The spires of St. Anne’s Church and Shrine are an undeniable icon of Fall River’s landscape.
Without argue, the church is the most architecturally impressive structure in the city. However, with the recent debacle of the Fall River Diocese ending mass on top of years of insufficient building upkeep that all but constitutes as “demolition through neglect,” the future of St. Anne’s Church is now in question.
The demise of its parish and the Diocese’s preordained surrender have left many in the community asking, “How did this happen?”
It’s very easy to blame the Diocese. Not only is Bishop Edgar da Cunha personally responsible for the deficient maintenance of St. Anne’s, his lack of faith in the community obstructs their efforts to save the structure.
But this problem goes deeper than the crisis at St. Anne’s. It begs the question, what are we doing to maintain our heritage and the historic architecture across Fall River?
What of the city’s responsibility to lead by example? What have our city leaders done to guide the way and promote historic preservation? Aside from work on the Bank Street Armory, which was funded largely by the Community Preservation Act and Massachusetts Historical Commission, the city is negligent.
In fact, the most impressive preservation efforts have come from non-profit organizations like the Fall River Historical Society, Fall River Fire Museum, and the Lafayette-Durfee House. Even the efforts of the city’s own all-volunteer Historical Commission and Historic District Commission are largely ignored and maligned by the administration.
Our city leaders should be leading the charge. They should be taking stock of city-owned historical buildings, maintaining them, and protecting these resources. Historic preservation is not a new idea and cities all over the state have embraced it; hiring preservationists and assuring that preservation is at the forefront of their economic development.
Our preservation efforts are still based on volunteers, not supported nor afforded to speak on historical issues that affect the city.
In the past year alone, the city underwent a streetscaping project throughout the Lower Highlands Historic District, but in a post-modern fashion and without the Historical Commission’s input. The city allowed the demolition of one of the nation’s first Thomas Edison Light Stations, located on Hartwell Street, without any objection. And of course, the city encouraged the near total demolition of the King Philip Mill complex without any serious effort to market the property for restoration.
The administration suggests it advertised the King Phillip Mill property locally for three weeks, but it seems the allure of how a potential multi-million dollar restoration project could positively impact the South End neighborhood and the entire city was beyond comprehension, despite a professional feasibility study bought and paid for by the Community Preservation Committee.
If there could be one bright point to the St. Anne’s Crisis, let it be that Fall River, as a community, begins to more cohesively appreciate the value of its history. Not just our big Victorian homes or the iconic shrines, but the very historic fiber rooted in our neighborhoods all over the city.
Our history is never permanent. Each day brings new challenges for the historic properties throughout Fall River and we must actively work to preserve our past so it may last into the future.
Once our recognizable history is lost, we become just like any other place. We might not lose our identity, but it will have changed forever.
The Preservation Society of Fall River
Jim Soule, President
Alexander Silva, Clerk