HAVERHILL — Early Thursday afternoon, Joan Graciale walked from her nearby home to St. George's Church on Washington Street to ask a demolition crew for one or two bricks from the 127-year-old building.
She said she was married at the church in 1980 and that all her children were baptized there.
"I’m sad, very sad," she said. "To see it come down ... it was sad even when they closed the doors. It was like, ‘Well I don’t have a church now.'"
Graciale, like other people who once attended St. George's Church in the city's Mount Washington neighborhood, will soon witness the construction of low-income housing where their church stood for more than a century. The church is being demolished.
St. George's closed its doors 21 years ago. Since then, except for an occasional neighborhood use, the building has sat vacant and fallen into disrepair.
The church closed in 1998 when four Catholic churches in the city consolidated into what is now All Saints Church.
Mayor James Fiorentini said he originally hoped to see St. George's — the church his own grandparents attended — preserved, but "after years of it sitting there inactive ... I became all for this (housing) project."
A local organization stepped forward with a proposal to build low-income housing on the church property. The city approved the project.
Bread & Roses Housing, a nonprofit based in Lawrence, received a special permit last year to proceed with the project, gaining unanimous approval from the Haverhill City Council.
Yesenia Gil, executive director of Bread & Roses Housing, said that due to funding, logistical concerns, management and other considerations, her organization revised its plan and is building three duplexes and one single-family home on the church property, rather than two larger buildings.
She said the changes reduced construction costs from nearly $3 million to about $1.5 million, will make the properties easier to build and manage, reduce density, boost quality of life for the homeowners, and increase open space on the site. The units will still feature off-street parking and fenced-in yard space, she said.
The project earned enthusiastic support from city councilors, the mayor, the planning director and community groups, including the Mount Washington Alliance and Urban Kindness. Everyone who endorsed the project was happy with its two-birds-with-one-stone approach of both removing the abandoned church, which has become a neighborhood blight, and bringing home ownership to the area, which has struggled with absentee landlords and crime in recent years.
Gil said foundations for the project are expected to be poured following demolition of the church, with construction of the first two duplexes taking place over the winter, followed by construction of a third duplex and the single-family home in the spring.
"I hope it sets a standard and serves as a catalyst for additional housing opportunities for the residents of Mount Washington," City Councilor Joseph Bevilacqua said.
The nonprofit Bread & Roses aims to get low-income families into home-ownership by providing newly-renovated or newly-built homes to very low-income, first-time home-buyers at a reduced rate. The goal is to offer those families the benefits that come with being a homeowner and to help them become financially stable.
Bread & Roses maintains ownership of the land through a community land trust, so that more low-income families can move in if the residents who settle there first decide to move. It's also stipulated that the homes must remain owner-occupied and cannot be rented.
Gil said the first homeowners are expected to move into the buildings next summer.
"We've developed units in North Andover and Lawrence,'' she said, "and we're now expanding into Haverhill.''