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Judge allows purchase of St. Francis Xavier to continue

NASHUA – The Diocese of Manchester has cleared another legal hurdle in its move to sell the century-old St. Francis Xavier Church to the Armenian Orthodox Church.

A judge dismissed a civil suit filed by former parishioners and architectural preservationists, ending another battle over the French Hill church’s closure. A probate court has already upheld the potential $1 million sale, and the transaction apparently needs only the final approval of the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

“The faithful parishioners of St. Francis Xavier are disappointed the diocese has defaulted in its commitment to French Hill,” said attorney Randall Wilbert, who represents the protesting group of parishioners and preservationists. Wilbert said he does not know if the group intends to file an appeal.

Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge William Groff handed down the ruling last Friday, and it was publicly released Wednesday.

A linchpin of the case was a 119-year-old deed granted by The Jackson Co., a textile manufacturer that donated the hilltop land on which the building sits. A deed stipulation is the land must always hold a place of religious observance.

In November, a Hillsborough County Probate Court judge ruled that the proposed sale follows the precepts of the deed. Groff recognized that ruling.He did grant the former parishioners legal standing on any deed challenge because they are beneficiaries of the statutory trust in which the presiding Catholic bishop oversees St. Francis Xavier property.

But Groff found no evidence that Bishop John McCormack, as the trustee, would use sale proceeds for any other purpose than the benefit of these former parishioners. Any contrary claim is “hypothetical” and the suit failed to establish “a present controversy, definite and concrete,” Groff wrote in his dismissal.

St. Francis Xavier merged with St. Louis de Gonzague Church in 2003, so the proceeds should be earmarked for the West Hollis Street parish. The diocese, through attorney Ovide Lamontagne, repeated Wednesday that the merged church would receive any sale profits.

“Today’s decision provides stability and clarity to a very painful process for the people in Nashua,” Lamontagne said. “But I know for Bishop McCormack, as difficult as it is to take these actions in these communities and parishes, he’s responsible to answering to the task force and (in) his responsibility as a trustee.”

The task force referred to by Lamontagne oversaw the closing of three downtown Catholic churches. A group of parishioners and clergy recommended closing St. Francis Xavier, St. Casimir and St. Stanislaus churches, and McCormack approved the decision.

But many parishioners of those now-defunct churches complained the task force was an empty vehicle, and that church hierarchy had predetermined the parishes for closure. St. Francis Xavier parishioners protested the loudest, and delayed the shutting of their parish. But many have since moved on, either to St. Louis de Gonzague or other churches.

The small group of former parishioners who have kept fighting had pinned great hopes on the civil suit. They want to block the sale, and sought the court’s opinion on the closure and merger process.

Groff, though, stayed clear of the work of the diocese and task force. He cited the diocese’s First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. The parishioners had claimed their rights were suppressed in the process, but Groff found “the Court would clearly be required to become entangled in church doctrine or ecclesiastical law, over which the secular laws has no authority,” the dismissal said.

The Diocese of Manchester has a $1 million purchase-and-sale agreement with local real estate developer Vatche Manoukian, who has said he intends to donate the property to the Armenian Orthodox Church. Manoukian, through his attorney, Gerald Prunier, has said he identified a potential parishioner base for the church.

An approval from Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, is imminent, Lamontagne said.

Wilbert said his clients are not disappointed in the court – particularly Groff’s stance on constitutional issues – but rather are dissatisfied with the diocese for having them seek no other avenue than legal recourse.

“They’ve been nothing but faithful, but now they have to wear their emotions on their sleeve,” Wilbert said.

Francis Bonner, a former parishioner, said, “Naturally, we’re all disappointed.” He withheld further comment until he could read Groff’s dismissal.

Georgi Hippauf was not a St. Francis Xavier parishioner but is an ardent supporter of preserving the building as a religious institution. Hippauf does not object to the Armenian Orthodox Church claiming the old parish as a home, but she wonders if it will have enough support to thrive.

“We have not abandoned our game plan,” she said. “We have opportunities to make it right, to at least ensure it’s not used for anything but religious purposes. After all this time, though, fighting it . . . it’s devastating. It seems likes the bad guys are winning against the good people, ordinary people.”

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