September 12, 2013

Tears flow as Maine church celebrates last Mass

South Portland's St. John the Evangelist was built in 1940 to serve a growing population on the west side of the city.

By Kelley Bouchard
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – Peggy Spino didn't expect to cry. She usually doesn't.

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Determined to be the last person to leave the church, Sheila Duane of South Portland sits in her pew long after the final Mass at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in South Portland ended Wednesday night. Duane has been a parishioner at the church for 40 years, and struggled emotionally with its closing.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Barbara Nee, 80, who has been a lifelong parishoner at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in South Portland, hands out programs at the church's final Mass Wednesday night.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland has closed 18 churches since it began consolidating parishes in 2006. It now oversees 56 parishes, down from 133, and 171 churches. The churches that closed are:

St. Joseph, Sherman (2007)

St. Joseph, Dixfield (2008)

St. Theresa of the Infant Jesus, Mexico (2008)

St. Michael, South Berwick (2008)

St. Mary of the Assumption, Orono (2009)

St. Patrick, Lewiston (2009)

St. Joseph, Lewiston (2009)

St. Mary of the Assumption, Biddeford (2009)

Notre Dame de Lourdes, Saco (2009)

St. Ignatius Martyr, Sanford (2010)

St. André, Biddeford (2010)

St. James, Thomaston (2011)

St. Andrew, Augusta (2011)

St. Leo, Litchfield (2011)

St. Frances de Sales, Waterville (2012)

St. Patrick, Portland (2013)

St. Louis, Auburn (2013)

St. John the Evangelist, South Portland (2013)

Source: Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland

But when the bell called parishioners to the last Mass at St. John the Evangelist Church on Wednesday evening, and the choir started singing the mournful hymn "Faith of Our Fathers," Spino couldn't help herself.

She and her husband, George, have been members of St. John Parish for 27 years. They raised their two sons in the parish, though the family lived in Scarborough. Each boy made his First Communion and was confirmed into the Roman Catholic faith at St. John. The church history includes a photo of the boys when they were altar servers.

"I know it's a building," said Spino, 59, after the service, her eyes red from crying. "But this is like a death. I feel like I've been to a funeral."

Spino was among about 240 people who attended the last Mass in the cozy church at 611 Main St. Beneath the Tudor-style post-and-beam ceiling, many cried, hugged and recalled the baptisms, weddings and funerals they attended at the church during its 73-year history.

St. John the Evangelist Church is closing after combining parishes with Holy Cross Church in South Portland. Many members will attend Holy Cross, while others will attend St. Bartholomew Church in Cape Elizabeth or St. Maximilian Kolbe Church in Scarborough, two other parishes in a relatively new administrative cluster.

St. John the Evangelist is the 18th church to close since the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland began consolidating parishes in 2006 because of declining membership. Today, the diocese has 56 parishes, down from 133, and 171 Catholic churches.

With a church built in 1940 to serve a growing population on the west side of South Portland, St. John Parish encompassed 1,880 households at its peak, in the early 1980s.

Lately, weekly attendance was down to about 150 people, say church officials. Some of them had been attending Masses offered at preferred times at other churches in the cluster.

Monsignor Michael Henchal, pastor of the cluster, celebrated the final Mass with 10 other priests.

"This change and closing is so difficult," Henchal said during his sermon. "It's leaving a building that you love, a building of simple dignity and beauty, (with) all sorts of memories attached to it."

Henchal noted that many features of the church, including holy oils, a brass bell, a processional crucifix and a statue of St. John the Evangelist, will be transferred to Holy Cross Church.

Henchal said the church will be unconsecrated and sold.

Greg Boulos of The Boulos Co. said Wednesday that he represents a potential buyer who has a purchase-and-sale agreement on the church. He would not provide further details.

Barbara Nee, 80, already attends the 8 a.m. Mass at St. Maximilian Kolbe Church each Sunday. She now plans to become a member of the combined St. John and Holy Cross Parish.

Nee has been a member of St. John since she was 7 years old. Her father and stepmother, John and Jennie Joyce, were the third couple to get married in the parish.

Nee and her late husband, Edward, got married in the church, and their six children and 12 grandchildren have received most of the Catholic sacraments at St. John.

Nee has been president of the Women's Council for the last nine years, and there has been talk of closing the church for the last five.

"It's been like a dark cloud hanging over us," Nee said as she handed out programs to parishioners as they arrived.

"Now that it's happening, it's kind of anticlimactic," Nee said. "I'm sad as all get-out. I haven't really cried, but it's wrenching. My whole spiritual life is here."

Later, at a crowded gathering in the hall in the church's basement, Nee admitted that she cried during the Mass.

"It's sad about the building, but it's all these people I'll miss," Nee said. "Because we all won't go to the same church. It's like moving to a whole new town."

-- Staff Writer Gillian Graham contributed to this report.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

Twitter: @KelleyBouchard

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Additional Photos

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Parishioners at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in South Portland celebrated their last Mass Wednesday night. The church will merge with Holy Cross, also in South Portland, and the building will be sold.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer


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