LACONIA, N.H. -- Restoration work began in Sacred Heart Church three weeks to the day after an arson fire caused around $250,000 worth of damage to the historic house of worship.

Sacred Heart's pastor, the Rev. Adrien Longchamps said a crew from P.M. MacKay Group of Nashua reached an agreement with the Diocese of Manchester and arrived early Tuesday morning to begin the extensive renovations that will be needed before the church can reopen.

Longchamps, buoyed by the support he has received from his congregation, the city and the surrounding Catholic community, said the mission of his church still continues and he will use the various rooms in the next door parish hall until the church can reopen.

He said he took some furniture from the old convent and recreated as much of the church as he could in one half of the gymnasium.

"It looks as much like a chapel as it can," said Longchamps, noting that the gymnasium is air-conditioned and, during the recent heat wave, he has had many grateful parishioners.

While this is not the way Longchamps would have preferred, he is excited about the renovations and painting made necessary by the smoky blaze.

"From one end to the other, it will be refreshed and renewed," said Longchamps, adding that the MacKay Group estimates it will take the better part of eight weeks to complete the work.

MacKay estimator Joe Cronin said refurbishing the church is a huge project and presents serious challenges because of its 100-year-old architectural style and especially the original gold leaf stencil work which adorns the walls.

Cronin said other challenges are removing the 100-year-old oak pews so the carpet can be replaced and cleaning and painting the 42-foot high cathedral ceiling.

"We'll use a combination of scaffolding and portable lifts to reach that," said Cronin.

He said the first thing his crews did was remove the two altars and bring them to their shop in Nashua, where craftsmen will recreate them for reinstallation. The company will also recreate the parquet flooring damaged by flames.

"When I first looked at this job, I was very saddened," said Cronin, who is a Catholic. Although he works on a lot of churches and has done restoration work before for the Catholic diocese in the state, he said this was no way to get a job.

"We're very lucky the back of the altar didn't catch fire," said Cronin, noting that the flames scorched the area. "It came close to being a real tragedy."

Police Chief Michael Moyer said the investigation is continuing and it is a priority for the department.