For 110 years, the Deering Center Community Church has stood as a solid beacon of faith and goodwill in one of Portland’s most vibrant neighborhoods.

Now the pink granite church on Stevens Avenue – a landmark amid several of the city’s oldest schools, Evergreen Cemetery and Mayor Baxter Woods – needs a little support itself.

Decades of faulty maintenance have taken a toll on the church’s fortress-like bell tower, resulting in damage that will cost $1 million to $1.5 million to repair, said Pastor Don Drake. That’s a tall order for the congregation of an American Baptist church that narrowly avoided closing in 2012 and now supports about 40 members who are recent African immigrants.

“It’s a big deal,” Drake acknowledged. “This church has been an integral part of the Deering Center community for more than 100 years now and this project will be a major challenge.”

Built in 1907, the squat Gothic Revival-style church dominates a block between Pleasant Avenue and Brentwood Street, near Longfellow Elementary School, Lincoln Middle School and Deering High School. The building is in good shape overall, Drake said, especially the slate roof shingles on the church and the bell tower that were mined in Monson.

“We’ve been told that Monson slate is the finest slate in the entire world,” Drake said. “I never knew that. So we’re all set there.”


But in past years, workmen used Portland cement to repoint or repair the mortar between the pink granite stones that cover the bell tower, Drake said. Portland cement is denser than stone, so moisture that entered the bell tower was forced to escape through the stone.

“Each winter, with freezing and thawing, (moisture) has been deteriorating the core of the wall and pushing the stone veneer out,” Drake said.

Building Envelope Specialists of South Portland has given Drake a preliminary project assessment and cost estimate of $1 million to $1.5 million. He expects to receive a final proposal for repair and restoration options in the coming weeks.

“Needless to say, that is a lot for our congregation,” Drake said in a statement posted on the Preserve Deering Neighborhood’s Facebook page.

“It requires very specialized craftsmen to do the work because each stone has been chiseled to fit where it is,” Drake explained. “It’s going to be very labor-intensive to remove the stones, do the repair work and replace them exactly where they were.”

Drake plans to hold a community meeting at the church in February, when he will describe the project in detail to neighborhood leaders and residents, including members of the Deering Neighborhood Association and the Friends of Evergreen.


Soon after, the congregation will launch a fundraising campaign in the hope that folks far beyond the church’s regular members will recognize the value of preserving a landmark community center that has welcomed people of various backgrounds for more than a century.

Drake said the condition of the bell tower is so dire, the repair work needs to begin soon. The goal is to raise the $1.5 million for repairs within a year.

Given the energy level at Sunday’s 10:45 a.m. church service, the goal may not be out of sight.

About 100 congregants showed up to sing along with Drake, on lead guitar, and his backup band and choir. The words to the hymns were broadcast on a large TV screen. Toddlers and babies were cradled in the arms of parents and grandparents who swayed to the music.

On the program were three baptisms and communion. The pastor’s message of the week was titled “New Year’s Vision: Being Bold in the New Year, Getting Out of the Boat in 2017 and Training Believers to Transform the World.”

“I love pastor Don. We have made a lot of friends. This is a very caring church,” said Priscilla Bushey of Portland. She and her husband, George Bushey, have been members for a couple of years.


The church was formerly known as the Central Square Baptist Church. It once had a dwindling congregation and avoided closure in 2012 by temporarily consolidating with the Stroudwater Baptist Church in Portland.

Now, the Deering Center Community Church has about 70 active families and an average weekly attendance of 85 to 90 people at its Sunday service, Drake said. The overall average weekly attendance for churches across New England is 40 to 60 people, he said.

Many of the Deering Center congregation’s newer members are recent African immigrants who hail from countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Burundi, Rwanda and Kenya. French is their primary common language, so church services are conducted in English and French, Drake said.

“This church fits me. I cannot stay home. I am used (to) being at church every Sunday,” said David Ngala, who moved to Portland from the Democratic Republic of Congo a year ago.

Tim DiPaolo of Portland, an elder, deacon and usher, said the immigrants have elevated the level of worship. He said while American-born members are used to a 45-minute service, African members have a different worship experience.

“They don’t church for 45 minutes. They church for three to four hours,” DiPaolo said.


The congregation regularly helps its newer members with rental deposits, clothing drives and donations of household goods, which means the church has limited resources to spend on the bell tower restoration.

The church also allows neighborhood groups to hold public meetings in its hall, which has endeared the congregation to the wider community and raised concern about the future of the bell tower, said John Thibodeau, a community activist who lives a block from the church.

“It’s an iconic building in the heart of the Deering Center neighborhood,” Thibodeau said. “Pastor Don is very generous. Many different groups use the church hall. It’s a lot of money, but hopefully it works out so it can be preserved.”

The congregation will pursue donations and grants to fund the bell tower project, Drake said. And there will be lots of prayer.

“All kinds of it,” Drake said. “We’re very confident that God is working through all of this.”

Staff Writer Beth Quimby contributed to this report.


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