A proposal to demolish a historic Catholic Church in Hamilton and replace it with a new building is on hold following a court decision that requires a rehearing before the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustments.
That decision follows a lawsuit filed in January by a group of homeowners who said the board abused its discretion when it approved a conditional use permit and variance last November that would allow the Roman Catholic Bishop of Helena to order the demolition and rebuilding of the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church.
The landowners and city agreed on April 22 to ask Ravalli County District Court Judge Jeffrey Langton to vacate the conditional use permit and variances that were approved and remand the matter back to the Zoning Board of Adjustments for a new public hearing.
Langton filed an order granting the remand and continuing a preliminary injunction in the matter.
The church has until July 23 to resubmit its application under the terms of the agreement.
Sonny LaSalle, a member of the church’s building committee, said the application will be modified to reduce the number of variances.
On Thursday, Lasalle said the details haven’t been finalized, but there is the potential the church may consider taking down the “Old Parish Center” that is currently being used by the MAPS Program to make room for additional parking.
On-street parking was one of the issues raised in the lawsuit by neighbors concerned the creation of a larger church would create parking issues in the neighborhoods surrounding St. Francis. The group’s lawsuit said board had been negligent and violated the law by not subjecting the church’s justification for a need to double its current capacity to reasonable scrutiny.
Last week, four members of the church’s building committee talked with the Ravalli Republic about the process they used in their decision making process.
LaSalle said there were a lot of rumors circulating in the community that members of building committee feel are not based on fact.
“There’s a rumor that we’re trying to build a mega-church,” LaSalle said. “The word mega is like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder. We don’t see this as anywhere near a mega-church which can seat well over 2,000 people.”
The church can currently seat 216 people, which dropped from 260 after the choir loft was found to be unsafe. The new church would seat an estimated 390.
The church was built in 1897 with money from copper king Marcus Daly. The 122-year-old church is one of the oldest wood-framed Catholic structures in the state.
Members of the church’s building committee said the old building is showing its years.
Four years ago, a contractor told them it would cost the church $50,000 to replace the roof. The 122-year-old lumber used as siding will no longer hold paint. The estimated cost to replace that is $200,000.
“And we have issues with the cobble foundation,” LaSalle said. “The 122-year-old cement is crumbling. We’ve seen cracks appear recently as the building settles.”
“The façade of the building is really pretty and really nice, but when you look under the surface, it’s not so nice,” said fellow building committee member Ted Almgren.
Beyond that, the committee said the building’s single bathroom is so small that people in wheelchairs or those who use walkers can’t use it.
“When we started this process, we talked about whether we should put that kind of money into a building that obviously does not meet our needs,” LaSalle said. “It doesn’t present a welcoming environment for some of our parishioners. We have a hymn called 'All are welcome in this place.' We can sing it, but we can’t prove it.”
Initially, committee members said the idea was to remodel the church, but after examining the cost and the scope necessary to meet future needs, they developed a plan to demolish and rebuild the church with a similar design.
The committee has heard from people who wonder why the church needs to grow at a time when regular church attendance is shrinking.
While that’s true, Almgren said the growth occurring in Ravalli County will more than make up for that loss.
A former senior systems engineer and ballistics consultant, Almgren developed a spreadsheet that projected the church will need to be able to seat between 388 to 421 people for Sunday Mass in 2030, assuming that 20% of the county populace who identify as Catholics go to church each week.
“Clearly, we will have to expand some way,” Almgren said.
There are currently 593 families enrolled at the church.
LaSalle said the people who filed the lawsuit have an emotional attachment to the building. When he served on the county planning board, Lasalle said he heard a lot of people talking about property rights.
“Montana is a state known for private property rights and freedom,” he said. “What we have here is a group of neighbors that have decided from a very selfish point of view that they don’t want our church on our property to change … . These people are using those variance requests as a tool to completely stop us from doing what we determined needs to be done on our property. Technically, it is an attempt at a takings of a property right by using the city’s process.”
Missoula attorney Roy Andes represents the neighbor’s group that calls itself the Southside Preservation Committee.
Andes said he came into the case after the group made its initial filing, which was written by one its members. The filing resulted in a preliminary injunction that members of the church building committee said basically shut down fundraising for the estimated $6 million project while the project works its way through the process.
“As an attorney coming in late to this case, I’ve never seen anything like this in my 40 years as an attorney,” Andes said. “I’ve represented a lot of citizen-based groups in that time. It’s quite extraordinary for a group work pro se to get that kind of remedy. It shows that both factually and legally, they did a good job of putting their case together.”
There are eight people named on the lawsuit representing five families.
“We care deeply about our neighborhood and will do everything possible to protect our property rights, keep the neighborhood safe and free of mega building, traffic and parking expansion variance requests that are noncompliant with our residential zoning ordinance,” said Southside Preservation Committee member Nansu Roddy. “The razing of the church does not have the best interest of the neighborhood in mind. We should be building healthy neighborhoods, not tearing them apart.”
“History does matter,” she said.