PLEASANT POINT, Maine — The priest and the parish face a daunting challenge: Tear down St. Ann’s Catholic Church or refurbish it.
That was the discussion Sunday as the Rev. Frank Morin met with a handful of parishioners to decide the fate of the little church with the huge mold problem. The church was built in 1929.
Morin said the group’s first priority was to eliminate the mold problem. “We need to keep it a healthy place,” he said of the church.
The problem, part of which is a pungent fungal smell inside the church, appears to be coming from a former convent that adjoins the church.
A tour Sunday of the former living quarters revealed peeling paint around windows, fallen ceilings and water-stained walls. The building is filled with asbestos. At one time eight nuns lived in the convent. Morin said that a lot of them died of cancer.
The convent was abandoned several years ago, but because it shares a common wall with the church, the smell of mold seeps through the heating vent.
Morin shared a letter he received from Environmental Management Inc. of Brunswick that outlined the problem. The field technician for the company visited the church and convent in July.
Air samples were taken and lab analysis revealed a possibility of a fungal growth problem. “These spores, more likely than not, are being picked up by the furnace [forced hot air] from the contaminated air in the convent basement and blown into the church sanctuary space,” the letter said.
Among the suggestions offered were to demolish the convent or isolate it from the church. “To [isolate the convent], all connecting doors from convent to church will have to be sealed so that all air flow is stopped. Also, if there are any cracks in the walls or floors, these need to be sealed tight. Spray foam may be used for this purpose,” the letter said.
To tear the convent down would be expensive. Church officials learned in 2005 that it would cost around $75,000.
The group agreed Sunday that a quick fix would be to install electronic humidity control systems in the basement of the church and convent to help remove the dampness. The priest said he would go ahead with those installations.
Now parishioners must cast about for money to either renovate or rebuild.
Passamaquoddy tribal Chief Rick Phillips-Doyle noted Sunday that if the church were designated a historical site, it could lead to grant money. But the tribe would have to determine whether the church would qualify since it is owned by the diocese even though it was built on reservation land.
To help raise money, Sister Janice Murphy suggested selling the 15 old radiators in the convent. She said she had learned they would bring a good price. She also recommended the church undertake some fundraisers.
Marvin Cling, who works for the tribe’s environmental department, said eliminating future leaks is necessary. He said he would like to test the cellar in the church for mold. The group agreed he should do that.
The group then toured the exterior of the building.
Large cracks are visible where the church meets the convent and in the bell tower. Although the bell has not been rung for a long time, its safety is in question. Parishioner Earl “Tom” Bassett said he would check to see how safe the tower is.
Bassett suggested that instead of renovating the church they tear it down and replace it with a new building.
“Would it be more costly to rebuild than to build something new?” Morin asked.
He said there would be more meetings.
Although this church was built in 1929, the Catholic Church’s history with the Passamaquoddy Tribe dates to 1604.
Phillips-Doyle said in a previous interview with the Bangor Daily News that the first Mass in Washington County was said in a small makeshift chapel on St. Croix Island near Calais where French explorers and their priest had settled.
A harsh winter forced the French to abandon the island, but the Passamaquoddy clung to their faith even during the long years when there were no priests, Phillips-Doyle said.
In 1803, a permanent Catholic church was built at Pleasant Point.
Morin said two priests are buried in the cellar of the church.
“They died here at the reserve in the 1800s and were buried under the church,” Morin said.
The old church was replaced in 1929 with the current St. Ann’s, which recently was designated as a seasonal church because of the priest shortage in Washington County.