As the town of Wellesley moves forward with plans to build on the site of what is currently St. James the Great Church, parishioners who have been holding vigil since its closure in 2004 vow to fight its demolition for as long as they can.
“It’s not our intent to cause hardship with the town,” said Suzanne Hurley, spokeswoman for the parishioners. “But we really believe that our case had merit when it started going forward, and it still does.”
Wellesley Town Meeting members voted Wednesday to purchase the church from the Archdiocese of Boston for $3.8 million.
The town hopes to turn the 8-acre property on Route 9 into a recreational facility, with a swimming pool, skating rink, and playing field, though officials are considering other uses.
The church itself must be torn down within a year of the closing of the sale, according to the agreement between the town and the archdiocese.
“This purchase is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Board of Selectmen chairwoman Barbara Searle, before Town Meeting approved the purchase by a 183-12 vote.
The town, she said, has been hoping to acquire the property since the archdiocese closed the church in 2004.
“It’s an opportunity we don’t want to miss,” Searle said.
The parishioners say St. James is their spiritual home, and have filed an appeal with the highest court of the Vatican to reverse last year’s deconsecration of the church, which turned it from a house of worship into a secular building.
The sale will not close until that appeal has been settled, according to Wellesley’s town counsel, Albert Robinson.
Wellesley’s Board of Selectmen signed a purchase and sale agreement with the archdiocese in April that was contingent upon Town Meeting approval. The closing of the sale is also contingent upon the town completing its due diligence on the site.
In addition to the cost of the land, Town Meeting members also voted to spend $360,000 to cover the costs of a site survey, building demolition, property taxes, a traffic study, and legal and consultant fees.
The town will use $2.6 million of Community Preservation Act funds to cover part of the $4.16 million price tag for the land and added expenses. The rest will be financed by borrowing.
At Wednesday night’s meeting, some Town Meeting members were concerned that the town does not have a final set of planss for what the land will become.
“This strikes me as a pig in a poke,” said Bill Moynihan.
“I think we need to slow down. I think we need to know completely what this land is going to be used for.”
The land, he said, has use restrictions but no plan for use.
The purchase and sale agreement requires that the land be restricted to municipal use for the next 40 years.
Robinson said that “municipal use” allows the town broad authority to act in the public interest.
But because the town is using CPA funds, 5 of the 8 acres will be restricted to open space and recreation, historic preservation or restoration, or affordable housing.
Selectman Don McCauley said that though the town has developed a plan for a recreation center, other uses will still be considered.“The recreation plan is not a fait accompli,” he said. “We may come up with better ideas for the use of the land.”The next step for the town is to nail down the specifics of a plan. At Wednesday night’s meeting, Town Meeting members voted to appoint the 900 Worcester Planning Committee to study the land. Searle said in an interview that the town hopes to have concrete plans ready for a vote at the next Town Meeting, which will either happen this fall or next spring.The 900 Worcester Planning Committee, she said, will be developing the recreation plan, studying issues like what type of pool and rink can be built at the site, what the financing model will be, how traffic issues will be addressed. The town, she said, hopes to use private funds to build the rink and pool and to erect lights. Meanwhile, she said, selectmen will be investigating whether there are other municipal uses for the land that have been overlooked.
“We don’t know that there is one, but we feel that it’s important that we ask the question,” she said. “We’ll be reaching out to town boards and residents.”
Many Town Meeting members said that if the town didn’t act now to buy the land, then the chance could be lost forever.
“This has been a dream of many town advocates for so many years,” said Dot Brown. “Most of us never thought we’d have a chance to buy land like this. It’s really amazing that it came to fruition.”
The fact that the town doesn’t have final plans, she said, shouldn’t decide the vote.
“This is a purchase for the future,” she said.
A spokesman for the archdiocese said in an e-mail that Wednesday night’s vote was great news for the archdiocese and for the town.
“We are obviously pleased with the vote,” said archdiocese spokesman Terrence Donilon. “This is a great initiative for the town and one the Church supports.”
The town is now entering a 60-day due diligence period. It will thoroughly inspect the property to make sure there are no environmental hazards.
Once due diligence is complete, the final hurdle to the sale’s closing will have to be cleared in Rome. If the appeals process drags out for more than two years, the town has the right to back out of the deal, according to the purchase and sale agreement.
McCauley said there is no way to know how long the appeals process will take. Donilon declined to make an estimate. The last appeal the parishioners filed took about seven months, according to Hurley. The current appeal was filed at the end of May.
In the meantime, Hurley said, parishioners will maintain their vigil at the church.