For almost 30 years, Damaris Pimentel frequented the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Jamaica Plain, getting her children baptized there, attending her sister’s wedding. Pimentel’s siblings even went to the K-12 Blessed Sacrament School.

That ended in 2004 when the church closed, and the Archdiocese of Boston sold it to the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation the following year for $6 million. That nonprofit created 80 affordable housing units on the Blessed Sacrament campus — 36 apartments in the Betsaida Gutierrez Cooperative, 16 affordable condos at Creighton St, and with Pine Street Inn, 28 affordable apartments for formerly homeless — but never managed to develop the church.

Seventeen years later, the church is decaying behind a chain-linked fence, a safety precaution put in place after pieces of the façade began to fall. The building, constructed in 1913, is a massive unused space — and untapped potential — in the heart of Boston’s Latin Quarter up Centre Street, the only designated Latin cultural district in the city.

In 2014, the Hyde Square Task Force bought the building for $800,000 with the plan of creating a youth cultural center. But that plan was scrapped after no developers responded to a 2019 request for proposals, and the property is now up for sale for $2.5 million.

Now, Pimentel and a group of former parishioners, business owners, and neighborhood advocates — dubbed Friends of the Blessed Sacrament — are trying to maintain public involvement in the process, worried that an unrestricted sale to a developer of high-end housing could fundamentally transform the neighborhood.

“Having a building [that is] 100% luxury condos would totally change the dynamic of our neighborhood,” said Pimentel. The activists aren’t against the sale, which makes sense to them because Hyde Square Task Force isn’t a developer. What bothers them is the process.

“What kind of surprised me is that it would sell with no restriction,” said Pimentel during an interview at her neighborhood business, the Ultra Beauty Salon.

Damaris Pimentel poses for a photo inside her Jamaica Plain salon, Ultra Beauty Salon. Pimentel and other neighborhood activists are trying to ensure the community is consulted in any decision to sell the Church of the Blessed Sacrament to developers.
Sarah Betancourt/ GBH News

“Geographically, the building had the capacity for a lot of things, and my personal requirement is that it stay linked to our community and our neighborhood,” she added.

There was much excitement in 2014 when the Task Force bought the property. The church was opened up so Mayor Marty Walsh could tour it with the Task Force’s past executive director Claudio Martinez and members of the community.

The organization unsuccessfully attempted to identify a developer for an arts space in 2019. Current executive director Celina Miranda told the Jamaica Plain Gazette the upkeep of the building totals more than $100,000 each year, and owning the building has created $500,000 in debt for Hyde Square Task Force since its purchase. The options for keeping the building, she implied, were all expensive, including tearing down the building to build something new, or renovating it.

In July 2020, the board of directors announced a third option — it would sell the church, with no restrictions.

That didn’t sit well with Betsaida Gutierrez, a 50-year resident of the Latin Quarter and former parishioner.

“My hope was for it to be a youth center, as they promised us,” she said while pointing to the church. “But they betrayed us and put it on the market.”

The lack of restrictions surprised locals, who point to the 2019 request for proposals for a community center as far more stringent. That bidding document had included many restrictions, including a requirement for community input, criteria for the preservation of the exterior of the building and a requirement that any conversion to housing include a bigger percentage of affordable units than the City of Boston requires.

After public outcry, the Task Force held a series of what activists called “poorly advertised” Zoom meetings explaining why they had to make the sale, while locals asked for community involvement with developers. But when the property was listed with the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield in December, none of the restrictions were included.

The Task Force described the church as “a tremendous investment and redevelopment opportunity located in the heart of Jamaica Plain.”

Sam Jones, president of the Creighton Commons Condo Association, has lived in one of the mid-range affordable housing condos overlooking the church for six years, saying the view was one of the reasons why he chose his space.

“Sometimes I see hawks land at the top of that minaret right there, I don’t want it to go away,” he said. Jones is worried a developer would raze the building.

“We’d really love to find someone who can make use of this space as it is, and preserve this building, which has a lot of history for people in JP,” he said.

Miranda told the Bay State Banner last September that while the group wants a developer who keeps community interests in mind, that can be limiting. “We know that placing a long list of restrictions would reduce interest in the property,” she said.

Incensed by the snub, Friends of the Blessed Sacrament launched a petition in March directed to the Task Force, developers and Acting Mayor Kim Janey. They’ve also reached out to mayoral candidates and City Councilors in hopes of making the church sale a campaign issue. Janey's office did not respond to a request for an interview.

With at-large City Councilor Julia Mejia, they’ve made some headway. Mejia met with them and told GBH News she wants the community to have a voice in what happens to the building.

“I am concerned about the process,” she said by phone. “Everything that we do at our office is really making sure that things are community centered and driven.”

The church closed in 2004.
Sarah Betancourt / GBH News

Activists said that while they support the Task Force’s work, they disagreed that the only option is to put the church up for sale with no restrictions or formal guidelines for potential buyers.

