SOUTH BERWICK – Shiny shovels tore into damp gravel Wednesday afternoon, breaking ground for a new Roman Catholic church and raising hope for the vitality of the faith in Maine.

Bishop Richard Malone blessed the site at 160 Agamenticus Road, where members of the Parish of the Ascension of the Lord will build a church to be named Our Lady of the Angels.

It’s the first Roman Catholic church to be built in Maine since 2005, when the Diocese of Portland began closing churches and consolidating parishes in response to a drop in priests and members.

“We are an anomaly around here,” said the Rev. John Skehan, pastor of the parish. “The area’s growing a little bit, so our attendance has been pretty consistent. We have more baptisms than funerals.”

Our Lady of the Angels Church will replace Our Lady of Peace Church in Berwick, which is under contract to be sold to another Christian church in January. Some members attended St. Michael Church in South Berwick, which closed four years ago and will soon become the town library.

The parish includes St. Christopher Church in York, St. Raphael Church in Kittery and the seasonal Star of the Sea Church in York Beach. Skehan oversees parish operations and the spiritual needs of about 3,000 families, with an assistant pastor and a deacon.

Malone thanked church members for their patience and conviction in planning and raising money to build “a new house for God.” He noted the unseasonably warm weather, with a bright sun low in the late fall sky, as a sign of God’s favor.

“We are the church,” Malone said, “but the church needs a place to gather.”

Since 2005, the diocese has closed 17 churches, leaving 155 open across the state. To lower administrative costs and make it easier to share priests, the diocese also reduced the number of parishes, from 135 to 61.

The diocese has about 60 priests, down from about 230 at its peak in the 1950s. The latest American Religious Identification Survey showed that the number of Mainers who call themselves Catholic dropped about 20 percent in less than two decades, from 286,408 people in 1990 to 227,555 people in 2008.

Nationally, the number of Catholics increased 24 percent, from 46 million in 1990 to 57.2 million in 2008, in part because of an increase in Hispanic residents.

“This is an encouraging moment for us, no question,” Malone said before the ground-breaking ceremony. “There are always, within every community, those whose faith is strong and deep and hopeful.”

Our Lady of Peace Church serves about 800 families, down from about 1,500 a few decades ago, Skehan said. But membership is steady and strong enough to raise $1.3 million in pledges to build a $2.7 million church.

The sale of St. Michael Church netted an additional $875,000, and the pending sale of Our Lady of Peace will help cover the rest, said David Vachon, building committee chairman. Fundraising will continue with the goal of one day building a two-story church hall with a kitchen, offices and meeting rooms.

After the two churches consolidated, members decided neither was suitable for renovation or expansion and both lacked adequate parking and handicap access, Vachon said. They paid $200,000 for the 10-acre site for the new church, about a mile from St. Michael Church and five miles from Our Lady of Peace Church.

The new church, designed by WBRC Architects-Engineers in Portland and Bangor, will be built by Ledgewood Construction in South Portland. Site work is under way, church construction will start in March and be finished in November 2012.

The church’s design is influenced by the Carpenter Gothic style of the late 1800s, featuring arched windows, pointed gables, a bracketed steeple and clapboard siding, said the architect, Matthew Carter. The walls of the 9,000-square-foot interior will be painted muted natural tones and the soaring ceiling and support beams will be stained.

“It’s going to be a very friendly, warm interior,” Carter said.

The 360-seat church is designed so the worship space can be expanded easily in the future. It’s a possibility that’s grounded in faith, with Jesus Christ as its cornerstone.

“There’s a lot of hope,” Vachon said. “We’ve got some dedicated people who work hard and younger priests who are forward-thinking. All in all, we’re blessed, no doubt about it.”

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

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