LACONIA — The announcement by the Diocese of Manchester of the called-off sale of St. Joseph’s Church is being welcomed as good news, but not a guarantee that the building won’t be razed.
Mayor Ed Engler announced “glorious news” Monday night. He said the diocese had issued a news release stating that Saint Andre Bessette Parish, the diocese and the potential buyers had “mutually agreed” to terminate the purchase-and-sale agreement.
The statement follows two months of public outcry critical of the diocese’s insistence that the 1929 stone church must be demolished.
Opposition was voiced by Catholics, non-Catholics, and Laconia residents, as well as those living in other states with connections to the Lakes Region.
“It’s a very positive turn of events,” City Manager Scott Myers said Monday night.
Engler said the statement from the diocese suggests that the 2-1/2 acres at 30 Church St., which contain the church as well as the Busiel mansion (used as the rectory) and the building that formerly housed Holy Trinity Catholic School, could be subdivided into three parcels.
Representatives of the diocesan offices, the parish and city officials will be meeting to discuss such a subdivision, which would allow for each of the parcels to be sold separately.
City Councilor David Bownes said he was “delighted to hear the imminent demolition of St. Joseph’s Church is off,” but expressed concern that the demolition permit application had not been withdrawn and remains pending.
Engler said it was his understanding that the diocese or its real estate representative has asked that the Heritage Commission delay acting on the permit.
On Tuesday, Jane Whitehead, who chairs the commission, said, “We are very happy that this particular sale agreement is terminated.”
The Heritage Commission meets Wednesday at 5 p.m. at City Hall. Unless the diocese withdraws its application, Whitehead said, she believes that under the strict deadlines of the ordinance, the commission will need to act on it.
While the commission could vote to deny the permit, the ordinance lacks teeth and allows for appeal, she said.
“It’s important that the (demolition permit) application be off the table,” Whitehead said.
Whitehead is among those who don’t oppose the sale of the church and sees that the merger of the two neighboring parishes is a financial necessity.
“It’s a good victory but a small one. This is a marathon,” said Linda Normandin, who helped form The Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church Preservation Society in response to the diocese’s plan to demolish the church.
“This is a huge positive development and we hope the diocese will come to the table and allow us to take over the financial responsibility of St. Joseph’s Church and relieve the parish of that burden,” she said.
While the group has previously said it hopes to reach a timely, amicable and mutually beneficial agreement, its members were prepared to appeal to Pope Francis the Most Rev. Bishop Peter Libasci’s decision to tear down the church.
On July 4, the group’s “Petition for Hierarchical Recourse,” left Washington, D.C., in a diplomatic pouch en route to the Vatican, Normandin said.
“We’re staying very focused. It would have been a more positive gesture had the diocese withdrawn the permit and we could clearly see that they want to save the church.”
Meanwhile, a push continues for the city to adopt a Historic District Commission and define the boundaries of an overlay district to protect other architecturally or culturally important properties.