There is nothing like the demolition of a building to show how history is not just what happened 20, 50 or 100 years ago. History is happening right now. Although there are a few historic scenarios where time can help to tell the story more accurately, with most cases, the closer you are in time to the actual event, the more accurate the documentation will be.

St. John the Evangelist Church on Main Street was demolished on April 29, 2020. Lori Gaudreau photos

In the case of St. John the Evangelist Church, we are so incredibly thankful to two residents, Ralph Baxter, Jr. and Lori Gaudreau, for getting out and helping us to document the final days of the church.

Ralph was on site about two days before the demolition and took some photographs with all of the vegetation around the church removed. Lori was on site on the day of the demolition and captured a series of photos as the building was very quickly taken down.

I’ve heard from a few other residents who were shocked that they left for work in the morning and came home to the church being gone.

For those who have asked us about the history of the church, here is a summary of some of the highlights:

The origins of St. John’s Church date back to 1855 when the Catholic Diocese of Portland purchased land in the Cash Corner area to establish the Calvary Cemetery. In the 1860s, a small memorial chapel known as the Mount Calvary Chapel was built in the cemetery. In 1910, Sunday Mass began to be offered in the Calvary Chapel by the cemetery director, the Rev. Timothy Houlihan.

In 1926, the small chapel was upgraded and expanded to serve the growing populations in the Cash Corner, Ligonia and Thornton Heights neighborhoods. As the number of parishioners continued to grow, however, work began on a new church on Main Street in 1939. The church was blessed in 1940 by the Most Reverend Joseph E. McCarthy and named St. John the Evangelist. The Rev. John Ryan celebrated its first Mass in 1940 and he served as St. John’s pastor from 1940 until 1971.

According to records from the church, in 1959, “Father Ryan requested the services of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Good Shepherd Sisters of Quebec) to take the lead in coordinating religious education programs” at St. John. “The convent residence for six teaching Sisters was connected to the school building by a breezeway. The Center was opened on Nov. 8, 1959. On Jan. 10, 1960, 665 elementary students and 140 high school students enrolled.”

In 1962, with 700 families now registered at St. John’s, the church decided to undergo enlargements and improvements to accommodate the growing number of parishioners. The number of families was at an all-time high in 1988, with 1,880 families registered at St. John.

St. Maximilian Kolbe parish was established at that time and St. John’s Scarborough parishioners moved to the new parish.

In 2013, St. John was merged with Holy Cross in South Portland, creating the St. John and Holy Cross Parish. The last mass at the church on Main Street was held on Sept. 11, 2013.

Most of the parishioners moved to either Holy Cross or to St. Maximilian Kolbe. In July, 2018, South Portland Housing Authority purchased the building, through its South Portland Housing Development Corporation, with a plan to build a four-story, mixed-use building on the site.

Before the building was demolished, the housing authority hired a professional historical consultant who researched and prepared a very thorough history and documentation of the church (a copy of which is now in the archives at South Portland Historical Society). The consultant’s report includes a large number of photographs documenting the interior and exterior of all buildings that were on the St. John site.

If you have photographs of history happening in South Portland, we hope you will contact the South Portland Historical Society. With the pandemic going on, life has changed for most of us.

Have you taken a photograph that helps to show how things have changed here in our community? Have you taken any photographs that help show what everyday activities are like, such as shopping in a store or picking up food from a restaurant?

If you have images that you would be willing to share, please reach out to South Portland Historical Society by phone at 207-767-7299, email at [email protected], mail at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106, or on Facebook. Thank you.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of the South Portland Historical Society.

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