LACONIA — While a local letter-writing campaign is underway to try to persuade Most Rev. Peter Libasci, bishop of the Diocese of Manchester, to save St. Joseph Church, he provided the Daily Sun with a statement explaining his order for the church to be torn down prior to the sale of the property.
In the statement, Libasci acknowledges the emotional attachment that people who worshipped in the 90-year-old building have to the church. “The loss of an edifice that holds so many memories is, inevitably, quite difficult, and I empathize with those who feel pain at that loss,” Libasci wrote.
The bishop referred to the consolidation of the city’s Catholic churches into one parish, Saint André Bessette, and said “given the changing nature of the community and present financial realities,” any future use for the St. Joseph Church “must be in keeping with its sacred character.”
The St. Joseph campus was never listed with a commercial real estate agent, but a spokesperson said the property was advertised on the diocesan website, and the parish’s interest in selling the property was also reported by the media. A number of parties made inquiries, the spokesperson said, and one made an offer, which was accepted by the parish.
The identity of the buyer has not been released by the parish or the diocese, nor is it known how the buyer intends to use the prominent parcel, which is situated at the corner of Messer and Church streets, adjacent to the Laconia Public Library and across the street from the Post Office.
The bishop signed off on the deal, with the stipulation that the church be demolished before the real estate changes hands. The property also includes the Busiel Mansion and the Holy Trinity School building, both of which will left standing.
Libasci said he wanted to avoid seeing St. Joseph used for a purpose unbefitting a former church, which is why he ordered its razing. The demolition is expected to take place this summer, and the real estate deal will be finalized this fall.
“This step, while painful, is absolutely necessary for the future of Saint André Bessette Parish,” Libasci said.
In a previous interview, the Rev. Marc Drouin, pastor of the parish, said the stained glass, statues and religious artifacts from the circa-1929 stone church will be salvaged and displayed at the Sacred Heart campus, which is also where the Holy Trinity School will move.
Meanwhile, a letter-writing effort led by the Normandin family is asking Libasci to reconsider his decision.
“Our family supports the parish consolidation, the new campus and the sale of Saint Joseph Church,” Linda, Judy, Frank and Susie Normandin, and Jean Normandin Masterson, wrote in a letter published last week in the Daily Sun. “At this time, we cannot support the demolition of the building. We are asking for positive community support in the form of writing appeal letters to Bishop Libasci.”
News of the pending demolition has spread far and wide. Alycia LaFrance Costello, currently living in Florida, said she “just about died” when she heard of the news. Her father grew up across the street from the church – there’s a parking lot there now – and he used to tell stories about how he had to pump the bellows for the organ during mass.
“My son was baptised there,” LaFrance Costello said. She said demolition of the church would be a “crying shame.”
Other parishioners of Saint André Bessette said that they also are saddened that the church will be razed, but they are looking to move past the demolition and focus on their progress as a parish.
Dominique Vazquez-Vanasse, who lives in Laconia, said she “found a home in Saint André Bessette parish.” The parish, she said, provides a variety of ministries, including vouchers for groceries, educational programs and referrals for service, and that divesting of the St. Joseph campus will allow the parish to focus more on service.
“The mission of any church is to provide for its people and the greater community," Vazquez-Vanasse said. "We can’t continue to provide if we don’t consolidate. The issue of St. Joseph being razed is a separate issue. The fact is we can’t continue to provide these services if we don’t consolidate now.”
When asked if razing the church was the right decision, she said, “I’m not qualified to make that judgement,” but that she is looking forward to putting the issue behind the parish.
“I hope that things can be resolved, no matter what the outcome. I hope that things can be resolved peaceably with people working together instead of against each other in the community,” Vazquez-Vanasse said.
Ryan Robinson, another active parishioner, said he also didn’t want to see the church razed. However, he similarly didn’t want to see the church used for purposes contrary to the church’s teachings.
“Personally, I struggle,” with the question of what is the proper way to handle St. Joseph in light of the real estate sale, Robinson said. And he wishes more people in the community would see the challenge from both sides.
“What has been frustrating for me to watch in this whole dialogue is people speaking very dogmatically on either side, as if there’s no nuance,” Robinson said.
Robinson said he takes particular umbrage with some comments on social media, and in letters to the editor, which accuse Drouin of favoring one church campus over the other.
“The decision to move to Sacred Heart has been a consistently unanimous decision,” by both the Parish Council and the Finance Council, Robinson said, in part because the Sacred Heart campus has a broader range of possible uses and is more affordable to maintain.
Finally, Robinson said the loss of physical elements of a religion is a natural outcome for a society where fewer people support that faith.
Though he described the parishioners of Saint André Bessette as active and passionate in their faith, Robinson said it is also true that there are fewer of them than there were decades ago, when Laconia’s Catholics supported three churches and one summer chapel.
“These beautiful buildings, and all the beautiful artifacts and culture that rise out of a vibrant Catholic church, when the foundation crumbles around that faith, so does the building,” Robinson said. “You don’t get to say that the faith isn’t going to thrive but we are going to keep all the beautiful elements of it. It doesn’t work that way, or at least it doesn’t work that way for long… All those things can only exist insofar as the faith is there. When you have an increasingly secular society, we can’t be surprised when we lose some of the beauty of that Christian culture.”