BOSTON – It’s big, beautiful and free, but a 217-acre former prep school campus in the hills of northern Massachusetts has also proved tough to give away.

Last year, an extensive effort to donate the Northfield campus by the billionaire family that owned it collapsed when the recipient unexpectedly backed out.

Its current owner, the National Christian Foundation, says it has narrowed its search down to five potential recipients as they consider suitors that aren’t exclusively Christian, dropping a condition of the prior search.

The top two or three candidates could be announced within a month and definitely will be by Christmas, said Aimee Minnich, president of the foundation’s Heartland office in Kansas.

Meanwhile, residents and business owners in the town of about 3,000 are ready to see new life at a campus that has been vacant for eight years, leaving a hole in the town’s social and economic life. Joan Stoia, co-owner of The Centennial House bed and breakfast on Main Street, said residents have learned to be patient.

“Quick doesn’t happen with this kind of decision, and that’s what we’re all learning,” she said.

“What can we say?” she said. “We can’t make it any faster than it is. (The campus is) not ours; we don’t control it. So we’re here to be helpful in any way possible.”

The campus is the former home of the Northfield Mount Hermon School, which was founded by 19th-century evangelist D.L. Moody.

The school moved out in 2005 to consolidate at another campus, but the property is still heavy with the aura of the exclusive New England prep school it once hosted. Its 43 buildings fill a rich, rolling stretch of the Connecticut River Valley with a stately mix of granite and brick.

The campus’ religious history lingers, as well. At Moody’s hilltop grave, pilgrims meet to join hands and pray.

The Green family, which founded and owns the Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby craft store chain, bought the campus in 2009 intending to give it to a new college named after Christian apologist and writer C.S. Lewis.

That venture stalled, and the Greens offered it for free to candidates with traditional Christian beliefs and a commitment to honoring Moody’s legacy.