To the editor:
When Lifebridge sold St. Mary's Italian Church to the pentecostal Christian group Gateways of Peace, many of us who had worked three years to raise the funds to purchase the church and restore it to the Salem community for its heritage of art and immigrant history, saw some poetic aptness to the sale. We wanted to support it.
But to explain that, some history is in order:
The former congregation at St. Mary's had been harshly treated by the Catholic archdiocese back in 2003. It had approximately $150,000 in its bank account and was served by a priest. Then the archdiocese took their buildings and their cash assets.
It came at a time when the hierarchy needed funds for reparations in the emerging scandal of pedophile priests. This was surely insult upon injury to the descendants of Salem's early 20th-century immigrant Italians whose church had played no part in this scandal.
St. Mary's and all its parish buildings were sold to another church group that morphed into the agency we know today as Lifebridge. The purchasers had promised to the former congregation — at public meetings and in writing — that they would maintain the church building as a space for Christian worship, but instead we saw the cathedral space of the church with all its Florentine art, marble, German stained glass, pipe organ and beautiful beam work become the storage room for a downstairs thrift shop.
When Lifebridge took the next step and sought funding to turn the building into three levels of permanent housing for its growing homeless constituency, the Salem Community Arts Center (SCAC) formed to rescue the building and restore it as a functional space for celebrating the three things that were distinctive about the Italian community that gathered there: their love of community, their love of the arts and their sincere worship of Jesus Christ.
I joined SCAC as a concerned filmmaker and a Presbyterian Christian. The rich legacy to Salem of that original, working-class Italian community affects me as a priceless gift that, if remembered well, would carry a great benefit for generations to come. This legacy is surely able to inspire all of us — especially new immigrant arrivals.
So when we heard we had been too slow in our fundraising to rescue St. Mary's, we were at least consoled that a more recent immigrant group, that seemed largely Brazilian, would take care of its priceless history and meanings.
A year ago, the pastor of my church reached out to Pastor Reyes of Gateways of Peace a number of times to explain our concern for the preservation of St. Mary's and to consider ways we might assist them in their desire to purchase the building. Reyes was too busy to respond.
He did meet for an hour with three members of SCAC, including Joe Cultrera, our president. Joe clearly explained to Pastor Reyes the concern we had about preserving the art and legacy of this immigrant community. Pastor Reyes praised the beauty of the church and left our members with the impression that we were on the same page as far as preserving the church was concerned.
However, since the sale of St. Mary's to Gateways of Peace, they have stripped the artwork from the walls and given it away to a traditional Catholic church in Lawrence with no connection to the art. They have sledgehammered into rubble the remarkable marble altar. The neighborhood group and SCAC members made overtures to them to stop their senseless vandalism of things they have no appreciation of, so they ceased operating in daylight and began operating under cover of night. They have painted over the art that wasn't removed. Then with the help of the same archdiocese that closed the church, they began the removal of the church's beautiful stained-glass windows.
And so they have destroyed, or dispatched to people with no claim on it, all of this priceless art that immigrants before them installed in beautiful worship space.
As one of the Gateway workers on the site put it to one of our onlooking committee members: "We don't care about what people think, only what God thinks." And so the command to love one's neighbor just went out the back door of Gateways of Peace.
The trashing of the art as an apparent reaction to Roman Catholicism as they perceive it makes Gateways of Peace a mirror reversal of the very thing they seem to hate.
It is hard to support their presence in Salem because they demonstrate that they have very narrow ideas of what is precious and what is worthless. In fact, under cover of the name of Jesus Christ, their behavior exemplifies to me the very meaning of blasphemy.
Sadly, we have all let it happen under our very noses.