Coptic Orthodox Church to buy venerable St. Francis Xavier Church

NASHUA – Catholics built the venerable church on the hill and maintained it for more than a century.

The Armenian Orthodox Church then almost got it as a gift. But now, the Coptic Orthodox Church is about to buy it.

The landmark St. Francis Xavier Church – a grand, Norman basilica-styled building perched atop French Hill – had sat empty for five years. But an Eastern Orthodox church steeped in tradition and with an apparent parishioner demand for a home in Nashua has already started to renew religious life inside the building, despite not owning it quite yet.

“It’s a really nice building. Everyone is excited, especially the young people,” said Sherif Sidhom, treasurer of St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church, the Natick, Mass., church about to buy St. Francis Xavier.

Once the sale is complete, St. Francis Xavier Church will be renamed St. Mary and Archangel Michael Church, Sidhom said. St. Mark clergy have already started holding Saturday services in the building, and eager volunteers are helping clean, he said.

The real-estate transaction would add a third chapter to a history that had only one chapter for more than 100 years.

French-Canadian immigrant millworkers built the structure in 1898 with their saved nickels and dimes. St. Francis Xavier served a populous religious community for decades, functioning as an example of the thriving post-World War II Catholic parish.

But the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester shuttered the church in 2003, citing a dwindling parishioner base, low tithing and the nationwide clergy shortage. A small group of parishioners protested the closure, and sued the diocese when it sold the church to local developer Vatche Manoukian. But the courts upheld the closure and sale.

Manoukian bought the Chandler Street building and property in 2006, and had intended to donate it to his faith, the Armenian Orthodox Church, said his attorney, Andrew Prolman. But the philanthropic transaction fell through, according to Prolman, and Manoukian has since entered a purchase-and-sales agreement with St. Mark.

The deal nears completion, Sidhom and Prolman said. But the Coptic Church already has services there on Saturdays, and volunteers are readying the interior for when it officially becomes St. Mary and Archangel Michael Church, Sidhom said.

The Coptic Orthodox Church doesn’t plan to alter much of the building, Sidhom said. Following tradition of the Mass, a divider will be placed between the altar and pews, but the church will keep the architectural flavor that made it a crown jewel of the city, he said.

Part of the Catholic diocese’s reasoning for closing St. Francis Xavier was that needed renovations to the roof and other structural elements would cost at least $1 million. Low tithing made such work near impossible, the diocese said.

Sidhom said his church can’t rush to make those renovations, but will do so some time after the parish is settled.

St. Mark has identified 130-140 Coptic Orthodox families within a distance of about 20 miles from Nashua, Sidhom said. They drive to Natick for Mass, and can’t wait for a closer spiritual home, he said.

Mark the Apostle originated the Coptic Orthodox Church in mid-1st century Alexandria, Egypt. A Mass is a tradition-steeped celebration, preceded by a lengthy dispensing of incense, and can last as long as three hours, Sidhom said.

The parties won’t disclose the potential sale price. Manoukian bought the church for $1 million, but he and the Armenian Orthodox Church “couldn’t come to a meeting of the minds about how the donation was going to work,” Prolman said.

But the dissolution of the gift “turned out for the best,” he said. “The Coptic group is very enthusiastic and looking forward to having a new home.”

Manoukian has tax liens on the building and property for more than $11,000, according to the city tax collector. Prolman said those debts would be eliminated with the sale.

Randall Wilbert, the attorney who represented the protesting former St. Francis Xavier Church parishioners, said he and his clients are glad to see the building would again be used for religious services. When they heard the Armenian Orthodox donation didn’t materialize, there was concern the property would be used for commercial purposes, he said.

Still, despite moving on to new Catholic churches, the former parishioners wish they could celebrate Mass at St. Francis Xavier, Wilbert said.

They’re “still deeply disappointed the diocese couldn’t realize the spiritual value of a beautiful edifice in the midst of a community that really needs” a Catholic church, Wilbert said. The diocese’s decision to close St. Francis Xavier showed “a lack of imagination.”

“It was the easiest thing to do,” he said. “The parishioners had no clout.”


St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church: