Editorial: Directing the fate of old churches

Published: 7/14/2019 6:30:05 AM

Concord’s First Congregational Church should be preserved and repurposed. So should St. Joseph’s Church in Laconia. The buildings are irreplaceable architectural landmarks. They could not be reproduced affordably even if craftsmen could be found with the skills to do so. They give their communities a sense of place that the modern steel-framed boxes being built today cannot. And they are vaults of memory filled with the joys and sorrows of hundreds if not thousands of people.

It’s estimated that, nationally, 6,000 to 10,000 churches, most of them those of old, mainline denominations, close each year. Religion, at least for now, no longer holds the place in society it once did. Congregations have grayed. Membership, attendance and donations have fallen. That’s especially true on the East and West coasts, the least churched regions of America.

First Congregational Church, when it leaves its home in a year or two, will become the third Concord church to close recently. Sacred Heart, the sandstone colossus on Pleasant Street, was converted to condominiums in 2016. St. Peter’s was leveled last spring to make way for a cluster of homes and condominiums.

Church closings, sad as they are, come as no surprise. New Hampshire, according to Gallup surveys, has overtaken Vermont as the nation’s least religious state. It now has the smallest percentage of people in the country who attend church services regularly or frequently. We’ll leave it to others to speculate about why that is.

Laconia’s St. Joseph’s Church had a date with a wrecking ball when, thanks to an outpouring of support to keep it standing, the Diocese of Manchester relented in its decision to sell the church and surrounding properties to a developer who planned to tear them down. Though the church has been deconsecrated, Bishop Peter Libasci has said that the building will be spared only if it can be put to a new use acceptable to the diocese. For the community’s sake we hope such a use can be found or, failing that, that Libasci will relent.

First Congregational Church, at 289, is the oldest continuous congregation in Concord. The brick and granite church on North Main, completed in 1937, according to city records, is the congregation’s fifth home. We’re confident that it will find another, but what to do with the church? The one-acre property is more valuable with the building than without it.

The church is attractive, well-maintained and, as with Sacred Heart, suitable for conversion to residences. Its location is an advantage and a disadvantage. It is within walking distance of downtown at a time when many people want to live downtown. But the view from the church is less than ideal, and Washington Street, which flanks the church on its long, southern side, is a narrow, often clogged artery used to funnel vehicles toward Interstate 393.

Nationally, churches have become residences, used to house all manner of community services, and converted to museums, performing arts venues, hotels, brew pubs, wineries and entertainment centers. Churches in San Francisco, New Orleans and elsewhere have been preserved and converted, typically with city, state and federal support, into affordable housing. That, too, could be the future of First Congregational Church, one that might combine with the congregation’s desire to continue its mission to serve the community and its poor by providing sanctuary.

That is, in our view, its best future.

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