March 10, 2010

'Difficult choice' means three churches will close

DAVID HENCH

— By

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Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer: The St. Mary's of the Assumption Catholic Church in Biddeford will close at the end of the year on August 22, 2009.

Tim Greenway

click image to enlarge

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer: The Notre Dame de Lourdes Catholic Church in Saco will close at the end of the year on August 22, 2009.

Tim Greenway

Staff Writer

SACO — Wilfrid Cassette, one of eight children, was raised in Notre Dame de Lourdes Church and feels great affection for its solemn traditions and its weekly French Mass.

But the numbers are inescapable.

There are about 225 funerals a year in the Good Shepherd Parish, which now includes Notre Dame de Lourdes and five other churches in Biddeford and Saco. That's twice the number of baptisms.

''The ones we're losing are the older ones that have been with the church the longest,'' Cassette said Monday, standing outside what has been his spiritual home for the past 57 years. ''You have to do something to be vibrant and sustain what we have.''

Monsignor Rene Mathieu announced Sunday that Notre Dame de Lourdes and St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Biddeford will close at the end of this year, as part of a statewide consolidation that started in 2004, shortly after Bishop Richard Malone was installed. St. Andre Church in Biddeford will close at the end of 2010.

Also Sunday, Monsignor Marc Caron announced in Lewiston that he plans to ask Malone's permission to close St. Joseph and St. Patrick churches, and he will discontinue their use in October.

The consolidation reflects declining numbers of priests and parishioners.

The Good Shepherd Parish has about 11,000 parishioners, many of whom do not attend church regularly.

Collections in the parish's churches have been dropping about 10 percent a year, and the sour economy hasn't helped. Weekly collections this year have been about $5,000 less than they were last year.

The church's ministries and operations cost about $2 million a year, not including support for the parish school. Meanwhile, operating costs such as employee health insurance and building maintenance have been rising.

Good Shepherd Parish had a $48,000 deficit in the past fiscal year and projected a $170,000 deficit this year if no changes were made, according to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.

Mathieu said that reducing the number of churches means that the parish won't have to eliminate vital ministries.

''I realize, painfully so, how difficult it is to set aside our beloved houses of worship that have been so significant to the people in our community,'' he said in a written release. ''At the same time, if we are to act responsibly for the sake of those who will come after us, we must make the difficult choices.''

Weddings, too, are down, reflecting a general drift away from faith as a priority in life, said Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the diocese.

Historically, weddings were occasions when young people who had stopped attending church regularly would reconnect with the church, she said.

Changing demographics have forced choices, she said.

''You can put a lot of money into bricks and mortar and operational costs for all these buildings, or devote those resources to the ministries, which would include things like faith formation, education, social justice and peace, those things the church is here for. That's our mission,'' she said.

The change is hard for families who have been raised in a particular church their entire life, but its cause can be even more troubling.

''It's sad because our population has declined to a point where we have to let go of facilities,'' said Helen Fortier, an organist at Notre Dame de Lourdes who was baptized at St. Mary of the Assumption. She said the important thing is for members of the community to be able to worship together. The building doesn't matter.

The remaining churches in the parish will be St. Joseph's and St. Brendan's in Biddeford and Most Holy Trinity Church in Saco.

Cassette has been a member of Notre Dame de Lourdes since he moved across the Saco River from Biddeford as a 5-year-old. He has taught religious education, serves as a Eucharistic minister and has been parish council chairman.

The initial meetings about consolidation were testy, as some parishioners declared they did not want to lose their church. But now, most members are resigned to the change and some even are looking forward to it, he said.

Consolidation could produce a more vibrant, active church, he said.

''All the churches were separate entities. Now, they're going to be working together. We'll be stronger and more united in the end, more like a family,'' he said.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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