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Remains of Historic Lebanon Church Razed as Congregation Plans to Rebuild

  • Brenda Walker, of Grafton, watches as the bell tower of the First Baptist Church in Lebanon, N.H. is pulled down by an excavator Tuesday, February 21, 2017. The church was destroyed by fire on Dec. 28, 2016. "We feel very sad about the whole situation," said Walker who stopped to watch the demolition. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • First Baptist Church Board of Trustees Chair Dave Rataj, of White River Junction, left, a man who only identified himself as Jim, middle, and church trustee Lenny Bolduc, of Canaan, right, gather to watch contractors demolish the remains of the church in Lebanon, N.H., Tuesday, February 21, 2017. The church was destroyed by fire on Dec. 28, 2016. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Zach Murphy, of NH Demolition, walks the perimeter of the First Baptist Church site as his co-worker Jay Nixon demolishes the building's remains in Lebanon, N.H., Tuesday, February 21, 2017. The majority of the structure was taken down in under two hours, but contractors said it could take up to a month to clear the site of debris. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Lebanon — With a few yanks from an excavator, the entire front wall of the First Baptist Church of Lebanon came down in a single piece on Tuesday morning, falling to the ground with a crash.

The operator running the excavator then turned his attention to the remaining structure, which was largely gutted by a late December fire that police say was deliberately set. Over the course of 90 minutes, construction crews made short work of downing the walls, roof and steeple of the Gothic Revival building, which dated to1870.

“There wasn’t a whole lot left,” said David Rataj, chairman of the church’s board of trustees.

Rataj was among a small group of congregants present to supervise the church’s demolition, which began around 10 a.m. on Tuesday. To him, it wasn’t a sad day, but one that was necessary to move forward.

“It’s been two months (the church) has been gone,” he said. “This is just a cleanup.”

The church was fenced off for safety reasons shortly after a three-alarm fire swept through the building on Dec. 28. Days later, crews removed the church steeple and bell, which fire officials worried posed a safety hazard.

Police later charged Anthony K. Boisvert, 27, with seven felonies, including three counts of arson, in connection to the blaze and the stabbings of two people a few days after the fire. Boisvert is being held on $500,000 cash bail at Grafton County jail.

Crews finished knocking down the building and began hauling away the debris from the lot on School Street, which is also Route 120, according to Eric Johnson, vice president of GC3, a general contracting company that specializes in reconstructing buildings after disasters.

“We have some asbestos to remove in the basement floor, and a fuel tank to get out, and then we’ll start designing a new building,” Johnson said.

“It’s a typical construction project. There’s traffic, there’s lots of hazards,” he said. “(We’re) trying to keep debris out of the street.”

Several neighbors watched as the church was demolished, lining the nearby sidewalk and holding cameras and phones to record the event.

“We’re sad to see it being taken down,” said Frank Mastro, who watched the demolition with his wife, Mary Ann.

“I used to go to the Christmas bazaars there every year,” Mary Ann Mastro said. “They were very active ... it’s just a shame.”

Karen Dennis, who lives in West Lebanon, left Shear Styling across the street in time to see the building come down. She said it reminded her of the 1992 fire that destroyed the nearby United Methodist Church, which has since been rebuilt.

“It pulled that whole congregation together and I hope (the fire) could do the same for this group of people,” Dennis said.

As she watched the building come down, Dennis spotted a stack of hymnals destroyed in the blaze.

“And I was thinking, ‘You know, there’s always hope,’ ” she said.

Dee Ward, who owns Shear Styling, also compared the aftermath of the First Baptist blaze to that of the United Methodist Church.

The day after the 1992 fire, she said, the pastor came over to share a cup of coffee.

“He said, ‘We’re going to make lemonade out of our lemons,’ ” Ward said. “So it’s been pretty devastating, but there’s a lot of good people out there, a lot of good people that are going to make some lemonade.”

City historian Ed Ashey also watched the demolition and took photos for the city website.

Ashey has heard a time capsule was once buried beneath the First Baptist Church building and hopes the demolition will allow church officials the opportunity to search for it.

After the First Baptist Church fire, congregants began meeting in the Masonic Lodge on Green Street.

They’re now renting space in the Lebanon Middle School every Sunday.

“I think (the congregation) is very strong and they’re mindful of the fact that the church isn’t the building. It’s the people,” said Stephen Girwood, a Lebanon attorney who also attends church services.

Church moderator Keith Davio said on Tuesday the church plans to spend the next few weeks brainstorming its vision for ministry in Lebanon.

The church’s building committee then will begin an architectural design process for a future building.

He said the church doesn’t have a set date to complete those phases, however.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.