LACONIA — More than two years ago, the St. André Bessette Parish announced its intention to consolidate its programs to the Sacred Heart campus, and that the St. Joseph Church – along with the neighboring rectory and Holy Trinity School buildings – would be put on the market. Included in that announcement was the possibility that the church could be razed.
Still, parishioners held out hope that the circa-1929 stone building could be saved. That hope was dashed on Sunday, when Father Marc Drouin gave the news that the church would be torn down this summer to make way for a sale of the campus.
The demolition of the church prior to the sale comes at the direction of the diocese and Bishop Peter Libasci, said Drouin.
The parish’s divestment of the property is part of the effort to further consolidate the activities of the local Catholic church. Drouin said that the parish was losing $50,000 to $70,000 each year by trying to support two campuses in the city, and that he expected selling the downtown parcel would help the balance sheet.
“This was part of a long-range plan that we set out several years ago,” Drouin said in an interview. The consolidation was made possible by the acquisition of the former TD Bank building, adjacent to the Sacred Heart campus at the corner of Union and Gilford avenues. The bank building will be repurposed to a day chapel and offices for the parish, while a building that once served as Sacred Heart’s convent is currently being renovated to house the Holy Trinity School. Drouin, who currently resides in the circa-1865 mansion neighboring St. Joseph Church, will move to the rectory at the Sacred Heart campus.
While parishioners are dealing with the news that the downtown’s historic stone church will be reduced to rubble this summer, they also are pondering a mystery. The parish isn’t disclosing the sale price or who is buying the property, citing the purchasing party’s desire to come forward on their own terms. Likewise, no one is saying what the purchaser’s plans are for the property which – neighboring the library and across the street from the post office – occupies a prominent city corner.
However, Drouin assured that the purchasers don’t have any untoward intentions. “It’s nothing abnormal here; they are going to work with the city,” he said. “It’s nothing that would be harmful to the city, it would enhance the city.”
Although plans to sell the property have been discussed since January 2017, when Drouin sent a letter to all members of the parish, he said he didn’t expect the conclusion to come so quickly. His planned timeline was to complete renovations for the new Holy Trinity School space, move the school out of its current building, hold some final services at St. Joseph this summer and then list the property for sale. But before he could follow through with that plan, an offer was put him before.
“We had a buyer that just showed up,” he said. A final service will be held at St. Joseph in June or July.
Drouin said the sacred artifacts from the church will be moved to the day chapel at the Sacred Heart campus. The stained glass windows, made by the Boston firm of Reynolds, Francis and Rohnstock in the early 1930s, will be salvaged and installed at the administrative offices, and the exterior statues will be placed on Sacred Heart grounds.
St. Joseph Church will be the third Laconia Catholic church to close in recent years. Our Lady of the Lakes, in Lakeport, held its final mass in 2010; it is now home to an Evangelical Baptist church. The St. Helena Mission Church, which offered seasonal services in The Weirs, was demolished in 2015.
Drouin said he understands, and shares, the emotional reaction to the thought of the demolition of St. Joseph Church.
“It’s painful, there’s no way around it,” he said. Though Sacred Heart was Drouin’s home church when he was growing up in Laconia, he frequently visited St. Joseph even before he began his seminary education. His first visit was when he was a sophomore in high school and agreed to serve as a back-up singer in a folk group performing there. Later, he attended a funeral for a friend who died in a car accident and would occasionally give confession at St. Joseph.
“There’s memories in my heart here, too,” he said. When St. Joseph goes away, it will change the landscape, he acknowledged. And not just visually, as its bells will no longer ring out over the city.
“It’s the absence of the presence,” Drouin said. “It’s that grief, it’s painful.”
Bob McCarthy was in Mass on Sunday when he heard Drouin make the announcement. “I’m upset about it, but I’m willing to go along with it – this is dollars and cents,” McCarthy said. “We can’t afford two churches and one priest to go along and do everything… I support Father Marc 100 percent, even though it is painful.”
LuAnne Walsh of Laconia also said she was “very sad” to hear the news. She grew up in The Weirs and frequently attended St. Helena’s, and took her first communion at Our Lady of the Lakes. Now she will see the demise of St. Joseph, the church where her parents were married and where her grandmother sang in the choir.
“It’s such a beautiful church, and it’s a landmark for this city," Walsh said. "It’s been there forever. It’s just too bad,” She added that she knew the property was going to be sold, but, “we didn’t know it was going to be torn down, we thought there was going to be a use for the church.”
For Janet Selling, the news was even more difficult for her family to hear, because she said it was “unnecessary.” Selling is the fourth generation of her family to have worshipped in St. Joseph Church – some of her ancestors were part of the effort to build the church, her children were baptized there and her daughter was married there in December. However, Selling now travels to Meredith to worship, partly because of the St. Andre Bessette’s management of the consolidation.
“It’s upsetting to me to see the church being torn down," Selling said. "What’s more upsetting to me is what’s being done to the faithful Catholics. I know of people who have left the church, drive to other parishes to avoid this parish, and it has to do with how this has been handled.”She specifically cited a drive to raise money to perform maintenance on St. Joseph, even though a decision, she said, had already been made to put the church on the market and perhaps even demolish it.
“There are a lot of undercurrents here that make the whole situation wrong,” Selling said. “What has been done to the Catholic community in this area, it’s wrong. It’s offensive to God.”
Tom Bebbington, spokesman for the diocese, objected to Selling’s characterization. He said that a capital campaign was launched in 2014, and that the decision to divest of the property was made in a meeting in December 2016 – and that Drouin sent out his letter to parishioners in early January, explaining that any funds raised from then on would be spent on Sacred Heart’s campus.
“That person’s recollection is faulty,” Bebbington said.
Laconia’s Heritage Commission, which advocates for the protection of the city’s “historic, cultural, aesthetic or community significance” resources, will take a close look at the parish’s plans to demolish, said chair Jane Whitehead.
“I think people love that church. I think there’s going to be some outrage over that. At least, I hope there will be some outrage,” Whitehead said. The parish will have to submit a demolition permit, “And I’m sure we will deny it,” she said, but added that her body doesn’t have the power outright to stop the wrecking ball.
“The only thing I hope we can do is raise public outrage, maybe an outcry will make a difference,” Whitehead said.
Mayor Ed Engler was waiting to learn more before calling for action.
“I’m frankly reserving judgment on it until we learn the details,” Engler said. “I know that church is near and dear to a lot of people, and a lot of people are going to be upset about the ‘Irish Church’ being torn down.” Sacred Heart was built by French-Canadian immigrants; St. Joseph was built by Laconians of Irish heritage who immigrated later.
Engler said he wanted to know what would replace the church. “Does the long-term benefit surpass having the church there? I can’t answer because I don’t know who’s buying that property and what they’re using it for… I think we have to have respect for the diocese and the parish for what they want to do with their own property.”