South County Senior Center opts not to renew church lease after rift over LGBTQ program

Jennifer Remillard, director of the South County Senior Center, chats with members at the center’s temporary location at the Holy Family Roman Catholic Church’s Pope St. John Paul II Center in 2022. The Senior Center Board of Oversight has opted to not renew the center’s lease to use the function hall after a disagreement over the Rainbow Elders program.

Jennifer Remillard, director of the South County Senior Center, chats with members at the center’s temporary location at the Holy Family Roman Catholic Church’s Pope St. John Paul II Center in 2022. The Senior Center Board of Oversight has opted to not renew the center’s lease to use the function hall after a disagreement over the Rainbow Elders program. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 05-10-2024 10:18 AM

SOUTH DEERFIELD — The Senior Center Board of Oversight has opted to not renew the center’s lease to use the Holy Family Roman Catholic Church’s function hall after a disagreement over the Rainbow Elders program.

With the current lease expiring May 31, the board made its vote on May 2 to not pursue another lease after the church on Sugarloaf Street requested the South County Senior Center avoid advertising its Rainbow Elders luncheon program, which is done in partnership with LifePath, for LGBTQ seniors in its newsletter. The event is typically hosted in the Senior Center’s administrative space in downtown Sunderland.

The Board of Oversight emphasized the church has “been good neighbors” to the three towns that share the Senior Center for the last few years, but said the main reason behind the decision is legal. Its members noted there are legal requirements relating to discrimination and removing the program could open them up to legal challenges or the voiding of grant money.

“There’s many reasons why we shouldn’t give in to that sort of condition, but let’s stick with the easy one, which is the legal issues,” said Board of Oversight Chair and Whately Select Board member Joyce Palmer-Fortune. “This is a legal issue and we don’t need to go anywhere else with it. … I don’t think there’s really a good compromise that doesn’t endanger a quarter of a million dollars in grants.”

In a letter to the Deerfield Select Board — Deerfield serves as the lead community for the Senior Center — the Board of Oversight emphasized its “legal obligations” to its partner agencies.

“The South County Senior Center Board of Oversight is writing to share they have voted not to have the South County Senior Center pursue a new lease with the Holy Family Roman Catholic Church,” the letter reads. “Our decision to not move forward is due to the South County Senior Center’s legal obligations to our community partners and members.”

David Aufiero, the pastor of the Holy Family Roman Catholic Church, said in a phone call Monday that he wasn’t aware the board had made its decision, but said it’s “unfortunate” that the Senior Center didn’t come back with “their concerns” about the request.

“It’s just simply not consistent with the stances of the church,” Aufiero said of the Rainbow Elders program, noting negotiation meetings were friendly and progressing well and he wouldn’t want the result of the request being the Senior Center leaving. “I think something further could have been worked out.”

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While it is the church’s property and they are only renters, Palmer-Fortune added the request, at least to her, has “sort of poisoned the relationship a little bit.”

“This co-beneficial relationship was fine, but will we want to rent there knowing that they don’t really like some of the other things we do?” Palmer-Fortune said. “I sort of feel like there could be friction there because of that, just because they asked.”

The church served as a lifeline for the South County Senior Center, which has rented the Pope St. John Paul II Center from the church since November 2021, when the center had nowhere for the seniors of Deerfield, Sunderland and Whately to go for the winter after the closure of Deerfield’s 1888 Building. In that time, the church has allowed the Senior Center to use the space on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.

“We’re grateful for the space. … They’ve been good neighbors to us,” Board of Oversight and Deerfield Selectboard member Trevor McDaniel said. “We are going to advertise and we are going to support [the LGBTQ] community.”

The Senior Center began renting its administrative space at 22 Amherst Road in downtown Sunderland nearly a year later for use on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Senior Center Director Jennifer Remillard said the administrative space could be used for just about every program they run, except for their Enhanced Fitness class. Options being explored for that program include the Whately Town Hall, the First Congregational Church of Sunderland or the South Deerfield Polish American Citizens’ Club.

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com.