Friends of the Blessed Sacrament asked the Task Force to create a process where the community gets to meet potential developers and give input before the Task Force makes its final decision.

Harry Smith, a member of the Friends of Blessed Sacrament, said there are examples of nonprofits owning real estate, developing it and including the locals in the process of finding buyers. He pointed to Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, which bought an old Citizens Bank spot in Upham’s Corner and put the building in a community land trust.

“They held meetings where the community could meet with potential developers and give their opinions. That process is moving toward a successful conclusion and we think that’s the kind of thing that can be done here,” he said.

The Task Force funneled some developers to chat with the Friends of the Blessed Sacrament, according to the group, and some high-end developers have gone directly to them to find out more about the sale.

But that was informal. It wasn’t until June 4 that Hyde Square Task Force issued a public about-face and said it would be “designing a public process whereby the community at large will get a chance to meet potential developers and have the opportunity to provide input.”

“HSTF will consider this feedback in its final decision-making. Once a process has been designed, we will communicate it widely to ensure we get as much community participation as possible,” the group said on its site and social media.

But no meetings or community briefings have yet been planned.

Friends of the Blessed Sacrament hasn’t received any updated information on when those community meetings might be, and how soon after a decision on a developer would be made.

Community members say they have been surprised that the task force has been so slow to seek community engagement, since the organization led the effort with the City of Boston to secure funding through the National Endowment for the Arts to support community development in the Latin Quarter.

In 2008, a group of small business owners, the Hyde Square Task Force and Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation rebranded the area as Boston’s Latin Quarter, getting City Councilors to make it official in 2016 with an ordinance.

The Task Force partnered with the city to send an application to the Mass Cultural Council, which designated it a state cultural site in 2018. The area is part of an ongoing “Cultural District Plan,” that serves as a guide to how the community wants the area to develop.

The church’s place in that narrative has been up in the air. The Task Force holds its weekly Viva el Latin Quarter Series in Blessed Sacrament Church Plaza to showcase local artists and musicians. But when it comes to the church itself, it remains mum.

The Task Force repeatedly declined to discuss the church with GBH News.

Executive Director Miranda rescheduled two interviews with GBH in July, and didn’t show up to a virtual interview over Zoom. The organization eventually told GBH they would not comment for this story. GBH visited the Task Force office but was told Miranda and her communications director were not available.

Details on what might happen to the building are few and far between.

Dania Vázquez, founding headmaster of the Margarita Muñiz Academy, approached the Hyde Square Task Force and Friends of the Blessed Sacrament in April to see if the Boston Public Schools could buy the parcel, and turn the church into a grades 7-12 bilingual arts school.

Pimentel called the school proposal a “blessing in the sky” because it would be a bilingual arts school in the midst of the Latino community.

Longtime Jamaica Plain activist Betsaida Gutierrez talks about the history of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament while holding a neighbor's dog, Moe, July 10, 2021.
Sarah Betancourt/ GBH News

Many other community members asked by GBH News were surprised to hear about the idea, and found it encouraging.

“Better a school, no condos!” said Sophia Barboutis, a longtime employee of the Greek Captain Nemo’s pizzeria nearby.

“I would be delighted — that to me is the positive outcome that this situation needs,” said Jones.

But it probably won’t happen. The district would not make Vazquez available for an interview, but said in a statement: “Due to the small size of the parcel and other limitations, BPS has determined that the building is not compatible with our current high school redesign planning at this time.” And renovations would be costly. When an affordable housing complex was being considered, the estimate for renovations was over $20 million.

Pimentel said the Friends of the Blessed Sacrament won’t throw its weight behind any particular project but wants to see all options out on the table and in full community view.

Many people in the neighborhood expressed interest in seeing the building become a church again, including Eva Ramirez, an employee at Centre Fashion. But part of the initial sale by the Archdiocese of Boston noted that it can never be reestablished as a church.

“Then I’d like to see it become a park where people can sit down and do activities,” she said in a Spanish-language interview. “I don’t know if building a condo would help the community. Right now there’s no parking. It would become an issue about parking.”

Directly across the street from the church is Alex’s Chimis Restaurant, where Alejandro Castillo said he wanted to see the church have services, and then said if it can’t then he would like to see a neighborhood space.

“There’s a lot of young talent, kids coming out and they need a community center. I don’t really wanna see condominiums come in here,” he said.

Lifetime residents feel the same way. Gutierrez came to Boston from Puerto Rico in 1972, and is a longtime community organizer so well known that one of the affordable housing complexes on the campus is named after her. The Latin Quarter is near and dear to her heart, and she said she’ll fight like a lion to protect it from changing.

“It’s a place where you keep culture alive,” she said. “It’s just where we want to be.” Gutierrez said she’s worried about the area bodegas and businesses being priced out with new neighbors.

“This is the area of Latino people,” she said. “We had to organize again, to get the church for the community. That’s who it belongs to.”