The former Williston-West Church on Thomas Street is being sold at auction next month. The church’s parish house has been partially redeveloped into five residential units. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — For the second time this year, the Williston-West Church on Thomas Street is on the auction block.

The 8000-square-foot sanctuary, one of the pieces of the property that will be auctioned off, contains its pews. lecterns and many other church items, including hymn numbers still displayed. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

The former church, at 32 Thomas St., is set to be auctioned by Tranzon Auction Properties on Tuesday, Sept. 10, at 11 a.m. The church was open until 2011, when Williston-West merged with the Immanuel Baptist-American Baptist Churches to form the Williston-Immanuel United Church, at 156 High St.

Since the merger, the Williston-West site has seen its share of controversy.

Frank Monsour, of 32 Thomas Street LLC, purchased the property in 2011 for $658,000 with the intention of renovating the parish house into residences and offices and turning the sanctuary space into a community hall available for rental. In June 2012 the City Council approved a conditional zoning agreement that would allow Monsour to renovate 2,800 square feet of the parish house into offices for Majella Global Technologies.

A dozen Portland residents banded together to sue Monsour and the city, arguing the commercial aspect of Monsour’s vision did not fit into the neighborhood and ran counter to the city’s Comprehensive Plan. The group appealed the council’s decision to the Cumberland County Superior Court in an attempt to halt the project. The council’s action was overturned Dec. 31, 2013, by the lawsuit. But the lower court decision was overturned by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Oct. 16, 2014, paving the way for the redevelopment project.

The residences, which range from 1,150 to 2,161 square feet, were completed and gained a certificate of occupancy in December 2017.

Monsour ran into financial issues and filed for bankruptcy just before the vacant church and parish house were set to be auctioned off in February 2019.

At a preview of the property Thursday, Aug. 22, Tranzon Auction Sales and Information Specialist Sophia Rosendo said the 114-year-old parish house and 132-year-old sanctuary are being auctioned off together.

“The buildings are being auctioned off as one sale at this point,” she said.

The residential units, retain some of the charm of its former use, including Unit 2 that has a fireplace and stained glass windows. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

The parish house, built in 1905, has been renovated into five still-vacant residential units. Part of the building, which was designed by John Calvin Stevens, remains undeveloped. The sanctuary next door is also waiting for further development. The 8,000-square-foot space, built in 1877  and designed by Francis Fasset has many of the elements it had when it operated as a worship space, including the pews, stained glass windows, chandeliers and other church items.

It is the large, undeveloped part of the parish house and the sanctuary that intrigued William Gillian III, a Cape Elizabeth resident, who stopped by during an open house.

“I am interested in the historic aspect of it. The fact it used to be a church, makes it a very unique property,” Gillian said. “It is in such a great neighborhood, the best neighborhood in Portland.”

The challenges for a prospective buyer, he said, are how to handle parking since there is no parking lot on site, and what sort of uses could go into the front half of the parish house and the sanctuary.

“There are a lot of this to figure out, but it would be great to restore something like this. It would be very satisfying,” he said.

The buildings were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

According to Tranzon, at next month’s auction the property will  be sold “as-is with no contingencies.” A $50,000 deposit is necessary in order to bid and the deposit must be increased to equal 10% of the purchase price within five days of the auction. The balance is due with 45 days of the sale.

The conditional zoning agreement allows the undeveloped parish hall to be used for professional offices, excluding personal services, veterinarians or retail. It also permits uses allowed in the underlying R-4 zone, which include a host of residential uses and things like places of assembly, child care facilities and group homes by conditional approval.

Additional previews of the property will take place Wednesday, Aug. 28 at 3 p.m. and Friday, Sept. 6 at noon or by appointment.

Anne Pringle, president of the Western Promenade Neighborhood Association, is paying close attention to what happens with the property. She said the hope is for the property’s reuse to fit in with the neighborhood. One thing she would not like to see in the space is a commercial business.

“There are plenty of people who have turned old sanctuaries into residences. Our hope has been someone with the sort of experience find their way to Portland, Maine,” she said.

Several former churches in the city have been redeveloped over the years.

The Chestnut Street Church closed in 2007, but was renovated and turned into Grace, a restaurant that operated for a decade until earlier this year, when owners decided to use the space for special events; Clark Memorial United Methodist Church on Pleasant Avenue has been converted into 25 residences; the former Payson Park Evangelical Free Church on the corner of Ocean Avenue and Rosedale Street is a private residence; the former St. Dominic’s Church on State Street houses the Maine Irish Heritage Center, and St. Lawrence Arts Center on Munjoy Hill is in the old St. Lawrence Chapel parish house.


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