hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News September 2014



Fast-food chain yields to outrage, spares church


When a major operator of Dunkin’ Donuts stores revealed plans last month to buy and demolish a landmark former Catholic church in Pittsfield, Mass., the public reaction was swift and negative.
Over the next couple of weeks, some 1,400 people signed an online petition to save the former St. Mary the Morning Star Church on Tyler Street. And a series of local elected officials denounced the proposal for a drive-through doughnut shop as a poor replacement for the huge brick church building, which has been vacant since 2008

So on Sept. 29, Cafua Management, which operates nearly 300 Dunkin’ Donuts stores including four in Pittsfield, issued a press release saying it was withdrawing its site plan for the project and would prepare a new plan that leaves the church building intact. The company also said it would donate the church building to the city.

What happens next to the former church is far from clear. The news site iBerkshires.com reported that representatives of Cafua met with the Pittsfield city planner just prior to announcing that the church building would be spared, but there was no discussion at that time of donating the building to the city.

On the day after the announcement, the news service also quoted Pittsfield Mayor Daniel Bianchi as saying the company had not contacted him – and that he thinks it would be “a very poor move” for the city to take over the building without some clear plan for repurposing it.
“No one has reached out to me at all,” Bianchi said.

Still, the church building’s fans reacted jubilantly to the news of even a temporary reprieve.
Darcie Sosa, who organized the online petition for the Save St. Mary’s campaign, told public radio station WAMC that Cafua’s change of plans would allow time to “get a preservation society to get not only this church, but all the churches and buildings that add landscape value to the city, to get them repurposed and find the right buyers for them.”

And state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat who earlier had criticized the Dunkin’ Donuts proposal, praised Cafua for reconsidering.

“The idea that the company is willing to come and be part of the conversation and part of the solution is really encouraging,” she told WAMC.

St. Mary’s was decommissioned and closed in 2008 as part of a wave of churches shuttered by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield. The 72-year-old building had more than 100 stained glass windows that were removed after it was decommissioned, but it retains much of its original stone, plaster and wood ornamentation.

According to documents it submitted to the city, Cafua has agreed to buy from the diocese a 2.6-acre property that includes the church and several other buildings that once housed a rectory, convent and school. The company’s original plan called for tearing down the church and rectory right away and the other buildings at a later date.

Although some communities around the region have managed to save grand old church buildings and give them new life, such as at Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs, many closed churches have been left to decay. The buildings often have prominent locations, so the land they occupy makes them prime targets for developers.

Last year, the Nigro Companies, an Albany-based developer of shopping plazas, demolished a massive church in Watervliet, N.Y., to make way for a Price Chopper supermarket, despite an outcry from preservationists. The 137-foot-tall St. Patrick’s Church, whose defenders described it as the architectural heart of Watervliet, was modeled on the Basilica of Our Lady of Lourdes in France.

In Pittsfield, Cafua Management previously tangled with local preservationists two years ago when it moved to demolish the former William Plunkett School at First and Fenn streets and replace it with another Dunkin’ Donuts shop.
Responding to public criticism of that plan, the Pittsfield Community Development Board invoked its power to delay the demolition in six months to give preservationists time to come up with an alternative proposal for the century-old school building. But no plan emerged before the moratorium expired, and Cafua demolished the school last year. The company put the new doughnut shop on hold, however, after the city rejected its proposal for a drive-through window at the site.

-- Compiled by Fred Daley