History has been forced to take a backseat to safety in Petitcodiac, N.B.

A historic wing of the Petitcodiac Baptist Church will be torn down over the next several days, leaving the church operational, but missing its signature steeple that has towered over the area for nearly 137 years.

“There's certainly sadness and sorrow connected with what's happening here this week,” said pastor David Woodworth.

The problem started with two oil tanks that used to sit just in front of the church. One rusted through at the bottom at the beginning of June, allowing oil to seep into the soil and structure underneath the church.

Roughly 1,400 litres of oil now permeate the ground around the church, directly next to the Petitcodiac River. The New Brunswick Department of Environment is working with the church to make sure the river is safe.

“There's been monitor wells dug between the church and the river that can tell us if oil has made it that far,” said Woodworth. “There's something in the river to catch any oil that seeps into the river, but that has not happened yet.”

Supporting the structure would cost roughly $700,000, while taking it down would be less than half and gives direct access to the contaminated soil for cleanup.

Once the group discovered extensive wood rot in the steeple and bell tower, they voted largely in favour of tearing it down.

“We're talking about a facility that was built in 1879, so a lot of connections, people's baptisms, weddings, funerals, childhood dedications, all sorts of memories,” said Woodworth.

While the church's makeover may be unwanted, members have managed to salvage some key pieces, including its bell and stained glass windows.

“When the word got out there that it was going to be torn down, the community was really upset,” said church neighbour Tammy Flewelling. “It was basically heartbreaking. It's a landmark. It's been there for so many years.”

Residents are now looking for different ways to honour the old church in the future.

With files from CTV Atlantic’s Cami Kepke.