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Fate of Sacred Heart Church up to voters

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WILTON — For the past year, the town has been weighing the advantages of taking ownership of the Sacred Heart Church and putting the building to use as a community center. Now, the Select Board is turning to voters to make the final decision at Town Meeting in March.

A year and a half ago, the Diocese of Manchester approached the Select Board, offering to gift the Sacred Heart Church on Maple Street to the town, after the church was closed and the parish combined with the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Greenville and St. Patrick Parish in Jaffrey . The Select Board voted to form a committee to look at possible uses for the building.

Alison Meltzer of Wilton, a member of the committee, said in an interview Monday that it became clear quickly that the church would be suitable as a community center, as it already served as a meeting space for several organizations in town, including the local Boy Scout Troop, and houses the Food Pantry. The committee has come to the conclusion that the church could eventually host a lot more programs, some badly needed in Wilton.

Primarily, a community center could provide after-school childcare, which is a need that’s not currently met in town, said Meltzer. Many parents have to seek childcare in Milford, she said. It could also offer programs such as cooking classes and yoga, as well as provide a meeting space for groups or classes, and a space for community dinners and open mic nights.

“The possibilities are limitless,” said Meltzer. The committee is in favor of the town accepting the church for the purpose of making it a community center. “It seems like a no-brainer.”

Members of the Select Board, however, have expressed doubts. During the town’s budget hearing Wednesday, Select Board member Dan Donovan told the assembled residents that there were a couple of things that has the board hesitating to accept the offer.

The town would have to agree to maintain the Catholic Cemetery along with the building. Also, the building would have to be updated with several safety features it was exempt from as a religious building. Primarily, a sprinkler and fire alarm system would have to be installed. The Sanctuary and bathrooms would also have to be made handicapped accessible.

In addition, the town would have to agree not to use the building for a purpose that would go against the doctrine of the Catholic Church. Donovan said he wasn’t sure how strictly the town would have to adhere to that caveat, and that it may make the building more difficult to sell if the community center idea doesn’t pan out.

Meltzer said the committee doesn’t find those objections to be a concern. The committee has been in talks with the fire chief, and will be proposing to make some immediate improvements to the building, as well as a timetable for the rest of the upgrades as they can raise the funds.

Although the Select Board has the authority to accept the church without voter approval, the board decided to look to the voters for guidance. Two articles on the upcoming warrant in March will ask voters to decide the fate of the Sacred Heart Church.

First, voters will decide whether or not to accept the property at all. In a separate article, voters will have the opportunity to decide on an operating budget for the converted church. Currently, the warrant seeks $1 to cover the costs. That amount is planned to be amended at Town Meeting, according to Meltzer. The committee is seeking a total of $95,732 for the first year of operations. In addition to the operating budget, that amount would also fund the installation of a sprinkler system, which Meltzer said is a critical part of bringing the building up to code.

The center run as a nonprofit organization, said Meltzer, and would operate with a combination of funds from programs, donations and likely some amount of money from the town, especially in the first years of operation.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 235 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @AshleySaari.

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