Effort to buy church

NASHUA – A foundation that aims to re-establish the religious and cultural life of St. Francis Xavier Church has started a fund-raising drive to buy the closed building from the Diocese of Manchester.

The St. Francis Xavier Church Foundation has mailed 1,100 fliers asking former parishioners and others in the state to contribute. The group seeks to raise at least $500,000, and then hopes to negotiate with the diocese, which closed the church in March.

Foundation trustees firmly believe the century-old French Hill church deserves an extended future consisting of worship and communal events. They disagree with the sentiment of some in the community that

the building could serve solely as a secular institution – an arts center, theater or some form of business.

“We don’t want to secularize it,” foundation trustee Georgi Hippauf said Saturday. “We want to keep it as a church.”

Hippauf, outlining a dream presumably shared by many involved in this latest effort, can see “all cultures coming together (at a reopened St. Francis Xavier) in the most beautiful, auspicious way.”

That was once the purpose of St. Francis Xavier. French-Canadian immigrant mill workers funded its construction in 1898 by literally saving their nickels and dimes. A century later, it housed a bulging Latino population as well as the ancestors of the founding French-Canadians and other ethnicities.

But despite the passionate protests of numerous parishioners and others, the diocese closed St. Francis Xavier – along with two other inner-city parishes, St. Casimir and St. Stanislaus – citing shrinking coffers and the mounting clergy shortage in the Catholic Church.

John Kent, one of the nonprofit organization’s five trustees, thinks the diocese lacks foresight.

“The church is timeless,” Kent said. “We seek to preserve it so someday when the diocese deems it needs more churches again because of a growing priesthood and economic changes, it will be there.”

No diocesan officials could be reached for comment Saturday; in recent interviews concerning St. Francis Xavier they have said no decision has been made on the building.

Nashua officials said this month the diocese would soon receive a tax bill for the building because it no longer houses religious services. The city will adjust the bill because a pre-school program operates in the basement.

Hippauf admitted the foundation’s “biggest barrier” is not raising $500,000, but changing the mind of Bishop John McCormack, leader of the diocese. But for the time being, the foundation will focus on enlisting as much support as possible, she said.

In its fliers, the foundation stresses it has no ties with a City Hall-appointed task force that is studying potential uses for the towering, Norman basilica-style building.

At a meeting this summer, French Hill residents emphatically told the task force they do not want to see the building used as an arts center. The task force has not made any decisions; its objective is to list recommendations and send them to the diocese.

The task force and the foundation do share the same goal: preserving the building. But the foundation wants to sustain the church as a place of worship, either as a shrine or an oratory.

The foundation has explored having a religious order maintain the church, and it would welcome even one priest who would administer the sacraments, foundation president Randall Wilbert said. If that fails, the building could still host religious services such as the Stations of the Cross, rosary recitations, spiritual music programs or festivals, he said.

“We want to preserve its function as a church, but we would also want it to be used for other community events: choral groups, seminars. But we would still keep it as a church,” said Wilbert.

The diocese estimates the building needs at least $1.5 million in repairs, but trustee Francis Bonner had an engineer examine the structure and he puts the cost of renovation at $150,000, Hippauf said.

Hippauf tapped database lists of former parishioners and those in the local Franco-American community in the mailing of 1,100 fliers, she said. The foundation expects to mail many more, and it has already received donations, including one from U.S. Rep. Charles Bass, she said.

The foundation has $500,000 as a target, but will accept more, Hippauf said. It will make an offer to purchase the building in “the near future,” according to the foundation’s flier. Funds will also help make essential repairs, the flier said.

The glossy five-page mailing – complete with vivid photos of the grand structure – asks people to contribute in various ways: with tier donations of $5-$99; $100-$249; $1,000-$2,499; $2,500-$4,999; and $5,000 or higher.

A letter accompanying the flier states, “Ongoing inquiries have led us to the conclusion that there is only one solution: we must make an offer to buy it. This cannot be done without your help.”

The foundation formed in December 2002, and had its efforts bolstered a month later when the building made the state and national historic registers.

For those who may consider the foundation’s latest efforts tardy or fruitless, Wilbert said the group would maintain hope.

“They haven’t told us ‘no.’ Until that happens, we will go forward and present the diocese our plan,” he said. “People say, ‘Why bother swimming upstream?’ But why not? Why not try? We’ve got good people working on it. If it’s not meant to be, at least we’re trying.”