Monsignor Michael Henchal, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in South Portland as well as three other local Roman Catholic parishes, told parishioners on Sunday that he will get them answers about a possible sale of church buildings and options for joining another parish.
SOUTH PORTLAND — Parishioners at St. John the Evangelist Church raised questions and reviewed their options Sunday at a meeting to discuss a recommendation by the church’s finance committee to close the church by June 30.
About 75 members of the parish met privately for about 90 minutes, but made no final determination on the future of the financially pinched parish. They had a number of questions that their pastor, Monsignor Michael Henchal, said he couldn’t answer and wanted to address before they made a decision.
About two-thirds of those present indicated they agreed with the recommendation to close, Henchal said. “We are moving toward a pretty clear consensus,” he said.
Among the questions he wants to answer are the value of the church property, and whether selling one or two of the three buildings on the site would allow the parish to stay open. He also wants to get answers about how the parish would transition into being part of another church community.
News of the possible closing was not a surprise to parishioners.
What to do about the declining numbers of parishioners and diminishing finances has been an ongoing discussion for the past few years, said Henchal, pastor of the Roman Catholic cluster that includes the parishes of Holy Cross in South Portland, St. Maximilian Kolbe in Scarborough and St. Bartholomew in Cape Elizabeth.
St. John, which serves 659 households, has seen its savings shrink to $5,000. Its annual income of $180,000 doesn’t cover the $200,000 in annual expenses, Henchal said. The 60-year-old boilers could go at any time and there is no money to replace them, he said.
The church property at 611 Main St. includes the church building, a closed parish center that needs $70,000 in repairs, and a house that is now home to three nuns. The nuns, who pay rent to St. John, have been told they may stay as long as the property is owned by the church.
The church also houses the South Portland Food Cupboard, which is now looking for a new home.
Director Sybil Riemensnider said she was told that her all-volunteer group could stay as long as it takes to find a new location, should the church close.
She said finding comparable quarters would be a challenge, since the food pantry needs at least 4,000 square feet of space, ample parking, kitchen and bathroom facilities, and a walk-in freezer.
Riemensnider said the church has never charged the food pantry any rent.
“We have had a good thing since we moved here in 2001,” she said.
The food pantry, which originated at Holy Cross Church in South Portland 17 years ago, distributed food to 3,270 families last year.
Henchal said the problems at the 72-year-old St. John parish began in the 1980s, when the church, which included many Scarborough residents, was booming. As Scarborough’s population grew, a decision was made to form a new parish there, St. Maximilian Kolbe.
Meanwhile, the St. John parish declined. It became one of the oldest and smallest parishes in a diocese that started consolidating in 2004 in the face of membership declines and a scarcity of priests, reflecting a nationwide trend.
Since then, the number of Roman Catholic parishes in Maine has dropped from 135 to 57, and the number of Mainers who identify themselves as Catholics has declined from 234,000 to 187,000. St. John would be the 15th Catholic church to close since 2004.
Among the decisions the parish will have to make if St. John closes are whether to sell the property and whether to merge with another congregation. Henchal said the congregation could wind up at Holy Cross on the east side of South Portland, but may decide on St. Maximilian.
That’s because there are historical ties between the two churches and most people who go to St. John, on the west side of the city, already shop and do business in Scarborough, he said.
Henchal said that once he gets a consensus from the congregation, he will go to his parish pastoral council for their recommendation, and if they all agree he will go to the bishop. The final decision would rest with the bishop after he consults with three diocese councils.
Maine is without a bishop since Richard Malone left the post for a job as bishop in Buffalo, N.Y.
On Sunday, parishioners expressed regret and resignation about the possible closing.
“We knew it was coming, but I hate to see it,” said Helen Nadeau of South Portland, who has belonged to the church for more than 20 years.
Janet Malia of South Portland, who joined the church 49 years ago, said a church closing would be painful.
“It would be the worst thing that ever happened to us. I cried my heart out when I heard,” she said.
Frank Maguire of South Portland said the closing is inevitable.
“We don’t have enough people,” he said.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:
St. John the Evangelist Church in South Portland is struggling with dwindling membership and funds.
Parishioner Jane Malia says closing would be the “worst thing.”
Parishioner Frank Maguire says closing is “inevitable.”