Former Wilton church may have new life

WILTON – Robin Lunn has plans to repurpose the former Sacred Heart Church on Maple Street into a variety of uses, from continued community space and the food pantry to a cafe and low-cost rentals.

Lunn met informally with the Planning Board on April 6 for a preliminary discussion and was encouraged to continue investigating the idea.

She will need to approach the Zoning Board of Adjustment for several variances, including parking and setbacks. "There are several issues," she said recently. "The (Manchester Catholic) Diocese is willing to address those. I should be ready to go the ZBA in a month or so. They really want to sell it." The diocese owns the two buildings, and has been offering them for sale for several years.

"I have to talk to the fire chief," she added, "but he has been very cooperative." Lunn is an ordained Baptist minister currently living in Milford, who has spent many years working in community outreach. "When I saw the church," she said, "I could see a lot of possibilities." Those possibilities include a culinary training cafe with a "pay what you can day." She said the current monthly senior dinners would continue. "The kitchen is perfect for this," she said. Lunn said she envisions using the food pantry – The Open Cupboard, which serves several local towns – for education and as a place for local artists to sell crafts.

The rectory could be made into two apartments; the lower level handicapped accessible. An elevator of some kind – she envisions a lift such as the town library has – would be needed to use the upper floor, but she sees a way to do that. The magnificent Tracker organ would remain in place.

"I have friends who would love to do concerts," Lunn said. The Planning Board suggested she hire a professional engineer to redesign the building.

The Catholic Diocese of Manchester closed the church in 2010, combining it with Sacred Heart Parish in Greenville and St. Patrick Parish in Jaffrey. The decision was made after the retirement of the Rev. James Walsh, who served Wilton and Greenville. Because of a lack of priests, there was no one to replace him. The Wilton and Greenville parishes were being served by the Rev. Don Jacques, who was retired and living in Milford.

The church was built in 1881 for a Catholic population of about 500, including the Milford section of Pine Valley and Lyndeborough. The church seats about 250. It is of simple design, with a vaulted beamed ceiling and narrow stained glass windows. There is a large community room in the basement, currently used for monthly community senior dinners. In 2011, the church and rectory were offered to the town of Wilton as a gift "as long as they weren’t used for any purpose of which the church would not approve." A committee was formed to look into the proposal. Various uses were suggested, including offices in the rectory.

In 2013, Town Meeting voters authorized selectmen to discuss accepting the church for use as a community center, but declined to vote money for an upgrade of the building or funds for the first year of operation, estimated at $95,000. Voters said they didn’t like the conditions imposed by the diocese.

While approving the concept of a community center, many questioned the location, the lack of parking and the cost of bringing the building up to code.

Eventually, the gift was declined. The Community Center couldn’t raise the required funds, and it has been for sale since. Several offers have been made, Lunn said, "and I was very happy when they accepted my proposal." She has a signed purchase and sale agreement.