LACONIA — A lawyer who is advising a group of people seeking to save Saint Joseph Church said that canonical law will prohibit the demolition of the Church Street structure until the appeals process resolves, a process which could take several years.
That is, unless the St. Joseph’s Catholic Church Preservation Society can convince Bishop Peter Libasci, of the Diocese of Manchester, to revise the proposed real estate deal so that the preservationists can assume ownership of the church building as a Catholic chapel, complete with an endowment to ensure its ongoing maintenance.
A diocesan representative, however, asserted that the Bishop is operating within canonical laws and procedures and disputed arguments to the contrary.
“My goal here is not to foment conflict, my only goal is to ensure that those in Laconia that wish to see the church remain, that their rights are respected,” said Brody Hale. Hale is a Boston College Law School-trained attorney who is volunteering his expertise to help the Preservation Society in its goal to save the circa-1929 church from demolition.
Local Catholics have known for years that their activities would be consolidated onto one campus, and for the past two years they’ve known that the Sacred Heart campus, and not Saint Joseph, was the choice of a parish committee for the permanent home of Saint Andre Bessette Parish. However, when that announcement was made in January, 2017, parishioners were told that the Saint Joseph property would be closed as a church, then advertised for sale for six months, and only after that period of time would the church be demolished.
That’s why it came as a shock to some when Rev. Marc Drouin told the congregation on May 5 that, despite the fact that the diocese had yet to close or officially list the property on the real estate market, a purchase-and-sales agreement had been made with an undisclosed buyer, and that Saint Joseph Church would be demolished sometime this summer.
Hale said that if such an action occurs this year, it would be a “massive violation of canon law.”
Hale, though not a canonical lawyer, has proven his expertise through 15 successful efforts over the past seven years to save Catholic church structures. He is the founder of The Catholic Church Preservation Society, and spoke about church closures last fall during a conference held at Gregorian University in Rome.
The diocese has asserted the right of the Bishop to determine the fate of a closed church. Hale said the Preservation Society’s best argument is not to challenge that authority, rather, to question whether Libasci has followed proper procedures to close the church.
Hale referenced a 2013 canonical document, “Procedural Guidelines for the Modification of Parishes, the Closure or Relegation of Churches to Profane but not Sordid Use, and the Alienation of the Same,” which prescribes the procedure for closing a Catholic church.
The term "profane," as used by church officials, describes a church building being used for common, everyday purposes.
Under the section, “Closure of Churches/Relegation of Churches to Profane but Not Sordid Use,” it reads, “There is a clear disposition in both law and tradition that a sacred edifice which has been given over perpetually for divine worship should retain that sacred character if at all possible, and only a grave reason to the contrary is sufficient to relegating a church to profane but not sordid use.”
There has been no decree of closure issued by the diocese for Saint Joseph, Hale noted, and there hasn’t even been a date announced for the final mass at the church. Yet, before the property was even listed for sale, the bishop announced a plan to demolish it, and the bishop has declined to negotiate with parties who are offering to preserve it.
“It’s been highly abnormal, from day one, in my opinion,” Hale said. “You have a proposed demolition before the church has even been earmarked for a last mass, let alone officially closed. You have a secret purchaser without an announced purchase price… You have a lot of carts before the horse here.”
The Preservation Society has announced its intention to appeal the bishop’s decision and, said Hale, that would mean that the Saint Andre Bessette Parish would be obliged to maintain the status quo while that appeals process takes its course.
In a statement published on May 17, Libasci said that there have been many instances of former Catholic churches being used by subsequent purchasers for “unacceptable purposes,” which is why the razing of the property, “while painful, is absolutely necessary for the future of Saint Andre Bessette Parish.”
Hale said that argument won’t hold up in Rome.
“You now have a group that has made it clear that it is prepared to purchase the church, thereby alleviating the bishop’s concerns,” he said.
It’s his hope, as well as that of the Preservation Society, that Libasci will reconsider his decision to demolish the church before it sells to the mystery buyer.
“If he doesn’t, this thing is going to get litigated over the next several years in Rome,” Hale said, adding that whoever loses the initial appeal could take the case to the Vatican’s Supreme Court.
“During the pendency of the case, there will not be any possibility for the demolition of the church, that would be a massive violation of canon law
“Whether the bishop wants to acknowledge it or not, his hands are already tied if he wants to tear it down. I hope that is something that is understood by the diocese before it gets even more contentious,” Hale said.
Very Rev. Georges de Laire, judicial vicar and vicar for canonical affairs for the diocese, said Hale’s interpretation of canonical law is inaccurate.
“Mr. Hale does not have all the facts of what has transpired with the process that leads us to where we are today,” de Laire said.
Parishioners might have been taken by surprise by the May 5 announcement because they remember when Our Lady of the Lake, in Lakeport, was sold in 2011. Then, the parish held a final mass and deconsecration, the property was listed with a real estate agent, and was ultimately sold to another Christian church.
“That was an error that is corrected in this case,” de Laire said. He said that the church will remain open and operational until the transfer of property is all but realized: “Until it is known that the contract, the purchase and sale, is going to be finalized, the church is not to be closed and relegated to profane but not sordid use. And therefore no final mass can take place. The relegation and the mass of closure take place when the date of the closure, the sale, is near. The reason for this is a decree of relegation to profane but not sordid use is not issued without actual purpose,” de Laire said.
“In this instance, should matters proceed as they are planned at this point, the relegation would take place soon before the contract with the demolition company takes effect,” de Laire said.
Hale’s understanding of canonical law, de Laire said, “is not in accord with jurisprudence process and practice,” as it pertains to the process for closing a church. However, he agreed with the assertion that efforts should be made to preserve a church as a divine space.
Those efforts took place over the prior two years, de Laire said, and although the property was never listed with a real estate agent, it was advertised on the diocese’s website.
“The parish has known for a couple of years that the church would be put for sale and should no one come forth to purchase, that the possibility of razing the church would be an element of consideration,” de Laire said.
He also disputed the promise of the Preservation Society that they could ensure that Saint Joseph Church would be forever operated as a Catholic chapel.
“The bishop will always have absolute say as to what places of worship are used for in his diocese. Even if a building is owned by an entity that is not recognized by the church, for Catholic worship to take place in that building, the owner must seek permission from the diocese… They cannot ensure it, it is not in their hands to ensure it. The bishop has absolute say in what buildings are used for Catholic worship.”
de Laire confirmed that the Preservation Society had “initiated communication” with the diocese, however, the diocese has not responded.
“The diocese continues to be in process with what is happening with Saint Joseph campus in Laconia, fully aware of the hardship that has become increasingly manifest over the past month, month and a half now,” de Laire said.