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Quabbin concert tradition hits snag

National UU organization calls Dana parish into question, halts funds for Vespers concerts

The roughly 30 audience members listening to the Pioneer Valley Brass play Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” in the North Orange Community Church of North Orange and Tully recently wasn’t simply hearing music from “West Side Story.”

This concert was the 755th Dana Vespers concert, presented since 1929 as a memorial to members of the Universalist parish in North Dana, which was flooded 75 years ago to create Quabbin Reservoir. As “Somewhere” echoed through the room, it was a living memorial to the parish that was left a trust fund in 1933 to recall the lost towns of the Swift River Valley.

But the parish’s trust funds are being challenged by the Unitarian Universalist Association, which took custody of the money when it was created in 1961, a situation that descendants of the former community and the parish say is disturbing and misguided.

The Boston-based religious association’s endowment accountant, Philip N. Murray, wrote to parish Treasurer Dana Tandy in October referring to the parish as defunct, and announcing the state group is withholding payment of interest from its Mason Hale Memorial Trust and announcing it seeks to re-assign that money to UUA’s “general missionary work.”

“We believe the terms of the Mason Hale Memorial Trust necessitates further clarification as to whether your organization meets the restriction specified,” says Murray’s Oct. 8 letter.

“We’re few in number, but that doesn’t mean we’re not an active parish,” said Tandy, who was named for the lost town by his mother, who had lived in Dana and remained active in the North Dana parish even after being forced along with other residents of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich and Prescott to leave the area before it was flooded. “Clearly, we don’t have a (church) building. But a parish is people, not a building.”

The Massachusetts Universalist Convention, which predated the UUA, voted at its May 7, 1940, convention to approve an 7-year-old Universalist Society of North Dana arrangement to use the Mason-Hale trust to fund a regular series of vesper services, in keeping with the spirit of the trust.

The fund, totaling a little more than $70,000, resulted from sale of the North Dana Universalist Church to the Metropolitan Water Supply Commission and bequests from the estate of two sisters, Mary Hale and Catherine Mason. The vespers became a tradition at the North Dana church beginning in 1929.

That parish was forced to close its doors when the formation of the Quabbin Reservoir caused the relocation of everyone in five Swift River Valley towns. A trust fund begun by sisters Catherine Mason and Mary Hale formed the basis for the fund which has provided musical services throughout the area for over 80 years. Vespers programs are sponsored by the First Universalist Parish of North Dana periodically throughout the year at various churches and nursing homes throughout the Quabbin Region.

“It’s important to keep part of the (Swift River) Valley alive” through the concerts; five or six are now scheduled each year “fairly near” the Quabbin region, said Tandy, who lives in Warwick. Originally, the fund allowed for as many as a dozen free concerts, about half of which were in Orange. An annual concert is held each year at the Swift River Historical Society Museum in New Salem.

“It’s very frustrating,” Tandy said, especially when keeping the memory of the parish alive is “part of our heritage.”

Maureen Riendeau, the musical director of the parish, added, “It’s maddening” to jeopardize the tradition of the memorial concerts “to ensure that those people didn’t get forgotten,” all because of a snafu similar to one that occurred in the 1970s.

The last two interest payments have been held up while the UUA’s finance department continues to look into the matter, meaning that Riendeau can’t book future concerts by Pioneer Valley Brass and other groups until the matter is settled.

According to UUA spokesperson Rachel Walden, the association’s financial office that is required to handle funds it holds based on the original bequest from donors, the parish committee has failed to submit its “annual certification numbers” since 1989, evidence that “it has not existed” since then. She said the UUA’s financial office is continuing to review the documentation.

North Parish members, meanwhile, remain mystified, insisting they have been holding concerts continuously since 1929 and have been getting paid for them, until this year.

“I feel whoever set up the fund, the purpose was for the Dana Vespers,” said Lois Cooney, whose husband, Earl, is the last surviving Dana resident. “It would be a shame if they put a stop to it.”

You can reach Richie Davis at rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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