Union Church Pastor Jan Hryniewicz, 75, is pictured in her office at the North Dam Mill in Biddeford Wednesday. Hryniewicz will retire from her position as the pastor of the Biddeford Pool church next month, after leading the church on a path of growth and success for the last 15 years. NEIGHBOR

Union Church Pastor Jan Hryniewicz, 75, is pictured in her office at the North Dam Mill in Biddeford Wednesday. Hryniewicz will retire from her position as the pastor of the Biddeford Pool church next month, after leading the church on a path of growth and success for the last 15 years. NEIGHBOR

BIDDEFORD — When Jan Hryniewicz became the pastor of Union Church in Biddeford Pool it had just eight members and little, if any, involvement in the community as a whole. In Hryniewicz’s 15 years as the pastor of the now-150-yearold Stonecliff Road church, membership has swelled to about 120 and it has become a vibrant and integral part of the community.

With retirement now fast-approaching for Hryniewicz, the 75-year-old Ocean Park resident, mother of four and grandmother of five reflected Wednesday on her time at the church and how it has grown – by and large through her own independent, creative approach to religion.

“We’re a very liberal church theologically,” Hryniewicz said, sitting at a table in the church’s office inside the North Dam Mill. “I don’t believe in preaching a whole bunch of dogma or doctrine. I encourage people to search for their own way and own personal faith, their own way of expressing their spirituality … and I think people have appreciated that. They’ve been able to come and find their own path and not have to be told what to believe and how to believe it. That, I think, is key and that’s what’s a little different about our church.”

Hryniewicz grew up in western Massachusetts and has been active in the church her entire life. After studying theology and psychology in college, she worked in Baptist and United Church of Christ Churches and for six years was the state youth minister for American Baptist churches of Massachusetts.

Her passion, she said, was – and still is – working with children but she always had a “secret dream” to have her own church, and shortly after she and her husband moved to Maine, where they had been vacationing for years, in 1999, she was ordained at and became the pastor of Union Church.

Hryniewicz’s unique and welcoming approach has created a sense of inclusivity at the church that is second to none.

“It’s very inclusive, very inclusive,” Deborah Burke, a member of the church, said Wednesday. “You can come barefoot to church in the summer if you want.”

The church’s pews regularly welcome people with diverse theological and professional backgrounds, from lawyers and doctors to artists and poets, said Burke, adding that Hryniewicz’s entertaining sermons offer something for children and adults alike.

“(Hryniewicz) tells jokes at every sermon,” she said. “We laugh in church all the time, uproariously sometimes. She reads books meant for children that have a message for adults.”

Hryniewicz’s emphasis on bringing entertainment – specifically music – to Union Church has been another driving factor in its growth over the years, with accomplished jazz pianist Michelle Currie playing there regularly and special performances from many others, including a top contestant on the upcoming season of Fox’s “American Idol.”

“I think music is just so important to worship and it’s a draw for people,” said Hryniewicz. “When people come (to Union Church) to worship, they’re sure to hear some inspiring music.”

Hryniewicz was also one of the creators of the church’s popular summer speaker series, which began in 2002 and has welcomed more than 50 local and national writers. Just this past summer, the church welcomed poet and author Richard Blanco, who served as Barack Obama’s second inaugural poet.

“The church had been closed up for a lot of years, and people didn’t really see it as an open, lively place to be, so we decided we needed to get some visibility in the community,” Hryniewicz said of the creation of the series.

The series quickly caught the attention of the community, she said, and has since pumped thousands of dollars back into it. With speakers volunteering their time, the money raised through the series primarily goes to charity organizations in Biddeford and Saco, such as Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center, Stone Soup Food Pantry, the Saco Meals Program and Ever After Mustang Rescue. Last year alone, the series raised $16,000.

As the church has grown, its members have given back to the community in other ways, too. There are three Union Church members who own businesses on Main Street, for example – an indication of the church’s reach beyond the small Biddeford Pool neighborhood.

“It’s wonderful to see a lot of that giveback to the community, and people being able to support Biddeford by working here,” said Hryniewicz.

When asked what she’ll miss most about being the pastor of the church, Hryniewicz was quick to say the people. “It’s very painful, it’s much harder than I thought it would be,” she said of her decision to retire.

But as both Hryniewicz and Burke noted, the members of the church are a tight-knit bunch, caring for and spending time with one another inside and outside of the church – and Hryniewicz’s retirement won’t break those bonds.

Hryniewicz officially retires on Sunday, Jan. 17. Following church that day, there will be a retirement party for her at the University of New England. As for her retirement plans, Hryniewicz said she hopes to write children’s books or theology curriculum for children.


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