JP’s Blessed Sacrament could see new life as affordable housing, performance space

Those close to the project say they are thrilled to give the church a new two-pronged mission: to ease Boston’s housing crisis and energize the neighborhood’s burgeoning Afro-Latin arts scene.

“We’re the only one that hasn’t been turned into luxury condos,” said Cisnell Baez, Hyde Square Task Force alumnus and longtime community organizer. “It’s the beautiful and rich history of Jamaica Plain; our immigrant communities had to fight hard and knew they had to speak out.

The century-old Catholic church in Italian neo-Renaissance style served as an anchor for religious services, cultural celebrations, and grassroots organizing for the diverse communities in the neighborhood. After the Archdiocese of Boston closed it in 2004, well-meaning nonprofits have attempted to redevelop it with limited success.

The association Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corp. and New Atlantic Development purchased the three-acre Blessed Sacrament campus from the Archdiocese in 2005 and built around the church itself, including a mix of luxury and affordable housing, and what is now the headquarters of the Hyde Square task force.

But the aging church remained intact. Its owners offered to convert the property into luxury condos, but affordable housing advocates resisted. In 2014, the Hyde Square Task Force purchased the site for $880,000. The non-profit organization had ambitious plans to transform the parish into a state-of-the-art performing arts center.

But time and time wreaked havoc on the old church and the costs of the project continued to escalate. Additionally, the task force carried a $680,000 mortgage on the property. Then last year, the association 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, chairman of the nonprofit organization’s board of directors. “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 common interest in the church has formed Friends of the Blessed Sacrament. They collected dozens of signatures and wrote letters in English and Spanish reiterating their opposition to luxury condos and asking the task force community feedback to be incorporated into the final plan.

Among the collective is Harry Smith, a Jamaica Plain resident and longtime community organizer. He remembers working with parish leaders when the church was open to expand affordable housing in the neighborhood and uplift the area’s immigrant communities.

“The church has always been a focal point for community activities and community events,” Smith said. “It’s just a natural legacy for the church to continue to operate this way.”

For other defenders, including Cisnell Baez, memories of being a Blessed Sacrament parishioner inspired them to join the community engagement process.

“I went there every Sunday, made my first communion there and took classes at the Cheverus building,” she said. “Everyone was great, super sad to see such a beautiful temple close.”

After hearing developer presentations at several community meetings, the Hyde Square task force selected Pennrose, which offered the most affordable housing, 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+ senior housing development.

Pennrose entered into an option to purchase agreement with the task force and submitted a letter of intent at the Boston Planning and Development Agency in late August.

“We have found a win-win solution on all levels,” said Celina Miranda, executive director of Hyde Square Task Force. “I can’t wait to see those doors open.”

Charlie Adams, regional vice president of Pennrose, was unable to give a cost estimate for the project, but said the company is work to meet the needs of the community while maintaining the integrity of the church.

“Resources are always limited, but the city and state are doing everything they can to help us figure out how to get out of this,” Adams said.

Pennrose’s proposal includes over 50 units. About 60% of those units would be reserved for households earning no more than 60% of the region’s median income, or $84,120. for a family of four, according to the letter of intent.

Additionally, 13% of those units would go to families earning 30% or less of the median income, as required by local and state laws.

The affordable units will be a small but important contribution to the city’s efforts to take care of its affordable housing, said Sheila Dillon, Boston’s housing officer.

“It’s a solution to the gentrification that’s happening in Jamaica Plain,” Dillon said. “No reason for it to get worse.”

Dillon said the city will continue to work with Pennrose during the approvals process to push for as affordable a price as possible.

Another source of excitement for supporters of the Blessed Sacrament: part of the church will remain a community space, a performance and meeting space that can accommodate up to 250 people.

“There will be Latinx community history, a touch of beautiful activism and year-round celebrations,” Baez said. “You will always come back.”

A long way remains to be covered. Adams said construction could begin by the end of 2023 if Pennrose secured funding for the project soon. The promoter is eyeing the city $50 million fund available for affordable housing seekers and state funding as potential sources, he said.

The Boston Landmarks Commission is also considering designating the Blessed Sacrament complex as a historic landmark. Residents first asked the city to make this designation in 2005, but their demand has taken on renewed urgency as redevelopment plans take shape. A historic landmark designation protects a piece of the community’s history well into the future, although in the short term it could add building requirements that would make the redevelopment process more difficult and more expensive.

But residents say they’re willing to wait — and they’re especially excited about this performance space because such community venues are rare on Jamaica Plain.

“Sometimes it seems like there’s nothing you can do with these churches,” Adams said. “But we’ve learned that there are bigger possibilities than people realize.”

Tiana Woodard is a member of the Report for America body that covers black neighborhoods. She can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.