When she was just a teenager, Rita Darisse watched from outside her home in Salem as workers laid the white brick walls of St. Joseph Church on Lafayette Street.
Now 77, Darisse stood outside with a small camera on Friday, again watching, but this time as demolition crews tore down the church.
“I saw it going up; now I’m seeing it going down,” Darisse said ruefully.
Workers began razing the church building in the Point neighborhood of Salem this week after years of legal wrangling. The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston closed St. Joseph’s in 2004, and redevelopment has been delayed by the appeals of historic preservationists who sought to save the church building, the cornerstone of which was laid in 1949.
The site will soon house a four-story building with 51 apartments, said Lisa B. Alberghini, president of the Planning Office for Urban Affairs, a development affiliate of the archdiocese. Commercial and community space will occupy part of the ground floor.
Alberghini said most apartments will be “workforce housing,” and the maximum income a family of five could have to qualify will be $63,000. Eight apartments will serve tenants who receive Section 8 government rental assistance.
Construction is expected to be completed by Thanksgiving. The property is owned by affiliates of the Planning Office for Urban Affairs, a nonprofit organization separate from the archdiocese, Alberghini said.
“It is bittersweet; many people are sad to see it come down,” she said of the church. “I think others who are also sad do see this as a sign of progress and are looking forward to having new life at the site.”
Former parishioner Lucy Corchado, president of the Point Neighborhood Association, said she cried when she learned the church was to be closed in 2004, but expects the planned complex will rejuvenate the property, which she said sat vacant for nine years.
“For me, it was very depressing to see this church abandoned and deteriorating with no future, but now we have an opportunity for development, more families on the site, and more life,” Corchado said.
For other members of the St. Joseph community, the demolition has been more difficult.
Della Monica, 79, said she was the St. Joseph organist for 24 years before it closed. She loved the church for its music and simple architecture. It was built in the shape of a cross. On Friday, Della Monica stood outside the church with a sign that read, "Forgive them for they know not what they do.”
She said she especially loved the church’s tall steeple, topped by a cross, which she said could be seen from blocks away. The steeple was torn down early this week.
“I wasn’t there when they took the steeple down, but I was riding by in the car and I looked for the cross, as I always do, and it was gone,” she said, her voice breaking.
For Darisse, the church was the setting for many cherished life events. “I got married there in 1967, and my kids were all baptized over there,” she said.
On Friday, a worker walked over to the handful of people standing at a chain-link fence around the property, Darisse said. He brought pieces of the building, and Darisse took half of a white exterior brick.
Ostensibly, it was rubble. But to the little girl who grew old with the church, it was much more.
“It means a lot,” Darisse said. “I’m going to cherish that, because I saw that church go up as a kid and now I’m seeing it come down, and I’m old.”