by Rick Winterson
By now, you’ll have heard that a decision has been made concerning the Gate of Heaven School building, on East Fourth Street next to the Church. It is to be completely demolished.
The demolition will begin this coming spring, and will be completed later in this year of 2018. Most of the “footprint” now occupied by the school building and the parking area around it will be turned into a larger, income-generating parking lot with nearly 100 spaces. Certain decorative elements (the finials) from the school building will be preserved by emplacing them alongside the west wall of the Gate of Heaven Church. With appropriate plantings and landscaping, this will form a sort of “memorial walkway”.
This is the culmination of nine years of studies, discussions, and analyses about the school building. A decade ago, diminishing enrollment at the Gate of Heaven School made it clear that the School was no longer viable. The school year there was completed, and ultimately, the remaining staff and student body were combined with the St. Brigid Parish School on East Broadway, which was then renamed the South Boston Catholic Academy.
However, this left a large, unoccupied building standing vacant in the church parking lot between East Fourth and Fifth Streets, a circumstance aggravated by a $2 million debt remaining after extensive (and necessary) renovations performed on the Gate of Heaven Church in 2005.
A brief history will reveal how difficult it is to make major decisions when dealing with bricks-and-mortar facilities under these circumstances. Initially, the Archdiocese, who is the legal “owner” of the Gate of Heaven School building, insisted that the school building be sold to pay off the debt mentioned above. Several developers were interested, but their bids ran into strenuous objections from the Gate of Heaven parishioners and neighbors living near the Church. In addition, in order to meet parking requirements, much of the existing parking lot would have to have been included in the sale to any developer.
Another alternative would have been to lease the School building as a school – a charter school perhaps? In fact, just over three years ago, the Archdiocese established a new policy that its surplus properties must be leased, not sold outright. This could have meant a much-needed addition to local school choice, as well as providing a steady stream of parish income from the rent paid by a charter school. Again, for a variety of reasons – including the age of the School building – this was not a workable solution.
South Boston Online is admittedly simplifying the story of all the efforts to sell or re-use the Gate of Heaven School building over the last nine years, but we think you’ll get the picture.
At first, demolishing a building that is still structurally sound seems to be a waste. But figures provided during an interview with the Pastor, Fr. Robert Casey, and the Parish Operations Manager Marty Keogh say otherwise. Supporting the Gate of Heaven School building costs $45,000 per year in utilities, maintenance, and insurance premiums. This is an actual, out-of-pocket expense now borne by the Gate of Heaven parishioners. Furthermore, rentals of parking places freed up by demolition of the School building would add an income stream. A (very rough) guess implies that the Gate of Heaven’s “cash flow” would improve by as much as $200,000 per year after School building demolition is completed, which would provide an avenue for repaying its debt, as well as funding some needed repairs. As an opinion, this writer believes that these economic figures are actually conservative, and will easily be reached in the future.
During our interview, Fr. Casey emphasized that the decision is, first and foremost, aimed at preserving the Gate of Heaven Church. He also emphasized the collegial nature of the decision. It incorporates the thinking of all those who were affected , while maximizing the benefit to each constituent.
Demolition is an understandable approach for religious reasons, too. Keeping the property within the ownership of the parish is a strong upside. After all, who can foretell the long-term future, and predict the need for retaining this property essentially forever. And the combined parishes of St. Brigid and Gate of Heaven are back on the growth path, with church usage that includes numerous baptisms, funerals, and weddings (three of them over New Year’s weekend).
Finally, the Gate of Heaven Church is a beautiful, inspiring building. It needs to be preserved; it deserves formal landmark status. Just take a look at the South Boston skyline the next time you are on
Summer Street. You’ll see what we mean. And even if you aren’t a member of Gate of Heaven Church, you are welcome to visit it. Stop in for a Mass sometime, sit in the glorious nave, and simply view your surroundings. They are striking and remarkable. And you should look forward to the proposed walkway outside Gate of Heaven Church. It will be almost like a natural cloister.