LACONIA — Sometime in August, if all goes according to plans of the Diocese of Manchester, a wrecking ball will start knocking down 90-year-old St. Joseph Church and there doesn’t appear to be much the city can do to stop it.
That was the opinion rendered at a City Council committee meeting Tuesday, although a group of people who are enamored of the structure and intent on saving it vowed to fight on.
The diocese applied for a demolition permit Tuesday. According to City Manager Scott Myers, the application means the property is grandfathered in under present procedures, which allow the city to delay but not deny an owner’s demolition request.
The application renders moot — as far as this property is concerned — city efforts to quickly set up a historic district and a commission that could deny demolition requests.
All-Ways Wrecking of Bristol is listed as the contractor for the demolition. A permit check for $200 was included in the application.
The scope of work was described as — “Demolish church edifice at 30 Church St. and remove debris to a state approved disposal site. Concrete to be broken up, crushed to 3 in. minus and used to grade the cellar hole for future use.”
The form notes that the building contains asbestos and lists an approximate start date of August and a completion date of October.
Ron Olszak, of All-Ways Wrecking in Bristol, did not immediately return a call for comment. Diocese spokesman Tom Bebbington did not have a comment.
At the committee meeting, City Councilor Andrew Hosmer, who is a member of the church, said he was outraged by the diocese’s demolition plans and its lack of communication with the city. Bishop Peter Libasci has said the diocese is selling the church campus as part of a consolidation, but hasn’t revealed the name of the buyer or what is to be built there.
Hosmer said he had been hopeful that the diocese might be willing to reconsider.
“Unfortunately, the diocese doesn’t appreciate the traumatic, irreparable pain, harm and community trauma,” Hosmer said.
He said he’s been feeling “waves of despair.”
“This has left me feeling incredibly angry at the arrogance of the diocese and lack of understanding of the people in the community,” Hosmer said. “I hope and pray the wrecking ball doesn’t start swinging on that church.”
Tara Shore, a member of the group trying to save the church, said it will continue to push for the creation of a historic district, reasoning this could protect the train station, the library and two other buildings on the church campus — a school building and the Busiel House.
The Busiel House, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is a mansion built in 1865 for the owner of a local textile mill and is now used as a rectory.
“We have some concern,” Shore said. “This demolition permit came through the diocese, but that doesn’t mean that a demolition permit for the two other buildings won’t come from the buyer.
“We have no idea if they plan to demolish the rest of the property. Nobody knows the plans.”
Those trying to save the church say it is an integral part of the city’s cultural, historic, architectural and religious legacy.
“It’s a beautiful property,” Shore said. “You could use all the buildings in an appropriate manner.
“One person mentioned it could be used for a non-denominational prayer space, it could host functions like weddings. It could be a musical space, it could be used to house the historical society.”
Jane Whitehead, chairwoman of the Heritage Commission, said her panel will consider the demolition permit. That process could take more than two months, but the commission is not empowered to prohibit the demolition.
She said some people hope the property could be used for a purpose that would help the local economy. The best-case scenario would be if this could happen while also preserving the church, Whitehead said.
“Nothing that goes in there, no matter how it adds to the economy of the city, will replace the magnificence of that structure,” she said.
For his part, Bishop Libasci issued a statement last month acknowledging that many people have strong spiritual and emotional ties to the church.
“Significant life events – weddings, funerals, baptisms, confirmations and first communions – have been celebrated within its walls, as well as countless moments of private prayer. 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.
"Fr. (Marc) Drouin has capably led the parish in discerning the way forward, given the changing nature of the community and present financial realities. With parish activities now being consolidated onto the Sacred Heart campus and Saint Joseph soon to be vacated, any future use of the building must be in keeping with its sacred character. Over the course of almost two years, and despite interest from several parties, it has become apparent that no buyer is able to guarantee an acceptable future use for the church building.
"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 of the property. This step, while painful, is absolutely necessary for the future of Saint Andre Bessette Parish."