Mark Anthoine wasn’t prepared for the sadness and disappointment he heard in his mother’s voice.

Barbara Anthoine, 72, had just learned that a parish task force had recommended closing and selling St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church. That’s where she was married in 1957, where most of her five children were baptized and married, and where, just last December, the family, including several grandchildren, filled three pews for Christmas Eve Mass.

“Well,” Barbara Anthoine asked her son, “where are we supposed to go now?”

Mark Anthoine, 47, is a member of the task force that recommended closing and selling two Lewiston churches – St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s – in a report released last weekend.

It’s the latest move in the consolidation of Maine’s Catholic parishes, which still represent one-fifth of the state’s 1.3 million residents. It also reflects an overall decline in the number of Catholics across New England, according to a recent national survey.

Despite Anthoine’s personal involvement in both St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s, he had promised to be objective in reviewing the building needs of a parish struggling with declining membership and increasing budget deficits.

If St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s ultimately close, which is considered likely, the Lewiston parish would still have three Catholic churches, including the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, the largest Catholic church building in Maine.

Even so, Anthoine, an insurance broker, was struck by his mother’s question. He realized how difficult it would be for many people to see two more churches close in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.

“I didn’t know what to say,” Anthoine recalled recently, standing outside St. Patrick’s, in the heart of the city’s economically challenged downtown. “I can justify the recommendations because we analyzed the numbers, but it’s hard to justify emotionally.”

PARISH CONSOLIDATION CONTINUES

The pending closures of St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s, which was Lewiston’s first Catholic church, are the latest evidence of a consolidation of Maine parishes that started in 2004. Since then, the number of parishes in Maine has fallen from 135 to 83, and 14 churches have closed, said Bill Schulz, director of parish planning for the diocese.

By 2010, the diocese will have about 70 parishes, served by 61 to 63 priests. At its peak in the 1950s, the diocese had 229 priests.

Lewiston once had six Catholic churches, before St. Mary’s closed in 2000 and became the Franco-American Heritage Center. In January, the five remaining churches, including Holy Cross and Holy Family, were combined into Prince of Peace Parish in anticipation of further consolidation. Where each church once had two or three priests, sometimes more, the entire Lewiston parish now has only three priests.

Monsignor Marc Caron, parish pastor, appointed the seven-member task force last November. He asked the group of local business leaders and real estate experts to give him their best advice in the face of a $180,000 annual operating deficit. Their recommendations, which include other parish properties, aren’t cast in stone, but they are reasonable, Caron said.

“It’s very sad,” said Caron, a Lewiston native. “We see these churches as part of ourselves and part of the landscape. We’d like to see them continue as they’ve always been, but the community isn’t as it’s always been. We’re at a crossroads, and we can’t afford the property that we have.”

The changes in Lewiston reflect an overall decline in the number of Catholics throughout New England, according to a study released last month by Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. The data gathered in the American Religious Identification Survey 2008 include all people who call themselves Catholic.

According to the survey, the number of residents in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont who say they’re Catholic has decreased 20 percent in the past 18 years, from 5 million people in 1990 to just under 4 million people in 2008.

In Maine, the number of people who say they’re Catholic is also down 20 percent, from 286,408 people in 1990 to 227,555 people in 2008.

Meanwhile, the Catholic population in the United States is up 24 percent overall, from 46 million in 1990 to 57.2 million in 2008, in part because of an increase in Hispanic residents. Catholic populations have grown from 29 percent to 37 percent in California, and from 23 percent to 32 percent in Texas.

Where Catholic populations have declined, observers point to the increased secularization of American society; conflicts between church doctrine and modern views on sex-related issues such as contraception and homosexuality; and the priest sexual abuse scandal, among other factors.

In Lewiston, church leaders say demographic shifts, societal changes and a decline in the number of priests have undermined the central role that Catholic parishes played in the development of the city in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The parish priest was a paternal figure for Irish and French-Canadian immigrants who came to work in Lewiston’s textile mills and shoe factories. The church was a center of social interaction, education and even financial stability, in the form of credit unions.

As a result, Caron said, Catholics once made up about two-thirds of Lewiston’s overall population, which peaked at nearly 42,000 in 1970. Now, the number of Catholic parishioners in the city has dropped from 21,696 in 1997 to 14,321 in 2007, when the overall population was about 36,000.

GROWING NEEDS, LIMITED RESOURCES

As the task force reviewed parish properties, St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s were particularly vulnerable because of their ages and locations. Membership at St. Joseph’s, built in 1864, declined from 3,100 in 1997 to 2,609 in 2007. In the same period, St. Patrick’s, built in 1890, lost nearly 2,000 members, from 2,829 to 827.

Both churches require significant exterior repairs, especially St. Patrick’s, and are located downtown, within walking distance of each other and of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, which was built in phases from 1906 to 1935.

While Lewiston’s three other churches also lost members, their populations remain relatively healthy, especially the more suburban Holy Cross and Holy Family, which opened in 1923.

But fewer parishioners overall means less money in the collection basket each week, and church officials said the economic recession has hit diocesan finances hard. Rather than spend millions of dollars maintaining beloved but underused buildings, church leaders say they must concentrate limited resources on spiritual, educational and community efforts that further the church‘s true mission, which is to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“We’ve got growing needs as a parish at a time when we have 7,000 fewer parishioners than we did just 10 years ago,” Mark Anthoine said. “What we wouldn’t want is to have the whole Catholic community implode because we try to save (every church building).”

The task force also recommended selling the rectories at St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s; renting or selling the former parochial school at Holy Family; and renting or selling the former residences of the Dominican Brothers at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.

In the weeks ahead, Caron plans to meet with parish groups to explain the recommendations. He expects the pastoral and finance councils to give him a recommendation by June.

Soon after that, he’ll make a decision and seek permission from Bishop Richard Malone and other diocesan officials. What will happen to the buildings, and whether or not they will sell, remains to be seen, Caron said. Precious interior and exterior features, such as the ornate golden canopy that adorns St. Patrick’s altar, will be saved.

Caron has asked parishioners to come forward with any alternatives that the task force might have missed. Knowing how tough it was to issue the recommendations, Mark Anthoine said he doesn’t believe there’s much chance of that.

His mother and father, Tom, like many Prince of Peace parishioners, are resigned to the inevitable.

“I guess we have to understand the changing times, but we’re so sorry to see all of this,” Barbara Anthoine said. “I know it’s the people who make a church, but St. Patrick’s is such a beautiful church, and it has been an important part of our family since the 1930s. I wish it could go back to the way it was, but I know it can’t.”