Opinion: save or sacrifice a great lady

The magnificence, dignity, vastness, and perfect acoustics of an abandoned church in one of Boston’s oldest neighborhoods – so close to downtown – it proportionately embraces either cheek. Kenmore Square and the South End of Boston. The old basilica of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament dominates the Latin Quarter district, the homes and businesses of the Jamaica Plain; even at a considerable distance, you cannot miss it.

Church of the Blessed Sacrament (photo by Hyde Square Task Force)

But now this great lady has been sitting patiently for 22 years, anticipating her next incarnation. This is no longer a church, will it be converted into chic condos in a modest neighborhood, a school, luxury or affordable housing, all wrapped up in an assemblage of tasteless architecture, or will it end up being a fatality in the rubble of bricks, chipping frescoes and collapsing marble? As it is, the bones of the building create an ideal venue for art exhibitions, assemblies, performing arts and live theater, choirs, orchestral groups, even weddings or conventions.

This 105-year-old church is still the jewel in the urban crown of the Jamaican Plain. But his fate has become the concern and consternation of the people of Jamaica Plain and of its centenarians of parishioners who have found comfort, holiness and solidarity with their God in this beautiful space.

The history and the tender stories collected over the generations have multiplied with each generation of the faithful, and with great affection for those still alive who, like the “Friends of the Blessed Sacrament”, recall its halcyon heyday. And so, we can’t let it go or be disfigured by developers with little or no taste or respect for a specimen of elegance that won’t be duplicated these days. This vacant building is our history, our heritage, our architectural portfolio, and always intended for future generations.

I’m quoting a woman, now deceased, who remembered when the cornerstone – with a time capsule inside – was laid by Cardinal O’Connor in 1913 and built with immigrant pennies mainly Irish, Italian and German parishioners. And I smile as I think of my Yankee mother WASP who converted to Catholicism and was baptized in this church in 1929, just 12 years after it was built. My parents got married there in 1935; I and my brothers and sisters have been baptized, confirmed, graduated and married in this revered church that we have loved all our lives, so have all of our predecessors, sanctified and buried in this church. These are the feelings of thousands more of us. Memories like this certainly have a life of their own.

In a recent assessment of opinions, along with over 1,600 signatures, the overall call is for the church building to be converted into a cultural center for the Jamaican Plain which includes greater Boston. With a focus on families and youth, fine and performing arts, local artists demonstrating their talents; this is what is wanted and necessary for the edifice and the community of the Blessed Sacrament. But it must first be repaired; make no mistake, it will be expensive. Yet just imagining it restored in all its unmatched grace was a longing dream to come true. With its sumptuous size, inner beauty and acoustics, I am motivated to cry out: “Be still my heart!” imagining Handel’s Hallelujah Choir at Christmas echoing in this sacred and once daring space. Ah, the arts and expressions of artistic virtuosity that could swell from its great hall!

The fact is that this splendid building will never see this famous day. It is sold, and very soon. To date, three “developers” have made proposals to reuse this beautiful Italian neo-renaissance architecture in – well, apparently housing units. Luxury, affordable artist residences? I step back, imagining the possibility of glass and steel gushing out from the sides and blowing up the roof of the Blessed Sacrament.

Of course, promises were made to keep part of the church building open for the art exhibition and performance space, and not to demean its outward 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 the community; and 2) as is very often the case, there may be bait and switch maneuvers. Some developers may be honest and honor the value of this structure, but they probably won’t. Thus, its glorious architecture can be exploited in a masquerade of incongruous and frightening design.

The Friends of the Blessed Sacrament and its passionate volunteers have no money to save and repair the building, but they are fighting for it. They do it to preserve the history of this building, its architectural integrity, for posterity, and always for the enrichment of the people. Ask them and they will tell you that their crusade is based on reverence, respect and preservation of this sacred building which should be saved and preserved. To this day, despite its current neglect and the revolting designs of modern developers, it is still a Boston treasure, this Blessed Sacrament that belongs to us.

For more information and advocacy, contact Friends at FriendsofBlessedSacrament.org and email, [email protected]

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

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