For 18 years, the majestic Blessed Sacrament church has stood empty, an emblem of the long-running struggle to build housing in Boston.
Sold off by the Boston Archdiocese during the consolidation of Catholic parishes, the church building in Hyde Square was, at one point, slated to be converted to luxury condos. But that proposal wasn’t too popular in a neighborhood that, like so many others in the city, was under assault by skyrocketing housing prices threatening the diverse community that earned Hyde Square its nickname as Boston’s Latin Quarter.
Now, there is finally a housing plan that has won the community’s blessing: Blessed Sacrament’s current owner, youth nonprofit Hyde Square Task Force, has a tentative deal with developer Pennrose to convert the church into mixed-income housing and a community space, with well more than half of the units reserved for lower-income residents.
Those close to the project say they’re excited to give the church a new, two-pronged mission: to chip away at Boston’s housing crisis and lift up the neighborhood’s burgeoning Afro-Latino arts scene.
“We’re the only one that hasn’t been turned into luxury condos,” said Cisnell Baez, a Hyde Square Task Force alumna and longtime community organizer. “That’s the beautiful, rich history of Jamaica Plain; our immigrant communities have had to fight a lot, and knew they had to speak up.”
The century-old, Italian Renaissance Revival-style Catholic church once served as an anchor for religious services, cultural celebrations, and local organizing for the neighborhood’s diverse communities. After the Archdiocese of Boston shuttered it in 2004, well-intentioned nonprofits tried to redevelop it with limited success.
The nonprofit Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corp. and New Atlantic Development bought Blessed Sacrament’s three-acre campus from the archdiocese in 2005 and built around the church itself, including a mix of luxury and affordable housing, and what’s now the headquarters of the Hyde Square Task Force.
But the aging church remained untouched. Its owners proposed to convert the property into luxury condos, but affordable housing advocates objected. In 2014, the Hyde Square Task Force purchased the site for $880,000. The nonprofit had ambitious plans to transform the parish into a state-of-the-art performing arts center.
But weather and time took their toll on the old church, and project costs kept climbing. Moreover, the task force was carrying a $680,000 mortgage on the property. Then last year, the nonprofit sought proposals for the property, hoping to find a redevelopment partner.
“Hyde Square Task Force is very good at youth and community development,” said Mark Saperstein, the nonprofit’s board president. “But development is not our expertise.”
Neighbors approached the nonprofit with recommendations for a collaborative, community-centered selection process. A group of former parishioners, community organizers, and longtime residents with a shared interest in the church formed Friends of Blessed Sacrament. They collected scores of signatures and wrote letters in English and Spanish reiterating their opposition to luxury condos, and asking the task force for community opinion to be incorporated into the final plan.
Among the collective is Harry Smith, a Jamaica Plain resident and longtime community organizer. He recalled working with parish leadership when the church was open to expand affordable housing in the neighborhood and lifting up the area’s immigrant communities.
“The church has always been a focal point for community activities and community events,” Smith said. “It’s only a natural legacy to keep the church functioning in that way.”
For other advocates, including Cisnell Baez, memories of being a Blessed Sacrament parishioner inspired them to join the community engagement process.
“I went there every Sunday, I had my first Communion there, and I took classes at the Cheverus Building,” she said. “Everyone was super, super sad to see such a beautiful temple close down.”
After hearing pitches from developers at several community meetings, Hyde Square Task Force selected Pennrose, which offered the most affordable housing units and to incorporate community space into its proposal. The developer is also working to transform the former William Barton Rogers School in Hyde Park into New England’s first LGBTQ+-friendly senior housing development.
Pennrose has a purchase option agreement with the task force, and submitted a letter of intent to the Boston Planning and Development Agency in late August.
“We found a solution that’s a win-win on all levels,” said Celina Miranda, Hyde Square Task Force’s executive director. “I can’t wait to see those doors open.”
Charlie Adams, Pennrose regional vice president, was unable to give an estimate of the project’s cost, but said the company is working to address the community’s needs while maintaining the church’s integrity.
“Resources are always tight, but the city and the state are doing whatever they can to help us figure out how to manage through,” Adams said.
Pennrose’s proposal includes more than 50 housing units. Roughly 60 percent of these units would be reserved for households making at most 60 percent of the Area Median Income, or $84,120 for a family of four, according to the letter of intent.
Moreover, 13 percent of these units would go to families making 30 percent or less of median income, as required by local and state law.
The affordable units will be a small but important contribution to the city’s efforts to address its affordable housing, said Sheila Dillon, Boston’s housing chief.
“This is a solution to the gentrification that’s happening in Jamaica Plain,” Dillon said. “Not a reason for it to get worse.”
Dillon said the city will continue to work with Pennrose during the approval process to push for as much affordability as possible.
Another source of excitement for supporters of Blessed Sacrament: Part of the church will remain community space, a performance and meeting space that can accommodate up to 250 people.
“There’ll be history of the Latinx community, a touch of beautiful activism, and celebrations year-round,” Baez said. “You’re always going to come back.”
A long road still lies ahead. Adams said construction could begin by the end of 2023 if Pennrose secures financing for the project soon. The developer is eyeing the city’s $50 million fund available to affordable housing applicants and state funding as potential sources, he said.
The Boston Landmarks Commission is also considering whether to designate the Blessed Sacrament complex as a historical landmark. Residents first petitioned the city to make that designation in 2005, but their request has taken on renewed urgency as the redevelopment plans take shape. A historical landmark designation protects a piece of the community’s history into the future, though in the short term it could add construction requirements that make the redevelopment process more difficult and expensive.
But residents say they’re willing to wait — and they’re especially excited about that performance space, since such community venues are in short supply in Jamaica Plain.
“Sometimes it seems like there’s nothing you can do with these churches,” Adams said. “But we’ve learned there are greater possibilities than people may think.”
Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.