January 24, 2013

Another Maine Catholic church may close

A parish panel calls for shutting the doors of St. John the Evangelist, but a final decision is pending.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – The consolidation of Catholic parishes across Maine that began in 2004, leading to the closure of more than a dozen churches, may claim another place of worship.

click image to enlarge

St. John the Evangelist Church in South Portland Thursday, January 24, 2013. The church has been recommended for closure by the finance commission for the Catholic parish in South Portland.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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Parishioner John Labrie of South Portland discusses the potential closure of St. John the Evangelist Church in South Portland Thursday, January 24, 2013. The church has been recommended for closure by the finance commission for the Catholic parish in South Portland.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

The finance commission of the South Portland parish, which includes St. John the Evangelist and Holy Cross churches, has recommended closing St. John the Evangelist by June 30, according to a parish newsletter.

Monsignor Michael Henchal, pastor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland cluster that includes the parishes in South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough, said this week that no final decision has been made.

"The finance commission made their recommendation, but I think it's premature to say that it's a sure thing," Henchal said, declining further comment.

Tom Sheehan, business manager for the parish, did not return calls for comment, nor did John Moreshead, St. John the Evangelist's representative on the parish council.

The church will host a meeting for parishioners at 2 p.m. Sunday to discuss the recommendation further. Henchal said that meeting likely will provide more clarity.

Before the noon Mass on Thursday at the 50-year-old brick church on Route 1, John Labrie, 76, said he has been attending St. John the Evangelist since 1969. He lives in the nearby Cash Corner neighborhood.

Labrie, one of fewer than 10 people who attended the Mass, said he knows that the diocese has recommended closing the church, but he doesn't plan to attend Sunday's meeting.

"I don't think it will do me any good," he said. "We knew this was coming."

If the church closes, Labrie said he likely will go to Holy Cross, about three miles away, or St. Maximilian Kolbe in Scarborough, about four miles away.

St. Louis in Portland is about three miles from St. John the Evangelist.

Gloria Ahern, 78, of South Portland usually attends Holy Cross, but said she has attended St. John the Evangelist many times over the years.

"It's a beautiful church and the people here really love it," she said. "But there just aren't enough people to support it, I guess."

The Diocese of Portland initiated a plan nine years ago to consolidate Maine's 135 parishes down to the current total of 57. The consolidation was meant to better serve rural areas of the state, but it also reflected a decrease in the number of parishioners and the number of priests, a trend that has been reflected nationwide.

According to the diocese, about 187,000 Mainers identify themselves as Catholic, down from 234,000 in 2004.

The number of active priests in Maine has dropped to 69.

Since 2004, 14 Catholic churches have closed in Maine. In late 2009, Notre Dame de Lourdes in Saco and St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Biddeford closed. St. Andre Church in Biddeford was closed a year later. St. Joseph and St. Patrick churches in Lewiston also have closed in recent years.

The reason for the recommendation to close St. John the Evangelist appears to be financial, according to the parish newsletter, but the Catholic Church has never been poor.

In June 2010, the Maine diocese finished a two-year capital campaign that raised $42 million to benefit parishes and programs across the state.

Money from that campaign funded a variety of improvements and outreach efforts, social service programs operated by Catholic Charities Maine, scholarships to Catholic schools and other programs.

Monsignor Henchal said the parish will make a final recommendation to the bishop about the fate of St. John the Evangelist. Although the final decision would rest with the bishop, Henchal said it's unlikely that the bishop would go against the recommendation.

Maine is now without a bishop. Richard Malone led the diocese from 2004 until last fall, when he took a job as bishop of the diocese in Buffalo, N.Y.

Malone has acted as administrator in Maine since moving to New York, and the Vatican has not chosen his successor.

 

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

 

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