Manchester church warned 95-foot bell tower could collapse

·4 min read

Aug. 31—Facing danger from on high, a Manchester Catholic church has temporarily shut its doors after experts warned that the church's bell tower is in danger of collapse.

The St. Anthony of Padua Church — one of the centerpieces of Manchester's Hallsville neighborhood — has moved offices and Masses to its nearby school building. Meanwhile, the Manchester Public Works Department has closed the sidewalk and a portion of Belmont Street in front of the church.

City officials have told the Diocese of Manchester it must remove the church tower as soon as possible.

"I can't say it's not a danger. We are taking it seriously," said Karl Franck, plans examiner for the city of Manchester, who has been part of discussions about the bell tower. He said the Diocese of Manchester brought the problem to the city's attention on Aug. 16.

No date has been set for the tower to be torn down.

"The emotions are mixed, like anything else. Surprise is the right word," said the church pastor, the Very Rev. Richard Dion, as he darted into the rectory to grab some materials. He cannot stay in the rectory, which is just feet from the tower.

He said the problem should be kept in perspective — it can't compare to Afghanistan or Hurricane Ida.

"By the grace of God we will repair what we can and move on," Dion said.

The bell tower is 95 feet high, topped by a cross that rises an additional 10 feet.

It overlooks the Hallsville area of the city, a working-class neighborhood of single and multifamily homes just south of Elliot Hospital.

St. Anthony is the only church in Manchester where Mass is celebrated in French every week.

The parish's favorite son is a cardinal, Quebec Archbishop Gerald Lacroix, who was born in 1957 and grew up in the neighborhood.

The tower is not a traditional steeple.

Four pillars of butterscotch-colored brick, concrete cornerstones and verdigris highlights compose the vertical elements of the tower.

The pillars support the base of a steep, pointed metal roof topped by a brass-tinted cross. The pillars are not enclosed, so they are exposed year-round to the elements. Franck said no steel was used to construct the tower.

The church building opened in 1954.

"Not all brick is created equal, I guess," Franck said. The tower has never had a bell; a loudspeaker was always used to imitate the sound of bells, Dion said

"It's falling apart, and it's not that old," said Tom Lamy, a parishioner, as he took a morning walk. He won't miss the tower when it's gone. A tower doesn't make a church, he said.

Eddy and Jessica Rosado live directly across the street. Earlier this month, inspectors used massive hoists to examine the tower, Eddy said.

Within days, fencing went up around the church, and barriers were placed on the street and sidewalk. He pointed out crumbling concrete and a vertical crack climbing one of the pillars.

"You think about it, we really don't know which way it's going to go," Eddy Rosado said.

Franck said that forensic specialists hired by the diocese determined the tower would not fall like a tree. But he said anything's possible.

Jessica Rosado grew up in the neighborhood and her parents were married at the church.

"It will be sad to see it go, honestly," she said. "It's been there for so many years."

But she said the church will remain, which she likes because it separates the Hallsville neighborhood and the Wilson Street neighborhood to the west.

Dion said the church closure delayed the start of classes at the Cardinal Lacroix Academy, which is located in the St. Anthony School building. Daily Mass had been suspended but will resume next week at Blessed Sacrament Church on Elm Street, about a mile away.

Meanwhile, Dion is temporarily lodging at Blessed Sacrament rectory.

In an email, diocesan spokeswoman Bevin Kennedy said a forensic study determined that the tower is not salvageable. The diocese closed the church out of an abundance of caution, Kennedy said.

No date has been set for the demolition.

Kennedy said the diocese wants to preserve the cross and the bell tower's roof.

Franck said that once the diocese has hired a demolition crew, the city will facilitate a demolition permit, he said.

mhayward@unionleader.com

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