11/02/2012 04:17 pm ET Updated Jan 02, 2013

Controversial Catholic Church in Salem Slated for Demolition

Take away the 40-foot high concrete relief of an angular Christ on the cross above the doorway and you might think the boxy, white brick building is a hospital, movie theater, factory, anything. It isn't your vision of a Catholic church, nor your idea of what a church in the historic New England town of Salem, Massachusetts should look like, but its distinct design for a church is a key reason a contingent of local residents have been battling for the past seven years to keep the now-closed St. Joseph's Parish from falling under the wrecking ball.

They've lost the battle, and within a couple of months the 62 year-old building in an immigrant-heavy area of the town will be demolished, eventually replaced by a 51-unit affordable housing apartment complex. If you want to see what all the shouting has been about, better hurry.

This is the tail end of a story that began with a wholesale closing of parishes in the Boston Archdiocese, beginning in 2003 when Sean Patrick O'Malley became Archbishop of Boston, elevated to Cardinal in 2006. With declining attendance and donations at the Archdiocese's 357 parishes, and many of them needing structural improvements, O'Malley authorized the shuttering, merging and sale of 75 of them. With its declining congregation, St. Joseph's was seen as expendable.

"Many people have supported the church being torn down, because they think it's not beautiful. Some people have called it ugly," said Stanley M. Smith, a former president of Historic Salem, Inc., a nonprofit historical preservation group and one of the leaders in the fight to readapt the church structure for apartments. For his part, Smith calls St. Joseph's "graceful, rhythmically consistent. It stands out," which isn't the same as calling it attractive, but liking or disliking the building is beside the point to him. "Ugliness and beauty are not criteria for deciding if an historic building should be preserved," he said. "It is Salem's only example of the international style of architecture, and it will be appreciated years later if it is torn down now."

The "international style" refers to architecture's Modernist period, which emerged in the 1920s and '30s and lasted well into the 1960s, characterized by their geometric shapes, flat roofs and unadorned surfaces. Lots of post-war building in cities throughout the United States is of this aesthetic - the big, rectangular, glass-and-steel and concrete office towers - and it engendered a (shall we say welcome) backlash by the 1970s.

St. Joseph's Church was designed in the late 1940s by Boston architect James J. O'Shaunessey and built at a cost of just under $500,000. Demolishing the church now will cost about that much, and its replacement is priced at $10.2 million, with seven percent of that coming as a long-term low interest loan from the federal government's Department of Housing and Urban Development, which supports subsidized housing.

The developer of the proposed housing project is the private, nonprofit Boston-based Planning Office for Urban Affairs, or POUA, which is affiliated with the Boston Archdiocese and has been creating affordable and mixed-income housing units from decommissioned churches, private and city-owned properties since 1969. POUA acquired St. Joseph's from the Archdiocese in 2005, seeking since then to build 51 units of subsidized housing, according to its president, Lisa Alberghini, "and we've held more than 40 public meetings and tried to work with all groups in the community for seven years." Some people, such as landlords in the area of the church, opposed the project because they didn't want subsidized housing as competition. A few voiced disapproval of a housing unit for low-income people built in Salem, while community activists such as Stanley Smith supported creating affordable housing but wanted to retain the architecturally distinctive shell of St. Joseph's. Local Salem architect Edward Nilsson even drew up detailed plans for adapting the church to residential use.

However, those adaptations (adding windows, as well as five floors on top of where the nave currently is and removing other "original fabric") would mock any concept of historic preservation, Alberghini said. She noted that, "by canon law," the Boston Archdiocese itself would demand the removal of the sculptural crucifix on the front of the decommissioned church, "and once you do that the church looks like a hospital."

Salem Mayor Kimberly Driscoll has been a strong proponent of tearing down the church and putting something (first, a senior center and finally an apartment building) in its place, as was Lucy Corchado, a staffer at Salem State University and president since 2002 of the Point Neighborhood Association (the area of town where this is happening).

Long-time residents of the area preferred to see St. Joseph's come down than have the former church repurposed. "It wouldn't be the same place, so it makes sense to take it down," said Corchado, who was born just around the corner from St. Joseph's. She noted with some bitterness that the opponents of demolishing St. Joseph's "never came to this church. People on a different side of town are telling us what to do."

The opponents of POUA brought a series of legal challenges, which took time to resolve. "Honestly, after seven years and incurring costs of $30,000 a month" -- in real estate taxes, upkeep on the church and interest on the mortgage -- "we were at our wit's end," Alberghini said, and she threatened to sell the property "to a big retailer, who would tear it all down and put up some big box store or something," rather than erect affordable housing.

Historic Salem, Inc. first opposed the POUA plan, then reversed its position this past spring when a number of new members joined its board. With its opposition removed and no other group with legal standing around to challenge the demolition, the path was cleared for demolition. "There were problems with the approval process, and the opposition to tearing St. Joseph's down had some points," said Neil Chayet, a local attorney who represented Historic Salem in its final agreement with POUA, "but you can't oppose things forever. There has been a sense of relief that we weren't going to continue the battle. People in the community were ready to move on."