LACONIA — A group trying to save St. Joseph Church from the wrecking ball said Thursday it is prepared to assume complete financial responsibility for maintaining the building as a place of worship.
If the Diocese of Manchester moves forward with the demolition and sale of the property, it would be acting contrary to Catholic canon law, the organization said in a letter to Bishop Peter Libasci.
The group, which is being organized as a non-profit corporation, said it stands ready to litigate through the Catholic hierarchy any decree that would lead to knocking down the church.
It is relying on a section of the 1983 Code of Canon law that says that if a church cannot be used for worship, a bishop can decree that it will no longer be used as a church. The group contends its offer of support means that the church could still be used for worship and that a decree to the contrary would not stand up on appeal. Potential uses include as a shrine, oratory or chapel.
Such an appeal could last several years, the letter said, and the parish would continue to have to pay for continued upkeep of the building in the meantime.
Diocese spokesman Tom Bebbington has said canon law gives the diocesan bishop the authority to determine the future use of former church buildings.
Libasci is in Baltimore this week at the 2019 Spring General Assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The diocese filed for a demolition permit Tuesday. Libasci has said that as part of a consolidation, the church will be demolished prior to the sale of its campus, which also includes the Busiel House and the Holy Trinity School building. He hasn’t disclosed the name of the buyers or the future use of the real estate.
Robert F. Smith, one member of the St. Joseph Catholic Church Preservation Society, said in an interview Thursday that he had a long discussion with one of the buyers on Sunday and came away encouraged the church could be saved.
He didn't give the person's name.
The buyer even said the bishop had discussed the possibility of a purchase in which the church would remain standing, Smith said.
“I was encouraged that the bishop was gaining his senses and not going to tear down a beautiful holy place,” Smith said.
Two days after this conversation, the diocese filed for the demolition permit.
“That’s what prompted our action to try to get the bishop to be reasonable with the building,” Smith said. “If not, we will be forced to fight the case with the Vatican, which will tie the property up for who knows how long.
“We are not going to stand by idly and let this thing happen. We have excellent Canon lawyer advice and we will pursue this to the Vatican if necessary. Hopefully this will not be necessary. Hopefully we’ll be able to amicably settle this in the best way for the bishop and the parish and city of Laconia.”
The filing of the demolition permit application gives the diocese the flexibility to operate under existing municipal rules, which allows the city to delay but not deny demolitions. The city, acting under public pressure, had been rushing to adopt a new regulatory scheme that would allow it to deny demolition requests.
Smith said the buyer didn’t have a firm plan for the property, was a friend of the bishop and was doing this to help out the bishop.
At one point, the buyers were thinking of turning the Catholic school building into condominiums, Smith said.
As a religious institution, the church is not on the property tax rolls, but an overall appraisal lists its value at $2.8 million.
Smith, along with Paul Normandin, established the Holy Trinity Endowment Trust. Other people who signed the letter to the bishop were Linda Normandin, Paul J. Gaudet, Donna Gaudet Hosmer, Andrew Hosmer, Karen Sullivan, Sandra McGonagle and Jane Wood.