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Suncook Senior Center, asked to leave church hall, searching for new home

Moe Doyon (center) deals a game of Klunk at the Suncook Senior Center yesterday afternoon. (CASEY McDERMOTT / Monitor staff)

Moe Doyon (center) deals a game of Klunk at the Suncook Senior Center yesterday afternoon. (CASEY McDERMOTT / Monitor staff)

Aurea Laliberte started going to the Suncook Senior Center – in the basement of St. John the Baptist Parish – because she figured it was a good way to get out of the house after she retired. That was almost three decades ago.

“I’m the old pro here,” the 94-year-old said yesterday, surrounded by friends at a table in the corner of that same parish hall basement in Suncook.

Starting next month, Laliberte and the rest of the seniors who rely on the center – for an affordable lunch, card games, quilting meet-ups, checkups from the Visiting Nurse Association and, not least of all, for a chance to connect with other friends their age – will have to go elsewhere. Right now, no one’s sure where that will be.

On Aug. 8, officials at the Community Action Program Belknap-Merrimack Counties were told they’d have to leave the Suncook headquarters they’ve used for at least 35 years. The church needs the space to accommodate its religious education programs, the Rev. Adrien Longchamps said, and it can no longer afford to rent the space out to the senior center. Initially, Longchamps asked the senior center to vacate by Sept. 8 – a 30-day window from when they were given notice – but later agreed to push that date back a week.

The change will not affect anyone receiving Meals on Wheels delivery through the Suncook center, said Community Action Program elder services Director Pam Jolivette. But it has sent Jolivette and other program officials scrambling to find somewhere to go in September and beyond.

So far, the program has reached out to Allenstown and surrounding communities for help searching for a new home, even a temporary one. At this point, Jolivette said, all options are on the table.

Jovilette and Leslie Vogt, the manager of the Suncook Senior Center, are hopeful that they’ll be able to keep giving them a place to connect with each other.

“People could exercise at home, people can eat a meal at home,” Vogt said. “That’s the reason people come to senior centers – to be with friends, to make new friends, to socialize and to share life’s experiences.”

Decision questioned

Evicting the senior center was a difficult decision, Longchamps said, and he knows it’s not a popular one – but it has been in the works for months, he said, even before he arrived as the new head of the church in April.

Since then, Longchamps said he has consulted with other leaders in the local diocese and estimates that he talked to about six other “people who have the interest of the parish at heart” to decide whether he would stick with the plan to ask the senior center to leave. Those conversations confirmed to Longchamps that parting ways with the senior center was the right choice for the church, he said.

“My hands were, in a sense, tied,” Longchamps said.

The senior center pays $550 a month, officials on both sides said, but Longchamps said the cost of the building is much more, and the senior center’s use pushes up the cost of utilities. He said he did not consider asking the senior center to pay more or to negotiate a compromise that would have allowed them to stay in the basement.

It’s unclear how many of the seniors at the center might be members of St. John the Baptist Parish, and Longchamps also said he did not seek out this information.

“It doesn’t make any sense for me to have that,” he said. “It’s not a question of how many parishioners are there, it’s a question of, ‘Can we afford it or can’t we?’ ”

Longchamps said he also did not speak with anyone at the senior center before finalizing the decision, nor has he addressed the seniors directly since the decision was announced. He informed program officials through a letter, and they relayed the news from there.

Since then, some seniors at the center said they are troubled by the way the church has handled the timing and the delivery of the decision.

“It’s a big slap on the face, the short notice,” Nicole Berlanger said.

Berlanger, Mary Hathaway, Peggy Chaney and Gert White all said they wished the church leaders had been more open with its neighbors throughout the process. The church’s main office is located next door to the parish hall where the senior center is located, and the group said they would have simply liked someone to stop by to explain the decision in person.

“I don’t think it was handled very well, as far as I’m concerned,” Hathaway said, later adding that she briefly considered circulating a petition but decided that it probably wouldn’t change the church leaders’ minds.

Jovilette said the center’s officials had received no indication that this decision was in the works before this month, but she doesn’t take issue with the church’s approach.

“This did come as a surprise, but we are moving forward,” Jovilette said.

Hoping friends stay

The Suncook branch primarily serves seniors in Allenstown, Epsom, Hooksett and Pembroke, but people from the surrounding area also stop in.

Vogt said the center’s records show that in June, 99 people stopped in to the senior center for a meal. Its overall attendance fluctuates, she said, and is likely much higher.

Mid-morning yesterday, the basement hall was full for bingo – held every Monday and Thursday. Some of the players stuck around for lunch, served to seniors four days a week for a suggested $2 donation.

Later on, at least a dozen people lingered behind to play cards and catch up with friends.

“For me, it’s like a big family,” said Belanger, who said that kind of camaraderie is indispensable when her daughters live out of state and most of her other relatives live in France.

That kind of companionship is also critical for Hathaway and White, who said they started coming to the center after their husbands’ deaths and were overwhelmed by the welcome they received by the community there.

“To me, that’s the most important thing is the friendships that we have started and hope to be able to continue,” White said.

Wherever they end up, the seniors said they hope it’s handicapped accessible and large enough to accommodate the crowds who come for all of the activities. It would also be nice to find somewhere with a spacious parking lot, like the one in use now, they said.

Not least of all, some of the seniors said, they hope the new location’s not too far out of the way. Belanger and others said they worried that these changes could make it difficult for loyal members to continue frequenting the center.

I hope “that everyone comes back to us,” Belanger said. “A lot of people might not. It all depends on where we’re going to be.”

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)

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