LACONIA — Efforts to save St. Joseph Church from the wrecking ball are possible through the city code and the Catholic diocese, although both avenues appear uncertain at best.
Manchester Diocese Bishop Peter Libasci, in plans announced Sunday, has decided that the circa-1929 church should be demolished prior to the sale of a parcel that also contains the Busiel Mansion and the Holy Trinity School building.
Chapter 119 of the city code discusses the process for obtaining a demolition permit for a building of historic value.
The code notes that the City Master Plan includes a goal to:
"Preserve the historic character of the City. Laconia's architecture and artifacts reflect its cultural history as one of the oldest economic centers in the state. The character of these historic resources adds to the City's vitality and, as such, should be preserved."
Under the code, the city’s Heritage Commission can delay issuing a demolition permit while agreement is sought with the applicant, in this case the church, over an alternative. However, the applicant gets to proceed with the demolition process if it does not agree to an alternative.
Planning Director Dean Trefethen said the commission can seek to raise money to buy and save the church, but said that would likely be very difficult.
He said the church has not disclosed to the city the name of the party interested in buying the property, or the ultimate use for the land.
The parcel is in the downtown riverfront zone, where permitted uses run the gamut from multifamily dwellings to transitional housing, to a shopping center or a hotel.
Trefethen said prospective buyers often do not come forward initially. Developers frequently make deals contingent on city approval of a project, so they are protected if plans aren't approved.
Laconia resident Linda Normandin said her family wants people to know they can appeal the demolition by writing a letter that would be received by Bishop Peter Libasci in advance of a Friday deadline.
The bishop's address is 153 Ash St., Manchester, NH 03104
“Our family supports the parish consolidation, the new campus and the sale of Saint Joseph Church,” she stated in a letter to the editor. “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. We also desire increased transparency and that proper effort be made to sell the property to a buyer that meets the church’s use restrictions by using a commercial realtor.
“For us, this is not about the Irish church vs. the French church. We have deep family history in both churches. If Sacred Heart Church were scheduled to be demolished, we would ask that every effort be made to save that church as well. These beautiful church buildings not only represent the history of the community but enhance the aesthetics and economic viability of our New England city.”
A group of residents opposed to tearing down the church will be accepting letters to the bishop at a collection point at the Antique Center in Downtown Laconia. The letters – which must be brought to the Antique Center by noon on Friday – will then be hand-delivered to the diocese.
Last November, attorney Patrick Wood, chairman of the Downtown Tax Increment Financing Advisory Board, suggested studying the concept of selling City Hall, moving municipal offices to Holy Trinity School and placing City Council chambers in the church.
City leaders had no enthusiasm for the proposal.
Contacted Monday, Wood said he still thinks this would be a good idea. City workers would park at the church, freeing up the city’s current surface parking and allowing the city to avoid the cost of refurbishing the dilapidated municipal parking garage.
“I honestly believe we could save the city millions by doing that,” he said.
“That is my humble view, but I’m not on a crusade. I just thought that would be a benefit to the city.”