MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) – Four years after the closure of the city’s oldest Catholic church, a new group is pushing to preserve it as a historic and cultural landmark.

Built by Irish immigrants in the early 1850s, St. Anne church closed in 2003 after a leaking roof caused plaster to fall. Parishioners, who have since merged with nearby Saint Augustin Parish, voted in 2005 to sell St. Anne and use the money to repair the St. Augustin Church.

Now, a new group called Friends of St. Anne Church wants the state’s bishop to block the sale and find another use for the church.

“That steeple there is the Statue of Liberty in our state,” Steven Lindsey of Keene said at a rally outside the church Saturday. “To me, this is the Ellis Island of New Hampshire.”

Members say possible uses could include a cultural center, community center or anything that would keep the inside of the church intact.

“If other churches can be saved, this church can be saved,” said Richard Walsh, a former St. Anne parishioner and member of the new group.

The group, which includes Alderman Daniel O’Neil, argue that Bishop John McCormack has the authority to stop the sale. But Diocese of Manchester officials say the parishioners made their decision.

“Parishioners of St. Anne-St. Augustin have a right to sell the former church building without heavy-handed interference from politicians,” the Rev. Edward Arsenault wrote in a letter to the New Hampshire Sunday News.

He said the initiative to sell the church came from the parishioners, who recommended that the building be converted to housing for the elderly and people with disabilities.

“Unfortunately, the parish’s proposal was torpedoed – behind the scenes – despite it being the expressed desire of those who are members of the parish, who live and worship in the parish and who would use the proceeds to benefit the parish,” he said.

Information from: New Hampshire Union Leader,

AP-ES-01-21-07 1302EST