BIG MOOSE, N.Y. -- By noon on a cool, sunny weekday recently, the old Holy Rosary Roman Catholic mission church had been stripped of its pews, all but two Stations of the Cross, the light fixtures and some of the wainscoting hammered into place by lumberjacks at the turn of the century.
The Rev. Kirk Holland directed traffic, explaining that the structure was too rickety and dangerous for services. What was left of it would have to be torn down, he told the curious. As his gray Franciscan robes swept across the uncut grass, Holland offered pieces of the building to worshipers, collectors and tourists.
Across the street, however, residents of this tiny hamlet seethed by the roadside. Some said they were so furious that they feared venting their anger in public, especially to a priest.
"I can't go talk to the man," fumed Spartacus DeLia, a retired construction company owner who offered to provide steel beams necessary to restore the building and turn it into a community museum. "I'm afraid of what I might say once I got started."
In this quiet place where denizens usually debate whether to fish, hike or harvest wild raspberries, the fate of the mission stirred an unholy war of words between the "preservationists," as they are called deep in the Adirondacks, and the Roman Catholic Church.
Leading the fight to save the mission are Jim and Barbara Morgan, a young couple who recently began running Big Moose Station, a restaurant in a restored railroad station that serves hearty breakfasts and sandwiches and homemade apple pie.
The Morgans are the only year-round residents of Big Moose, a hamlet that grows in summer to about 70 families, most of them descendants of people who started coming to this area before an old log highway was paved into what has become a tooth-jarring country road.
"To see that little bit of history we have left in this hamlet destroyed really bothers me," said Morgan, also chairman of the Big Moose Historical Preservation Society, formed when word got around that this was to be the mission's last summer.
On the opposite side is the Catholic Church, represented mostly by Holland. Parishes and missions have been closed nationwide in recent years, he noted, as the church tries to cope with a diminishing number of priests and a shifting population of worshipers. Those who attended Holy Rosary must drive about 10 miles to attend church in the small town of Inlet.
Consolidation here did not come easily, and by the end of August, Holland was openly complaining about how his congregation "had added to the burdens of their pastor" by contesting demolition of the church. As for non-churchgoers, such as Morgan and the few other area merchants, Holland suggested that they were "just trying to sell more coffee."
"It is really a case of private property, and just as with other private property, the owners can do what they want to do with it," he said during one phone conversation. "This is almost childish: foot-stomping and demanding things as they were and as they used to be," he said. "And this is at a time when the church has so many other needs."
Msgr. David Stinebrickner, Holland's superior in the Diocese of Ogdensburg, spoke even more harshly of the protesters, saying, "They just want to use the newspaper for publicity. That's all they want to do."
In this area, the first chilly nights have reddened the maples and given the preservationists a grim signal that their seasonal clout has begun to pack up and drive home for the winter. The church, built in 1898, could be demolished as soon as its greenish asbestos siding has been removed and deposited in an acceptable landfill. By then, most of those expressing their outrage this summer and early fall would be too far away to protest.
Among those still nearby are Paul and Sally Smith, who run the area's one-stop supply store, the Big Moose Mart, a small converted house. People come from the woods and lakes to buy such items as milk, frozen bread, canned goods, bug spray, souvenirs, ice cream and gasoline. If something is missing from the shelves, maybe vanilla extract or chocolate syrup, Sally Smith has been known to go into her kitchen and bring back a quarter's worth.
This year, the Smiths have been consumed by their efforts to save the mission. Sally Smith wrote to Bishop Stanislaus J. Brzana in Ogdensburg and told him that the historical society wanted to turn the building into a museum, repairing it, taking on liability and leaving the the land to the church. People simply did not want to see a structure built in the last century destroyed, she wrote.
"I was sure that they'd stipulate that it can't be used for certain things," Paul Smith said. "It can't be a bar. It can't be a house of ill repute. Well, that's fine. We wouldn't do that."
But members of the historical society said that Brzana told them that it was Holland's decision and that Holland in turn said that he did not want to discuss it further, that his decision was not negotiable. He rebuffed efforts to speak with him about other options, members said.
"We're at the point that we don't know whether to start fighting dirty or give up," Sally Smith said. Fighting dirty, she explained, involved such ideas as printing up T-shirts reading: "Captain Kirk. The Destroyer."
As the Smiths pondered strategy, Holland suddenly began opening the church and offering its worldly goods.
On one such day, a woman visiting from Kansas City quickly staked her claim to a long wooden pew, although her husband had told her that he had no idea how they could get it home. One churchgoer hauled away six pews "for hallways and such," he said.
Inside, a young man struggled with a crowbar to unhinge the altar rail. He pushed his full weight against it and finally cracked off all but the end. As he threw the broken slab of railing into the truck, he said to bystanders: "You know, they sure don't make things like this anymore."
"They sure don't," somebody hissed angrily as the young man scampered into his truck and drove away.