First Parish Church at 425 Congress Street was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1972. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

With its longtime minister leaving the post in June, this summer has been a time of transition for Portland’s oldest house of worship, but members of First Parish Church hope an interim minister starting next month will put the congregation on steady footing as it begins its next chapter.

The Rev. Elaine Peresluha Contributed / First Parish

The Rev. Elaine Peresluha has been hired as interim minister and will help First Parish on Congress Street find its next permanent, or settled, minister.

Peresluha, who beings Sept. 1, will help the 300-member congregation “dig into who we are, what we want for the congregation both in terms of minister and how we want to be,” said Laurie Hasty, a member of First Parish since 1975.

An ordained Universalist Unitarian minister for the last 25 years, Peresluha specializes in interim ministry.

“Part of the role of the interim minister is to help us through that process,” Hasty said. “They are able to ask the hard questions, be objective, critical and help us do some self-assessment.”

The Rev. Christina Sillari, the former First Parish minister, had been at the church since October 2011. Her “heart, leadership and legacy has brought us to an inflection point,” said Jason Shedlock, immediate past president of the church’s Governing Board.

The Rev. Christina Sillari Contributed / First Parish

“As we pivot to the future, we do so carrying her indelible mark of love and with the deep promise of care, growth and professionalism that our interim minister offers to our congregation,” Shedlock said.

Sillari had a strong focus on social justice, Hasty said, particularly with issues relating to the poor and homeless, Black people, Native Americans and immigrants.

“That’s an imprint she has left,” said Hasty, the church’s membership coordinator.

“Our shared ministry has been an amazing journey,” Sillari wrote in the church’s 2020-2021 annual report. “So much growth and depth has occurred over the past decade; yet, I feel I have taken First Parish as far as I can. First Parish is in a healthy place equipped with the staff and leaders you need to courageously and confidently move forward.”

Hasty said Sillari has been critical to Church For EveryBody, a project to make the historic church more accessible. The $1.5 million project, $1.4 million of which has already been raised, includes the construction of an ADA-accessible entrance in the back of the building, the installation of an elevator, a new wheelchair ramp on the west side of the building, renovations of the kitchen and Meeting Room and an investment in technology to better allow people to watch services and events virtually.

“It is a very historic building and access was challenging,” Hasty said, adding that previously parts of the building, including church offices and classrooms, were only accessible by stairways.

The First Parish was established in 1674 and moved to its current location in 1740. The first church building was the site of where the State of Maine Constitution was drafted in 1819. The current granite building was completed in 1826 and, because of its exterior material, was one of the few buildings in that part of the city that survived the Great Fire of 1866.

The building was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1972.

Hasty said the congregation has not been able to get together in person since the pandemic began, and for more than a year, services have been offered remotely through Zoom or Facebook Live. The church’s COVID Task Force, she said, is working on a plan to return the church to in-person worship.

“We are all looking forward to it,” she said. “People are really eager to get back together and see each other. We have to wait until we have a strong plan in place and it is safe for everybody.”

The 300-member congregation of First Parish Church has not been able worship in the same space in more than a year due to the coronavirus pandemic. A plan is being worked on now to return the congregation to in-person service. Contributed / First Parish Church

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