LACONIA — If the St. Joseph Church is indeed torn down this summer, as is the plan announced by the St. André Bessette Parish on Sunday, it will be done over the cries of historic preservationists. The city’s Heritage Commission discussed the planned demolition on Wednesday night, chair Jane Whitehead said, and she expects to have support from other regional and even statewide preservation organizations.
The demolition, as directed by Manchester Diocese Bishop Peter Libasci, will precede the sale of a parish-owned parcel that contains the Busiel Mansion, the Holy Trinity School building and the circa-1929 church.
Whitehead said she heard from many this week who said they were saddened to hear of the planned demolition.
“Most are Catholic, but even people who aren’t Catholic feel that this is part of the cultural fabric of the city,” Whitehead. She added that people used terms such as “devastated” to describe their emotions.
“It’s, first of all, a beautiful building. It’s part of the old Laconia that a lot of people remember from their childhood as being a thriving, beautiful downtown,” Whitehead said.
The building has fans from beyond Laconia, it turns out. One of the people who contacted Whitehead after media reports of its pending demise was Andrew Cushing, field service representative for the NH Preservation Alliance.
“This is not just an issue for downtown Laconia, it’s an important building for the state,” said Cushing. Churches, especially those in downtown locations, tend to be built of high-quality materials, he said. They become staples of community life, he said, and they often tell a story about that community’s history.
St. Joseph Church is known as the “Irish Church” and, according to historian and author Warren Huse, the current structure is the third in Laconia to bear its name. The first St. Joseph Church was completed in 1867, at the corner of Lyford and Messer streets. The wooden structure was struck by lightning and burned a decade later. Parishioners rebuilt it, then began construction in 1929 on the stone church at its present location on Church Street.
Shortly after the first St. Joseph was built, the ethnic makeup of the city began to shift as French-Canadians began moving to Laconia to work in mills and factories. In 1891, French-speaking Catholics in Laconia received permission from the bishop to establish their own church, and, in 1894, Sacred Heart Church opened.
St. Joseph, Cushing said, stands as a testament to the Irish immigrants who worked in the city’s early industries prior to the wave of French-Canadian immigration.
“When we start losing those monuments, it becomes a bigger issue,” he said. Cushing referred to other examples where local Catholic churches had been successfully converted into condominiums or art studios. “We would advocate that we pump the brakes and explore alternative solutions, because demolition is forever.”
Whitehead noted that the current church was built in 1929, when the Great Depression was cresting, and yet parishioners were able to raise enough money to erect a structure that is still admired 90 years later. She said it offends her that the current church leadership could order its destruction.
“This is a slap in the face of those people who gave so much for their devotion. And then it’s the Irish, too; it’s prioritizing the French over the Irish, it has ethnic echoes to it,” Whitehead said, “It has deeper roots than simply the economic exigencies of the Catholic church.”
Whitehead said she hoped the church can yet be spared. “It’s the outpouring of emotion toward this building that I hope will save it.”