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What happens when a church goes ‘extinct’?

The last remaining parishioner of a Northwood, N.H., church is suing so she can give the church’s property away.

The Free Will Baptist Church’s property at 545 First New Hampshire Turnpike in Northwood, N.H., is the subject of pending litigation in Rockingham Superior Court. The church’s treasurer, Linda Smith, says she’s the congregation’s very last member, and she wants to give the church’s assets away to another Christian nonprofit.Steven Porter / Globe Staff

NORTHWOOD, N.H. — Linda Smith serves as treasurer of Free Will Baptist Church, a “fiercely independent” congregation that was founded here roughly 200 years ago. She’s also believed to be the church’s very last member.

Attendance dwindled over the years until the few elderly members who remained more than a decade ago decided to stop holding services at the church’s building, according to Smith. Since then, efforts to make productive use of the church’s property at 545 First New Hampshire Turnpike have faltered.

So now Smith has asked a judge to declare the church legally “extinct” and to quiet the title for its property. That way, the building and land can be donated to Sentinel Ministries, a Tuftonboro-based nonprofit that runs Christian camps and other religious retreats that members of Free Will Baptist Church had attended.


Smith declined an interview request, but the lawsuit she filed in Rockingham Superior Court lays out her argument, with property records from the 1800s that demonstrate how the church’s unique history complicates the donation process.

For starters, there used to be a separate entity known as the Free Will Baptist Society, which was formed to support the church. At some point, the society and the church began operating as a single organization, according to the lawsuit.

The distinction between the church and the society is relevant because of how the congregation obtained the land that Smith is now trying to give away. First, in 1842, one donor deeded land to the “pew owners” of the soon-to-be-built Free Will Baptist Meetinghouse and to their heirs and assignees, according to the lawsuit. Second, in 1893, another donor deeded additional land to the society and its heirs and assignees.

That means there might be people alive today who can plausibly claim to have some interest or estate in the church property.


Smith doesn’t know of any heirs to the original pew holders, so she asked a judge to let her notify interested parties by having a public notice published in the Concord Monitor. At first, the judge seemed skeptical. He wrote that “service by publication” is “a legal fiction” and “almost an oxymoron” in today’s world (since an interested party may be unlikely to see the published notice), but after hearing Smith and her attorney in his courtroom this month, he let them move forward with that plan.

The judge directed Smith to have the notice published for three weeks by Oct. 1. Then interested parties will have 30 days after the last publication to file a response with the court.

This story first appeared in Globe NH | Morning Report, our free newsletter focused on the news you need to know about New Hampshire, including great coverage from the Boston Globe and links to interesting articles from other places. If you’d like to receive it via e-mail Monday through Friday, you can sign up here.

Steven Porter can be reached at Follow him @reporterporter.