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Artists take up cause to save old church

By Steven H. Foskett Jr./Telegram & Gazette (TNS) • May 27, 2018 at 9:00 AM

WORCESTER, Mass. — Barbara Roberts casually thumbed through her sketchbook to get to her latest rendering, the former Notre Dame des Canadiens Church, which a local group is trying to save from the wrecking ball.

Intricately detailed portraits filled the pages, but there was random fare as well, including a full page of delicately shaded nostrils.

"I was practicing noses," she said.

Her sketch of the church in Worcester, Massachusetts, turned out in just 20 minutes, paid as much attention to detail as the faces, capturing on a small piece of paper the undeniably grand scale of the church that overlooks the Common. But the more she looked at the church Thursday afternoon, the more she saw.

"All the circles, that angel, those columns," she said.

Roberts said she took some photos as well, and plans to turn the sketches into a larger-scale painting she will submit to the Save Notre Dame Alliance's online art exhibition and contest.

Made up of a group of local activists looking to save the church, the Save Notre Dame Alliance hopes to persuade owner CitySquare II to abandon plans to demolish the building. The group held a small event in front of the church Thursday night to kick off the art contest and exhibition, which encourages local artists to offer possible future concepts for the building or to simply pay tribute to the building's beauty and history.

Winners of 10 $250 awards will be selected by a panel of the city's leading art professionals — Jim Welu, Juliet Feibel, Luis Fraire and Honee Hess.

Roberts said she's not Catholic but is intrigued by the mystique of old Catholic churches, particularly from the days when Mass was held in Latin. She said she doesn't want to see the building torn down. She said maybe it could be turned into an arts center, or include a coffee shop.

Built in 1929, Notre Dame has been vacant since 2007. CitySquare II bought the property in 2010. After a year-long demolition delay came and went without a new plan for the church, CitySquare II waited another year before starting the process in March to tear down the building.

Save Notre Dame has taken up the fight to save the church, but CitySquare II recently turned down a request for a three-month delay to buy more time to put together a new proposal. The group convinced the City Council this month to have Mayor Joseph M. Petty and City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. meet again with Hanover Insurance, the principal investor in the CitySquare II redevelopment project, to determine if the extension is warranted and if it would be effective.

Save Notre Dame Alliance co-founder Ted Conna said Thursday night he hopes the online exhibition will help get the message out to a broader audience about the church building's plight. He said since the new initiative was announced, the group has received 12 submissions, including photography, paintings, sketches, music and poetry.

"Artists are good at getting to the emotional core of things," Conna said.

He said he has not heard any news about any outcomes from the City Council request to go back one more time to ask Hanover for the delay, and said he understands that the effort to save the church, while still going, is "late in the game." But he said he hopes that a cohesive vision and a viable plan can be developed in time to keep the building standing.

"We're trying to get people who really control the fate of this building to share our vision for it," Conna said. That's not just the owners, either, Conna added — it's the city, and the community. He said a shared vision for the future is what has saved other buildings in the city from demolition, including the former Telegram & Gazette complex on Franklin Street.

Contacted Thursday night, CitySquare II referred to past comments it has made about the church situation - that since it purchased the building in 2010, it hoped to save what was a rapidly decaying building and repurpose it, but a plan with the required financial wherewithal, expertise, and conviction has still not materialized.

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