Diocese sues Northampton for right to remove church windows before selling St. Mary church

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield is suing the city of Northampton seeking the right to remove five stained glass windows from the shuttered St. Mary of the Assumption Church. The diocese argues the windows have sacred value, including this one of the crucifixion of Jesus.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield is suing the city of Northampton seeking the right to remove five stained glass windows from the shuttered St. Mary of the Assumption Church. The diocese argues the windows have sacred value, including this one of the crucifixion of Jesus. DIOCESE OF SPRINGFIELD

A stained glass window at the shuttered St. Mary of the Assumption Church. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield is suing the city of Northampton seeking the right to remove five stained glass windows from the church, including this one of the ascension of Jesus.

A stained glass window at the shuttered St. Mary of the Assumption Church. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield is suing the city of Northampton seeking the right to remove five stained glass windows from the church, including this one of the ascension of Jesus. DIOCESE OF SPRINGFIELD

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield is suing the city of Northampton seeking the right to remove five stained glass windows from the shuttered St. Mary of the Assumption Church. The diocese argues the windows have sacred value, including this one of the resurrection of Jesus.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield is suing the city of Northampton seeking the right to remove five stained glass windows from the shuttered St. Mary of the Assumption Church. The diocese argues the windows have sacred value, including this one of the resurrection of Jesus. DIOCESE OF SPRINGFIELD

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 02-07-2024 11:08 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield has filed a lawsuit against Northampton, claiming a stop-work order preventing the removal of stained glass windows at the former St. Mary of the Assumption Church ahead of an impending sale violates the freedom of religious expression guaranteed by the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

According to court documents filed in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts, the diocese stated that it had entered into a purchase and sale agreement with a developer, confirmed to be Sunwood Builders of Amherst. Part of the agreement includes an amendment that the church would first remove five stained glass windows located above where the altar once stood, depicting events such as the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.

But when the church hired a contractor to take down the windows in December, it received a stop-work order from the city, which stated that because the building is located within the Elm Street Historic District, it must receive a certificate of approval from the Northampton Historical Commission before undertaking any exterior work.

The diocese, however, claims the windows are considered by the church to be “sacred” items, of great significance to the church and that a transfer to an owner for non-Catholic purposes is violation of canon law. Therefore, the diocese says, to not remove the windows before the transfer of the property is a violation of the church’s religious expression.

It also cites a previous Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling, Society of Jesus of New England v. Boston Landmarks Comm., in support of its claim.

“While the Historical Commission incontestably has general approval authority over some standard exterior features of the buildings within the district, this oversight does not extend to sacred items of religious importance on the exterior or on the interior of the church, such as the sacred windows,” the lawsuit states. “The exertion of authority to prevent removal of the sacred windows violates Article 2 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.”

The diocese also claims that when it tried to call the Northampton building commissioner to protest the stop-work order, it never received a response. The diocese also stated in the lawsuit that it cannot complete the sale until the windows are removed, and considered the stop-work order a “coercive, threatening and intimidating” action.

The lawsuit specifically names Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, Building Commissioner Jonathan Flagg and Northampton Historical Commission Chair Martha Lyon as defendants in the case. The city declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing the ongoing litigation.

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Carolee McGrath, a diocese spokesperson, said that it intends to make the windows available elsewhere, as was the case with the church’s marble altar, which was given to a chapel at Christendom College, a Catholic college in Virginia. She also said the church had no need for Historical Commission approval to remove the windows.

“The diocese will make the windows available to other Catholic churches in the Diocese of Springfield or nationally as it does with all sacred objects from closed churches,” McGrath said. The diocese is comprised of 79 parishes across Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin and Berkshire counties.

“We don’t go to the [historical] commission because the Supreme Court of Massachusetts has said they have no authority over sacred objects,” McGrath added.

In a response filed to the court, the city claimed that the Supreme Judicial Court ruling applied only to items inside church buildings, and therefore did not apply to the windows, as they are part of the church’s exterior. It also denied the diocese’s claim that the stop-work order constituted coercion, intimidation or a threat.

Sunwood Builders, the purchaser of the property, is known for several housing developments around the Pioneer Valley. According to its website, the company specializes in “building distinctive luxury homes” that are “architecturally suited” for the region.

Sunwood Builders confirmed that they had entered into an agreement to purchase the building but declined to comment further, saying the deal had yet to be closed.

The St. Mary’s church building has been on the market since 2017. It had been closed since the diocese consolidated five parishes into one back in 2010. A group of community members and parishioners had tried to appeal to the Vatican to overturn the decision, but were unsuccessful in doing so.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.