Thursday, June 26, 2008

"Leaving 'Little Rome'"

Beantown's annual celebration of "Evacuation Day" might fall on what the rest of us know as Paddymas, but in the most powerful sign yet of the shedding of its trappings (and, ergo, its renewal as a church), the administration of the archdiocese of Boston departed yesterday from the Brighton Chancery -- the idyllic estate of institutional facilities and Cardinal's Residence (above) that stood for nearly a century as the defining symbol of its temporal status and power -- to set up shop today into its new, lower-profile digs in a nondescript Braintree office park, adjacent to a big-box shopping mecca.

(...and all of a sudden -- at least, in this case -- the term "pastoral center" has become much less of a euphemism.)

In three separate purchases, the 65-acre plot -- the whole shebang, minus St John's Seminary -- was acquired by Boston College for a total of $172 million.

While the Globe was in attendance, the sound of William Henry O'Connell spinning in his also-to-be-evicted bronze coffin didn't make it into print:
Eighty years ago, O'Connell could look across the rural area at the western edge of the city, home to Boston College, St. John's Seminary, and St. Elizabeth's Hospital, and declare "every hilltop now for miles around gleams the sacred sign of our redemption." [ he owned it.] He saw the area as the capital of Catholic Boston, a mini-Vatican of sorts, and hence the nickname, "Little Rome."

"I suppose we'll get accustomed to Braintree, but in the meantime, there's a sadness to it, you know?" said Monsignor Paul L. Moritz, who at 97 is the oldest and longest-serving priest in the archdiocese; he still celebrates Mass weekly at a parish in Peabody.

"It's like losing your grandfather," he said. "This was our diocese, the heart of it, and you look around and it's not yours anymore. It's sad."

The move is largely the result of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, which threw the archdiocese into financial turmoil from which it has not recovered. Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, seeking to pay settlements to victims and to end years of deficit spending, decided to sell the 65-acre Brighton property to Boston College for $172 million in three transactions over four years.

"The primary reason why we're doing this is because of the need for us as an archdiocese to meet our fiscal responsibilities - we have been dealing with debt payments and with debts - and by selling our Brighton property we are able to tackle a large part of our debt obligation," said the Rev. Richard M. Erikson, the archdiocesan vicar general.

The archdiocese's headquarters building has long been called the "chancery," a word used by the Catholic Church to describe diocesan offices. But in Braintree, the building will be called the pastoral center, which Erikson said is intended as a reminder that the purpose of the church administration is to serve Catholics.

"Most people have very mixed emotions about leaving Brighton," Erikson said. "I have a lot of wonderful memories of this property, and I wish we didn't have to move, but we do. And I have a great deal of hope for what the pastoral center will bring to the archdiocese. And I find it very affirming to see a Catholic college such as BC thrive."

Boston College needs city approval before developing the land, but has proposed housing, a fine arts museum, and a baseball field. It plans to use the existing buildings for offices and classrooms. The university is looking to use the cardinals' residence - where Pope John Paul II slept in 1979 - as a conference center and the most recent chancery building for administrative offices.

Brighton is so closely associated in the public imagination with the archdiocese that many longtime Bostonians refer to the archdiocesan headquarters simply as "Lake Street," referring to the street that runs alongside the property. The first chancery in Brighton, called Diocesan House, was constructed in 1929; that building was converted to the archdiocesan tribunal when the current chancery was constructed on the same property in 1962. The buildings are the administrative center of the archdiocese, with offices such as human resources and finance, as well as a variety of ministries that assist parishes and schools.

But Brighton represents only an 80-year block of the 200-year history of the Archdiocese of Boston. The archdiocese had had offices in several locations in the city, including in the South End, by the cathedral, and in the Back Bay, on Granby Street, before moving to Brighton. In Braintree, the archdiocese will be consolidating the employees from five buildings - three on the Brighton campus, as well as the Catholic Schools Office, currently in Dorchester, and the archdiocesan tribunal, currently in West Roxbury.

The archdiocese has kept only one building on the Brighton campus: St. John's Seminary. O'Connell's tomb also stays while his heirs, the archdiocese, and BC debate the future of his remains.

"Any move is emotional, especially when people get used to something, but it happens," remarked Thomas H. O'Connor, the university historian at Boston College. "Obviously, this will be a major dislocation, but I think it's one the church can live with. And in the long run, I think it will be a very good move because the new facility is very large, and it will amplify the operations of the chancery by putting it in another part of the archdiocese."...

The four-story, 140,000-square-foot building opens for business Monday, and is expected to house about 225 employees, reduced through buyouts from 250. Yesterday, workers were still putting finishing touches on the building - the chapel, which will be decorated with stained-glass windows from closed parishes, won't be done until fall - but there is a 10-foot cross on the brick fa├žade, and the flags of the Vatican and the archdiocese fly out front alongside the flag of the United States. Inside, visitors will step onto a large rug emblazoned with the azure crest of the archdiocese and see portraits of O'Malley and Pope Benedict XVI. The halls are decorated with 600 photos of local parishes, schools, and other Catholic institutions.

The building, which is located in North Braintree, near South Shore Plaza, is a contemporary office space, with deep purple and light blue walls, cubicles, a cafeteria, and multiple conference rooms wired for technology. The archdiocese says it intends for this building to be used much more than the Brighton campus was for meetings of priests, parish staff, and lay people.
...and there's video: