Roman Catholic Church officials are considering building a centralized church in Oak Bluffs that would serve the entire Island.
At a special town meeting next month, Oak Bluffs voters will be asked whether the town should enter negotiations to swap a parcel of land next to the Martha's Vineyard Arena for the Good Shepherd parish hall property on School street.
For the past few years, church officials - through meetings of the parish council and the pastoral planning committee - have discussed building a larger, centralized church to serve the needs of Good Shepherd's growing congregation.
Now the warrant article, which would open the way for the board of selectmen to negotiate a swap, stands as a possible first step in a long-term plan to create a central Catholic church for the Vineyard.
A key component of such a plan could involve eventually closing down the three existing Catholic churches on the Island: Our Lady Star of the Sea in Oak Bluffs, St. Elizabeth's in Edgartown and St. Augustine's in Vineyard Haven.
The Rev. Michael R. Nagle, pastor of Good Shepherd, the parish that covers all three churches, said the parish first considered building one centralized church several years ago.
The idea was largely driven by a sharp increase in oil prices. In recent years, the cost of heating the churches has more than doubled, which has forced church officials to consolidate winter masses into the Our Lady Star of the Sea church in Oak Bluffs.
The focus on a centralized church also has stemmed from an acute shortage of priests in recent years. Father Nagle is the only Catholic priest based on the Vineyard.
The congregation includes approximately 1,100 year-round families, or approximately 4,000 members, according to Father Nagle. However, that number rises dramatically in the summer months, when Father Nagle travels to all three churches on Sundays to hold Mass.
A centralized church, Father Nagle said, would drastically reduce operation costs. But more importantly, such a church would also make it possible to retain the one-priest staffing for years to come.
"We don't want to have a situation where we have a church but no priest," Father Nagle said. "If we start thinking about where we can build a new church 10 years from now we may be in trouble.
"There are many places across the country now which only get a priest once a week, or even once a month. We don't want to become one of those places," Father Nagle added.
When Oak Bluffs officials approached Good Shepherd about the possibility of swapping the 7.2-acre parcel of town-owned land next to the Martha's Vineyard Arena for the parish hall on School street, parish officials felt the land could be the right fit for their needs.
A number of church and town officials have hailed the land swap as a win-win. The town, which owned the parish hall when it was the former Oak Bluffs school, would get back a valuable asset that might be used for something such as a new town hall or senior center.
The building could become part of a municipal campus that would include the new library, a new town hall, and a possible senior center and/or police station.
Another article on the warrant for the regular town meeting asks if voters will support a non-binding resolution asking if the town should create a municipal campus in the area of School street and Pacific avenue.
In turn, the church would receive a parcel potentially large enough to house a new church, rectory and parish hall. The site is also centrally located and easily accessible from the various Island towns.
The town assessor's office appraises the value of the parish hall and the .67 acres on which it sits at just over $1.3 million. The appraised value for the parcel off Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road, which does include any buildings, is just under $500,000.
The Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road site is technically owned by the town, although it is deeded to the resident home site committee, a panel formed to create affordable housing opportunities for Oak Bluff residents.
The town would likely allow the church to continue using the parish hall while the new church complex is being built. Financial details and other specifics would likely be finalized during negotiations between selectmen and the Fall River diocese, which owns the parish hall.
Parish council member Timothy Connelly said that although a lot of work remains to be done, the town-owned parcel might be the perfect fit for the church's needs.
"This all very preliminary, especially considering we don't even know if (the land swap) is going to happen," Mr. Connelly said. "But this as good a piece of land as we've looked at so far. It might serve our needs without costing the church a lot of money."
Even if approved at town meeting, the article on the warrant does not ensure the land swap. It would only give selectmen the authorization to negotiate a deal with the diocese.
The diocese, under the direction of Bishop George Coleman, would then review the deal and decide if the land swap is in the church's best interest, Father Nagle said. The land swap would then require final approval from the board of selectmen.
On Tuesday, the board of selectmen reviewed the article for the potential land swap, before agreeing to place it on the warrant.
Selectman Kerry Scott, who has opposed a separate land swap involving the old library and the former BFI property on Pacific avenue, also opposed the parish hall land swap.
Ms. Scott argued that officials had not done enough research into the potential land swap, and moved that the article be kept off the warrant. Her motion failed by a 1-3 vote, with selectmen Gregory Coogan, Roger Wey and Michael Dutton voting against and Duncan Ross absent.
Ms. Scott said she was not comfortable putting the article on the warrant because it had not received a blessing from the town resident homesite committee.
James Rankin, chairman of that committee, confirmed Wednesday he had yet to hear about the article authorizing the land swap.
But Mr. Rankin explained that, as he understood it, the town has final say over how the land is used, even though it is deeded to the committee.
Town administrator Casey Sharpe said the land swap would be brought before the homesite committee if the article is approved next month.
An affirmative vote, she said, would only begin the negotiating process, which would involve the diocese, the selectmen, and the homesite committee.
In a telephone interview prior to Tuesday's selectmen's meeting, Ms. Scott touched on another aspect of a potential land swap that might put off some residents.
She said many people might oppose the land swap strictly because of their emotional attachment and familiarity with the three existing churches.
"Don't underestimate the connection people have with these buildings," Ms. Scott said. "It's where they got married, it's where they attend funerals and it's where they go to church every Sunday. That's a powerful connection."
Father Nagle said he understood why parishioners would have a problem if the three existing churches were to be closed in the future. But he said church officials have reached a point where they must start to consider some difficult choices.
"We know it will be hard for people," Father Nagle said. "We've seen that over the past two years when we've discussed this at our planning meetings. But we're at a crossroads. We need to start thinking about how we are going to meet the needs of the future."
Father Nagle emphasized that any plans to build a new church, or close any down any churches, are several years down the road.
"These are the very first steps in a very long process," he said. "We don't even have a piece of land yet, so we still have a long way to go."
Father Nagle said parishioners and residents will have ample opportunity to give their input on any future project. The church will continue to hold its pastoral planning meetings and might sponsor an informational meeting if plans were formalized.
Father Nagle sent a letter to Mr. Coleman about the potential land swap. A spokesman in the diocesan communications office confirmed that Mr. Coleman is reviewing the letter.