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Saint Joseph Church seems to be the kind of situation referenced by the Pontifical Council for Culture in a set of guidelines approved in November of last year. Those guidelines urge local parishes to find a new purpose for churches, however, Bishop Peter Libasci has ordered that the church be demolished prior to the sale of the land it occupies. (Adam Drapcho/The Laconia Daily Sun)

LACONIA — Bishop Peter Libasci’s argument that it is “absolutely necessary” for Saint Joseph Church to be demolished this summer runs contrary to guidelines recently approved by a Pontifical council, according to the chair of the Laconia Heritage Commission.

Jane Whitehead, chair of the commission, expressed that view in a letter, which she sent to Libasci and which she also shared with the Daily Sun.

A spokesman for the Diocese of Manchester confirmed that Bishop Libasci received Whitehead’s letter, and said that the guidelines she referenced won’t prohibit the Bishop’s decision to raze the church.

Libasci said he ordered the demolition of Saint Joseph because it would be otherwise impossible to prevent the building from being used for a purpose unbefitting a former church. However, Whitehead said this position is opposed by the “Decommissioning and Ecclesial Reuse of Churches” guidelines that the Pontifical Council for Culture approved during a conference held in Rome on Nov. 29-30, 2018.

Those guidelines refer to widespread trends facing Catholic parishes, which have led to the need for churches to be decommissioned. The guidelines acknowledge historical, artistic and cultural values for these structures, and suggest that parishes work with local communities to find suitable purposes for the buildings.

The guidelines conclude with a section titled “Final recommendations,” the seventh stating: “As far as possible and compatibly with the original intention of the building, it is desirable that when it can no longer be maintained as a religious building as such, an effort be made to ensure a new use, whether religious (for example, entrusting it to other Christian communities), cultural or charitable… What should be preferred are reuses with cultural aims (museums, conference halls, bookshops, libraries, archives, artistic workshops etc.), or social aims (meeting places, charity centers, healthcare clinics, foodbanks for the poor etc.).”

Whitehead, in her letter, implored the Bishop to seek such a suitable alternative.

“As chair of the Laconia Heritage Commission, I am dismayed at the Church’s decision to demolish St. Joseph’s. Its importance – historical cultural, architectural, religious, devotional – transcends the needs of the Catholic diocese and its parishes. It is our Notre Dame, Laconia’s most beautiful building; the outpouring of sadness that has reached my ears is comparable (adjusting for scale, of course) to the internationally-expressed grief for the Paris fire.”

Tom Bebbington, director of communications for the Diocese, said that the Pontifical Council for Culture was created to advise the Holy See on how to better foster relationships with cultures around the world, and does not have legal power over matters involving the material administration of a diocese.

“In short, canon law gives the diocesan Bishop the authority to determine the future use of former church buildings. The deliberations of the Pontifical Council for Culture, while containing much of value, are only suggestions and do not have the force of law within the Church,” Bebbington said.

News of the church’s pending destruction broke on Sunday, May 5, when Father Marc Drouin told parishioners of the plan to sell the Saint Joseph campus, a parcel of land on the corner of Messer and Church streets in the city’s downtown. In addition to the church, the property also includes a historic mansion, currently used as a rectory, and the Holy Trinity School building.

The sale of the property is part of a longer-term effort to consolidate the activities of the Saint Andre Bessette Parish onto a single campus – that of Sacred Heart, at the corner of Gilford and Union avenues.

In an interview on May 6, Drouin explained that the parish doesn’t need, nor can it afford, two campuses. The parish had planned to wait until this summer to market the property, allowing Holy Trinity School to finish its year at its present site before it relocates to the Sacred Heart campus. However, Drouin said, a buyer approached the parish and a sale price was agreed upon.

The identity of the buyer is undisclosed, as the purchasing party wishes to come forward on its own terms, Drouin said. Nor has the parish said what the buyer intends to do with the property.

Libasci approved of the deal, with one condition: that Saint Joseph Church be torn down before the real estate changes hands.

In a statement published in the May 17 Daily Sun, Libasci explained his decision: “There are many examples of former church buildings that, after having been sold by a parish, fall into disrepair or are used for unacceptable purposes. I wish to avoid Saint Joseph Church suffering the same fate, so the proper path is to raze the structure to allow a wider range of possibilities for the reuse the property. This step, while painful, is absolutely necessary for the future of Saint Andre Bessette Parish.”

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