BIDDEFORD – Betty Cadorette found Monsignor Rene Mathieu in the sacristy Friday evening, shortly after he led the final celebration of Mass at St. Andre Church.

“I don’t want to leave. I want to stay the night,” Cadorette said defiantly. The 58-year-old woman dissolved into tears as the gray-haired priest embraced her.

“I was born and raised here. All 16 of us were,” Cadorette said, referring to her siblings. “And all of a sudden it’s gone. I know we have to move on, but I can’t believe they’re going to close the doors forever.”

The pews were filled for the last Mass at St. Andre, a massive brick church on Bacon Street built 100 years ago to serve the city’s burgeoning French-Canadian population. It’s striking neoclassical interior, with rounded arches, domed ceilings and heavenly murals, was decked for the holidays with a manger scene, poinsettias, evergreen garlands and white lights.

The mostly solemn New Year’s Eve service was punctuated by joyous hymns, occasional applause and the monsignor’s earnest plea that members continue to share their faith and talents with the remaining churches in the newly consolidated Good Shepherd Parish.

“I ask you to commit yourself to ensuring that the special gifts of St. Andre’s are not lost, but are folded into the new parish,” Mathieu said. “Bring your insights and talents to our other churches. The history of this church community and of those who worshipped here will always be an important part of who we are in the future.”

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland announced in August 2009 that three churches in Biddeford and Saco would be closed because of declining numbers of priests and parishioners and rising building maintenance costs. The move was part of a statewide consolidation of churches that started in 2004, shortly after Bishop Richard Malone was installed.

The closing of St. Andre follows the closing of Notre Dame de Lourdes Church in Saco and St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Biddeford at the end of 2009.

The consolidated Good Shepherd Parish consists of St. Joseph’s Church in Biddeford, Most Holy Trinity Church in Saco, St. Margaret Church in Old Orchard Beach and St. Philip Church in Lyman. The parish also holds summer services at St. Brendan Chapel in Biddeford Pool and St. Luke Chapel in Old Orchard Beach.

The parish has about 16,000 members, Mathieu said Friday. Many parishioners don’t attend church regularly and baptisms no longer outpace funerals.

“We bury about 300 parishioners each year and we baptize about 100,” said Mathieu, who is the parish pastor with help from two other priests. “If we don’t make the hard decisions now, we’d be leaving a terrible burden to the young people of our parish.”

Collections in the parish’s churches had been dropping about 10 percent per year, aggravated by the sour economy. Weekly collections in 2009 were about $5,000 less than they were in 2008. The parish had a $48,000 deficit in fiscal 2009 and faced a projected $170,000 deficit in 2010 if no changes were made.

“By doing what we’ve done, we’re hoping to have a balanced budget by the next fiscal year,” Mathieu said.

The diocese decided to build St. Andre in 1899, when St. Joseph’s, established in 1870, could no longer adequately serve the city’s many French-Canadian immigrants, according to the parish’s website. St. Mary’s had opened in 1858 to serve the city’s Irish Catholic community.

St. Andre was dedicated in 1910 and later opened an elementary school, a high school and a credit union.

To promote the assimilation of St. Andre’s members throughout the parish, four families will deliver gifts from St. Andre to the other churches this weekend, including linens, an incense burner and a candle lighter.

Many parishioners will attend the other churches.

Maurice Sayer, 76, plans to attend Most Holy Trinity in Saco. He was born and raised on Bacon Street and grew up attending St. Andre. His eight children were baptized there.

“It’s going to be sad when I can’t come here anymore,” Sayer said.

Dorothy Bineau, 74, attended the last Mass at St. Andre with her husband, Leo, her son, David Bineau, and his wife and three daughters.

“I’ve been a member of St. Andre’s since my son started school here when he was 6 years old,” Bineau said. “It’s very hard to see it close, but I’m a very positive person. I’ll miss coming here, but we’re getting to know people at the other churches.”

Donna and Jim Buttarazzi were among the younger people at the last Mass. They joined the church 11 years ago.

“When we walked in here, I knew we had found our spiritual home,” said Donna Buttarazzi, 45. “Now, we have to find a new spiritual home.”

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]