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With church cleared to close, Wellesley reconsiders plan to buy

A final decision by the Vatican last month to uphold the 2004 closing of St. James the Great parish in Wellesley provided clarity on the status of the church buildings up for sale by the Boston Archdiocese.

But the town is now uncertain whether it will go through with the deal it struck with the archdiocese in 2012 to buy the church property at 900 Worcester St. for $4.1 million.

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Local officials say the plan has been complicated by Wellesley College’s announcement this spring that it would be selling a 47-acre property dubbed the North 40. The college plot, which is nearly 6 times bigger than the St. James the Great property, could be more suitable for the recreation facilities proposed for the church site, such as a community pool, ice skating rink, and artificial-turf sports fields, they said.

There are ways for the town to get out of its contract with the archdiocese, according to Al Robinson, Wellesley’s town counsel. According to the agreement, the town has 60 days after receiving official notice from the archdiocese to inspect the site and decide whether it wants to buy it, he said.

“The agreement does have a provision for if the town feels it’s not in our interest to proceed to closing,” Robinson said. “We entered into this agreement hoping to acquire it, but there are some unknowns, such as the degree to which there may be problematic materials in the buildings, or if soil conditions are problematic for what the town is hoping to use the site for.”

‘We’re not going to sell to someone who completely works against the teachings of the church. We wanted to try to do something . . . good for the community.’

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He did not say whether the town would lose money or face a lawsuit if officials decided to walk away from the deal, citing those situations as hypothetical.

Meanwhile, the town is still waiting to receive official word on the status of the church’s appeal, which is needed before the inspection period begins, Robinson said.

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When asked whether Wellesley is still planning to buy the Saint James site, the assistant town manager, Meghan Jop, said it was “too early to tell,” because the town is waiting for a Wellesley College-hired appraiser to put a price on the North 40 property.

“There hasn’t been an appraisal yet,” Jop said. “We don’t understand the full cost of acquisition there yet. Once the town can review the potential cost, then we can discuss whether to move forward or not on either or both sites.”

Selectman Don McCauley said although the town signed an agreement with the archdiocese and “long looked forward” to purchasing the St. James site, officials still needed to carry out “due diligence with respect to the conditions of the property.

“It is an agreement to buy the property, but there are certain contingencies in the agreement, like if there’s still additional work to do on the property,” he said.

Town officials did not put down a deposit for the St. James site in 2012, but the town has been paying taxes on the parcel. So far, the town has shelled out $57,957 in taxes on the land, according to the town treasurer’s office.

A spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese, Terry Donilon, referred all questions on the purchase agreement to the town.

“We think the town has been exceptionally patient, and has done a good job wanting to move forward with this,” he said.

Donilon said the archdiocese entered into the purchase agreement not because the town was necessarily the highest bidder for the valuable Wellesley property, but because the church approved of the community’s reuse plan.

“We’re not going to sell to someone who completely works against the teachings of the church,” he said. “We wanted to try to do something that’s good for the community. It’s not just about the money.”

The archdiocese closed St. James along with about 80 other area parishes in 2004, in the face of dwindling attendance and a shortage of priests. But a group of parishioners upset with their parish’s closing kept vigil at St. James, making sure someone was inside the building around the clock — even when the heat was turned off in fall 2011 by the archdiocese, which cited safety concerns over a faulty boiler.

The vigil ended in 2012, when the archdiocese told the parishioners that they needed to vacate the church for their final appeal to proceed. Now, with the appeal rejected, parishioners say they expected that reaction from the Vatican but still feel hurt by the verdict.

“I’m not surprised by the decision, but obviously it’s still sad to think this is what it came to,” said Suzanne Hurley, a spokeswoman for the group. “The loss is really to the archdiocese, because hundreds of families decided to move on to a nonarchdiocese church, or not go at all. At end of day, it is what it is, and we fought a good fight, and I have no regrets about that.”

Parishioners are still occupying St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church in Scituate, despite the church receiving the same rejection as Wellesley last month.

Donilon said the closures were necessary to compensate for declining Mass attendance, fewer available priests, and a shift in local religious demographics, as well as expensive capital repairs needed to many of the houses of worship.

“When you take that combination of factors, it presented us with a serious issue we had to solve,” he said. “It was a painful process, but necessary. It’s not something anyone wants to go through again.”

However, Donilon did note that the Vatican’s final rejection cleared the way for Wellesley to buy the land.

“For us to go forward with the deal with Wellesley, we needed this process to be completed,” he said.

Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com

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