18, 1869. The first
pastor was the Rev. Charles Lynch. I believe that Fr. Lynch’s remains are burned near the western entrances of the church.
The church was closed for worship nearly 10 years ago.
At the conclusion of
the 10:45 a.m. Mass on Sunday, Fr. Cyr, pastor of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church, said that bricks had begun to fall off
the facing of the church. He detailed recent engineering studies that among other things, that the foundation in the southeast
corner of the church was collapsing and the steeple was basically unstable, as the falling debris had indicated.
Cyr read a statement from the Diocese of Springfield announcing that the steeple would
first be torn down, followed in due course by the church building itself.
I moved back to North Adams in 1993, there were five active church in North Adams: St. Francis, St. Anthony of Padua (now
St. Elizabeth of Hungary), Holy Family, Incarnation and Notre Dame. Just one is left for the whole city. Growing up as a member
of St. Anthony – the “Italian church” – my mother commonly referred to St. Francis as the “Irish
church.” For it was mainly the Irish who were the first Catholics in North Adams.
North Adams in the 1990s became known for its church steeples, largely through the efforts of my friend Joe Manning
and his 1997 book, “Steeples: Sketches of North Adams.” Not long afterward, the new collegiate league baseball
team in town took the name The SteepleCats.
It’s a sad day for North
Adams to see St. Francis come down, but the day was inevitable. Back before it was closed I was a member of a committee of
Catholics in town to study the community’s structures. I recall that the cost just to redo the church roof alone would
have been $400,000+.
(According to “Dew on the Mountain,” the
steeple was last renovated in 1985.)
I asked back in 2006 if we could try
to do an evangelization campaign for the city and St. Francis to increase membership and thus donations for maintenance, but
it was not tried.
Just as well. The generations that cared about this building
as more than architecture are gone. In the 23 years since I have been back in town, I have watched Sunday Mass attendance
steadily drop. Part of it is the Catholic Church’s fault, obviously. (An infamous abusive priest, who I will not name
served at St. Francis).
Yet, the real issue is that an increasing number of
people do not care about their spiritual heritage. Most of them are great people, but they find their meaning elsewhere.
At any rate, faith and community commitment live on, as represented by the Northern Berkshire
Interfaith Action Initiative and its Friendship Center Food Pantry, which sits in sight of St. Francis. As I write this there
is an evacuation order for our spot at 47 Eagle Street and our upstairs neighbors, as well as Village Pizza, and the flatiron
building. I’m hoping that by Tuesday we will be able to take in a food delivery and be open on Wednesday.
Longer term, I would expect that the former rectory and office building to the north
will be taken down and sold to a commercial concern. I would hope, though, that the footprint of the church be used as park
land with a fitting memorial to the proud spiritual history of this city.