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Selling of Catholic church properties is a sign of the times

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 06. 2014 5:22PM

MANCHESTER — Restructuring Roman Catholic parishes throughout New Hampshire has left the Diocese of Manchester with properties to sell.

The latest to hit the market are Sacred Heart and St. Peter’s in Concord, where Christ the King Parish is consolidating three facilities into one.

Consolidation is a sign of the times, which have changed considerably since some of the churches now on the market first welcomed worshippers a century or more ago.

“There are changes in society. We’re not exempt from those,” said Pat McGee, secretary of development and communication for the Diocese of Manchester. “The church has to adapt to the world in which we live today.”

Although proceeds from the sales go to back to the parishes where the properties were located, change itself has been a tough sale with parishioners reluctant to leave the sites that hold cherished memories of baptisms, first communions and weddings for generations of families.

“I still celebrate mass in that church. I don’t know when I’m going to have to face that,” said longtime parishioner Elaine Planchet of Concord. “I hold out hope that it’s not over.”

While hopeful, Planchet is also realistic that the church her husband’s grandfather and great-grandfather helped found is not in the future plans of Christ the King now that Sacred Heart and St. Peter churches are officially on the market.

Parish leaders have emphasized a practical approach, recognizing the Granite State is far removed from the days of thriving mills and a population base that lived within city limits.

Transportation options were few, and most people walked to wherever they were going, so a church built just a few blocks from another was common. Members of ethnic communities preferred to worship together, leading to a variety of congregations.

Sacred Heart was founded by members of Concord’s French-Canadian community in 1892. The current building at 54 Pleasant St. has been a grand presence of stone and stained glass overlooking downtown since its dedicated in 1934.

“The beauty of the building is something that folks are struck by immediately,” Planchet said. “When you think of the beau cathedrals in euro, if you want to put that in a smaller scale in Concord, New Hampshire, it’s at Sacred Heart Church.”

For now, Sacred Heart and St. Peter still offer mass as churches within the same parish. The three churches have become one in Christ the King Parish, consolidated on the St. John the Evangelist campus, with the other properties to be deconsecrated as churches and put up for sale.

“I still say ‘if.’ It’s going to be difficult but it’s going to be a sacrifice that I may have to offer and I would do that for my faith,” Planchet said. “My faith is stronger than the building.”

The merger has been in the works for years and remains in progress after Bishop Peter Libasci’s decision last summer that the original plan was too expensive. The former plan included purchasing a former school building from the Concord School District and moving St. John’s Regional School to that property, clearing up office space for the parish.

While the future of the school is back within the hands of the parish planning committee, the consolidation plans for the individual properties did not change.

“There’s no plan that will be 100 percent perfect that everybody will be happy with,” said the Rev. Rich Roberge, pastor of Christ the King.

The diocese currently has 11 properties listed as a result of parish consolidation, including six churches. In addition to St. Peter’s and Sacred Heart in Concord, St. Charles Borromeo in Dover, St. Helena Mission Church at Weirs Beach, Sacred Heart Church in Wilton and St. Patrick Church in Bennington are for sale.

“Each instance was unique because of the different parishes involved,” McGee said. “Change brought about for the reconfiguration of parishes. When that happens and there’s a number of parishes that might be put together, you might end up with excess property.”

St. Helena Mission was a seasonal place of worship that closed last September. In Wilton, the Sacred Heart Church on Maple Street was closed in 2010 as part of the consolidation in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Greenville. Bennington’s St. Patrick Church, founded in 1936, was closed after three parishes merged to form the Divine Mercy Parish in Peterborough.

Some of the other properties include a home in Merrimack left to the church, the former St. Joseph Junior High School on Pine Street in Manchester and some land.

Other factors leading to consolidation include fewer available priests and a population shift, mostly to communities in southern New Hampshire. And of the 12 Catholic churches built in New Hampshire since 2000, 11 are in the southern region, said diocese spokesman Tom Bebbington. North Conway’s Our Lady of the Mountains Church was the only new addition in the North Country.

Once a buyer is found, the transactions go through the diocese, and the money is returned to the local parishes.

“We’re here to assist the parishes,” McGee said. “As you can imagine, selling a church is an unusual event.”

But like most any other real estate transaction, it takes finding the right buyer. That can take some time, especially for a property such as Sacred Heart with an asking price of $2.9 million.

Carol Beauchemin, who was been a member at St. John for 14 years, empathises with parishioners that will have to leave behind the other churches as part of the merger. But she also sees the practicality of consolidation and the savings ahead for the parish when it is no longer paying to maintain all of the different properties.

“We’re a people of faith and a people of hope. We’re going to get through this,” Beauchemin said. “It’s very painful for some, but I think each (church) has a unique gift and together we can become a vibrant parish. There’s so much more that we can do together when we keep our eyes on Christ and what it is that’s most important.”

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