For these two activists, the fight for the future of a JP church started more than 50 years ago.
Betsaida Gutierrez and Patricia Feeley have fought gentrification for five decades. The septuagenarians from Jamaica Plain are tireless, whether in the neverending battle for affordable housing for working people, or against the terror of unscrupulous developers, or, as was the case on a recent Saturday, to save a neighborhood church.
Pat is a retired nurse of Irish origin, but closely linked to the JP Latino community. She says that she saves churches now, but she started by preventing illegal evictions and saving schools. For half a century, she worked in hospitals, as a visiting nurse in Roxbury and finally as a nurse practitioner in Jamaica Plain.
“In doing public health, I quickly learned how crucial decent housing and environment were to good health,” Pat says.
In her 70s, Pat has spent much of the pandemic bringing food to the elderly and disabled in the neighborhood. She explains: “I joined a local housing justice organization, City Life/Vida Urbana. As a volunteer, I was involved in many community activities which often became community actions, like eviction blockings when people were illegally evicted.”
She proudly recalls the time they organized at Tent City in the South End to prevent a school from closing. The city had shuttered 19 school buildings and was selling to private developers, some of which converted them into high-end housing units. It also led to rapid displacement of nearby residents.
“We organized in the parking lot of the Bowditch School to protect it from the onslaught of gentrifiers interested in profit more than the neighborhood. A pretty long story, but the outcome was that the school was converted into ‘supportive housing,’ which continues to be a great success,” Pat says.
As for the situation in her current focus—at Blessed Sacrament in JP—Pat is concerned that the sale of the church puts the neighborhood’s cultural and social identity at risk. After the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston sold the temple with surrounding lands in the wake of the Boston Globe exposing the church nearly 20 years ago for heinous crimes committed against children and subsequent coverups, Pat reminds that local activists turned upside down to prevent the property from being sold to an unscrupulous developer aiming to build luxury condos. Individuals and charitable institutions raised funds so that the Hyde Square Task Force could buy the land and the church.
Thanks to Betsaida’s efforts, one of the lots was dedicated to the construction of social housing through the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation: JPNDC—its building of 40 low- and middle-income accessible homes next to the church is named the Doña Betsaida Gutierrez Cooperative.
But now the church is falling apart. Authorities have had to install a fence in front of the facade to prevent people from approaching where the pieces of masonry fall, and the Hyde Square Task Force can’t keep it up. They’re asking $ 2.5 million for the church.
As Betsaida tells it, with this sale price, only luxury condo developers could possibly be attracted. Furthermore, there are no known limits, restrictions, or conditions for the sale; for example, whether a space will be designated as a youth cultural center.
This is hardly her first community campaign. Betsaida came to Jamaica Plain from Puerto Rico as a Catholic in 1972. Back then, there were still churches in Boston where masses for Latinos were held in the basement. For almost 50 years, she has dedicated her life to social justice. And while today Betsaida considers herself a Baptist, she defends Blessed Sacrament with nails and teeth because it is “a historic landmark where Latinos made a community.”
Damaris Pimentel, who is Dominican, arrived in JP 46 years ago, and 38 years ago opened her Ultra Beauty Salon a few steps from the church. She says, “That building has to belong to our community, it has to go back to our community. All my children were baptized there. All my brothers have gotten married there. We must put limits on gentrification.”
Like Pat, Betsaida also collaborated for decades with City Life/Vida Urbana, where she worked as a community organizer and a kind of real estate consultant for humble people. “We saved many buildings that we turned into cooperatives for people with limited incomes,” says Betsaida, who through the years became an expert in financing to advise the most disadvantaged. She has put that knowledge to work in banks in Latino neighborhoods where employees speak Spanish, which offer decent loan conditions to Latinos, and where “many working families can buy their homes.”
As for the situation at hand, hundreds of residents, small business owners, former parishioners, youth advocates, artists, and community leaders in Jamaica Plain and throughout Boston started a petition, directed to local officials, insisting they “preserve the Blessed Sacrament Church’s legacy as a shining jewel of the Hyde/Jackson Square neighborhood,” and play a leadership role in identifying existing and new public funds to support community priorities.
Some neighbors say the church building should be converted into a cultural center to serve youth and families in Jamaica Plain and the surrounding neighborhoods, and to celebrate diverse cultures and serve as a destination point. They want potential developers to give community members a strong voice in decisions that impact them, including the extent to which the new landlords will honor prior commitments in place for youth programs to use the building for cultural events and performances.
Neighbors and activists also urge developers to respect the historic nature of the building, to include a significant number of affordable units, and to work with the community on creative ideas to activate the front of the church. For these things to happen, and for the inclusion of cultural and performance space to be feasible, some neighborhood advocates note that a mix of public and private funding will be needed. They’re additionally asking the current owners to: be flexible with the final sale price; encourage creative development ideas and partnerships; and maintain transparency with the community before finalizing the sale of the property.
“We pledge to continue the dream that started more than 15 years ago to make sure that the Blessed Sacrament Church building will once again be a jewel and a resource to families in the Latin Quarter neighborhood, Jamaica Plain, and the entire City of Boston,” petitioners wrote. “While the ownership of the building will change, our commitment to realizing the dreams of youth and families remains strong and unwavering”