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Massena history buff stages symbolic protest at church

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MASSENA - A Massena man handcuffed himself to the front door of the First Baptist Church Wednesday night in a symbolic protest after demolition equipment moved onto the site of a Massena landmark.

John D. Michaud III, who bound himself to the church doors from 8 p.m. to shortly before 9 p.m., claimed the church at the corner of Main and East Orvis streets, is the oldest building in Massena, having stood for over 150 years. He said his demonstration was a reaction to the arrival of bulldozers and the set-up of a demolition fence at the church during the day Wednesday.

“I’m just here to open the eyes of people for the next time a historic building is going to be demolished,” Mr. Michaud said. “Too much of our heritage has been lost.”

Mr. Michaud noted many had signed a petition to save the local church, and he suggested Massena has not done as well as other communities in preserving its historic buildings.

“There’s no heart (anymore). I was raised in old Massena. This (action) is community pride,” Mr. Michaud said.

The cornerstone for the church was laid in June 1859 and work was completed by July of 1860 to house local Baptists, who trace their roots in Massena all the way back to the early 1800s. In 1827, early prominent settler Col. Uriah H. Orvis built a frame house on West Orvis Street to hold religious meetings, according to “History of Massena: An Orphan Town” written by Eleanor L. and Nina E. Dumas.

The final services took place at the church in 2007, and the worship space has sat vacant ever since. The buildings were put up for sale later that year for an initial asking price of $425,000. Shortly thereafter, former Nassena resident Richard Brummel unsuccessfully attempted to gain support to convert the church into a cultural center.

Richard E. Maginn, owner of Heritage Homes, closed on a deal in January 2011 to purchase the church at 93 Main St. and the house behind the church at 19 E. Orvis St. Mr. Maginn purchased the two buildings for $150,000, according to the St. Lawrence County Real Property Tax Office.

Mr. Maginn said he talked to Mr. Michaud Wednesday night and convinced him to go home before 9 p.m.

“I explained to him why the church has to come down,” Mr. Maginn said. “I told him there’s nothing you can do to resurrect the building.”

“John (Michaud)’s heart is in the right place. I don’t like taking this church down, but nobody wants it,” he added.

Mr. Maginn has not been able to find an interested buyer for the church due to a large number of code and safety issues with the structure. The repairs to bring the building up to code would cost hundreds of thousands, which would far outweigh the value of possible uses for the structure, he said.

“There’s no useful life to the building,” he said.

Mr. Maginn previously said he loves old buildings just as much as anyone else, pointing out he renovated 55-57 Market St. in Potsdam and converted a former Canton bowling alley into condominiums and office space.

“With this building that wasn’t possible,” he said.

Demolition work will begin next week and should be finished within two to three days, according to Mr. Maginn. He also said he’s working with a developer for a new business to go up in place of the old church, but declined to provide specifics.

“It’ll be a nice building that will provide employment and pay taxes for the community,” he said.

Mr. Maginn expects the developer to go before the planning board in January, and if the board does not find any major problems with the developer’s proposal, he expects construction to begin by spring.

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