LACONIA — St. Helena Mission Church, where Catholic services were held on weekends throughout the summer months for half a century, was closed last September and put up for sale in December.
Father Marc Drouin, pastor of St. Andre Bessette Parish, said yesterday that the church was built in early 1960s on land donated in 1954 as a mission church of Our Lady of the Lakes Parish in Lakeport. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s mass was held at St. Helena four or five times in the course of a weekend as vacationing families and seasonal residents filled its pews. In those days, he said, there were between seven and nine priests spread among the three parishes in the city and they were assisted in the summer months by the Benedictines from St. Anselm's College in Manchester.
Drouin said that regular attendance began falling in the 1990s, particularly at St. Helena, as the conversion of motels and cottages to condominiums slowed the turnover of summer visitors and increased the number of seasonal residents, many of whom worshiped at the larger churches in the city. As the number of parishioners dwindled in 2010 the three parishes ultimately became on, which today is served by two priests, and a year later the Our Lady of the Lakes church building was offered for sale.
Drouin explained that last year the pastoral and finance council undertook a study of St. Helena and found it in need of repairs estimated to cost about $200,000. He said that the council concluded that what he called "a 24-hour church," where mass was held of Saturdays and Sundays for 12 weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day, did not warrant the investment. The parish petitioned the bishop to sell the property.
"There are always emotions around the closing of a church because so many of the significant parts of our lives are spent there," Drouin said, recalling that the decision to close St. Helena was comprehensively explained to parishioners in the Parish Bulletin.
The property at 326 Endicott Street East, less than a mile from Weirs Beach, consists of the 5,200-square-foot building, which sits on a three-acre lot, almost two thirds of which are paved. The church is not heated. It is listed by the Portsmouth office of the CBRE Group, Inc., the largest real estate firm in the country, at $349,000, much less than its assessed value of $885,700.
The church is in the single-family residential district, where a variety uses, including assisted living facilities, hotels, motels and cottages, are permitted and with by special exception educational institutions, campgrounds, greenhouses, marine dealers and greenhouses are also allowed.