Dana Devoe can’t remember a time when St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church in Orono was not an important part of his life.
Devoe, 76, of Orono was baptized and confirmed there. His six children were baptized at the stone church on Main Street. His parents’ funeral Masses were held at St. Mary’s. One of his daughters was married there in November 1988.
For Devoe and other parishioners who have attended the century-old church their entire lives, that relationship will come to an end New Year’s Day.
The last Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 1. Bishop Richard Malone, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, will preside. Former parishioners, members of the Two Rivers Catholic Community that serves the Orono-Old Town area, and Catholics from around the state have been invited to attend.
“We’re feeling very sad,” Devoe said Tuesday. “I think the thing that means the most to me, that I will miss the most, is just seeing the people at church every weekend.”
George Gonyar, 81, of Orono agreed. His grandmother was a communicant at St. Mary’s when it was established as a parish in 1883. His father was 7 years old when the building was dedicated in 1906.
“It’s a very emotional time,” he said of the pending closing. “St. Mary’s is a beautiful church. It’s a comfortable place to be, a traditional place for me to be. We’re people of habit and tradition and this [closing] is going to have a big impact on a lot of people.”
Last spring, church leaders, along with the recently formed “cluster” of churches in Orono, Old Town and Bradley, agreed to recommend to the bishop that the church be closed Jan. 1. Malone approved the recommendation.
The major factors that went into the decision to close St. Mary’s, according to the Rev. Wilfred P. Labbe, the church’s pastor, were declining attendance, an aging membership, its proximity to the Newman Center religious facility near the University of Maine, a severe shortage of priests and the expensive repairs the aging structure requires.
Repairs to the St. Mary’s stone structure have been put off far too long, Labbe said earlier this year. The heating system needs to be replaced, the foundation needs to be shored up and the entire stone façade should be taken down and reset, he said.
Water has damaged the mortar, and stones have fallen off the building. To the left of the church’s front doors, a tree has begun to grow in between the stones. Estimates to fix everything that needs to be repaired have run from $500,000 to $1 million, the priest said.
St. Mary’s membership is between 100 and 110, Labbe said, and most are more than 60 years of age. Our Lady of Wisdom, which is housed at the Newman Center, has 130 registered families, including many with young children in need of classes in preparation for First Communion and Confirmation.
Attendance at St. Mary’s has been slowly but steadily affected by the nearby Our Lady of Wisdom, Gonyar said. The chapel opened in 1946 near the University of Maine when he was a student.
At first, only students could attend, he said. A few years later, Mass was opened up to Catholic faculty and staff at the university as well as to Orono residents to ease the large numbers of people attending St. Mary’s, according to Gonyar.
The Newman Center was built in 1967. Its worship space is very modern, with chairs instead of pews. Worshippers look down on rather than up to the altar table where the priest prepares communion. The newer building bears almost no resemblance to the traditional Gothic style of St. Mary’s.
For Gonyar, who has not regularly attended Mass at St. Mary’s for several years, the beginning of the end for the church came when Sunday morning services were no longer offered.
“The loss of Sunday Mass was the clincher for me, as reluctant as I was to face it,” he said. “A lot of people just don’t like going to Mass [at 5:30] on Saturday afternoons.”
St. Mary’s is the second church in the diocese to close in the past three years, according to Bill Schulz, director of parish planning, at the chancery in Portland. St. Theresa of the Infant Jesus Church in Mexico and St. Joseph’s, its mission church in Dixfield, closed this fall.
Those buildings have not yet been placed on the market, Schulz said Tuesday, but will most likely, along with St. Mary’s, be put up for sale after the first of the year.
“St. Mary’s is kind of in the same situation St. Theresa’s was,” Schulz said. “The church in Mexico was 1½ miles from St. Anthanasius Catholic Church in Rumford.”
The decisions to close churches in Orono, Mexico and Dixfield were a direct result of the reorganization of parishes under the New Evangelism Plan put in place by Malone in 2004. Discussions about the future of St. Mary’s, however, began at roughly the same time, according to Labbe, who lives in Old Town at the Holy Family Catholic Church rectory.
He is one of two priests — the other is the Rev. Thomas Farley — who serve St. Mary’s and Our Lady of Wisdom in Orono, Holy Family Catholic Church in Old Town, St. Ann Catholic Church on Indian Island and St. Ann Catholic Church in Bradley. The two men now conduct seven Masses each weekend on a rotating schedule.
On Jan. 1, those parishes will merge formally to become one parish even as the last Mass is celebrated at St. Mary’s. Parishioners’ involvement with the structure, however, will not end on New Year’s Day, Devoe said. He and others, acting on behalf of the diocese, will need to meet with town officials to discuss a zoning change so the building can be put up for sale.
“It’s also in a historic district,” Devoe said, “but whether that’s a help or hindrance we don’t know. That sort of depends on what is proposed by a potential buyer.
“I’d like to see something there that could be a service to a lot of the people in the town of Orono,” he said. “I’d like to see a lot of people in Orono be able to use that property for something good. I don’t know how to define it further than that.”
The former church school, located just south of St. Mary’s on Main Street, might be a model for the church’s future. Built in 1916, it was closed in 1968 by the diocese and purchased in 1985 by Nancy and Rick Pare of Orono. It is now an elderly housing project.
Devoe and Gonyar both acknowledged that the worship experience and the celebration of the weekly Mass were what was important in their religious lives, not the setting in which services are held. Both men, however, said they would miss St. Mary’s.
“It’s been an integral part of my life,” Gonyar said, “as much a part of my life as my home is. … But I know [closing it] is the practical thing to do. We do not have the money to make the necessary repairs.”
The decision to close and sell St. Mary’s was not made lightly, Labbe emphasized. It was made so that Catholics in the Orono-Old Town area could fulfill the goals of Malone’s call for a New Evangelism.
“Seeing this church close is not something I’ll ever be happy about,” Labbe said. “St. Mary’s is beautiful as it is, but the building itself has become a burden that’s not helping spread the Gospel. It’s the men and women who make up the community by living the Gospel that do that.”
Number of parishes in Maine
1988 — 145
2004 — 135
2008 — 93*
2009 — 83*
* Changes due to mergers and formation of clusters.
Source: Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland
History of St. Mary of the Assumption
1848 — The Rev. John Bapst holds first Mass at home of Mrs. Alexander Willett
1869 — Wooden structure, now part of Byer Manufacturing on Mill Street, built as mission church of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Old Town
1883 — St. Mary’s becomes an independent parish
1905 — Stone building on Main Street completed
1914-16 — St. Mary Catholic School and Orono Catholic High School constructed
1968 — Diocese closes school
1985 — Former school sold, developed for elderly housing
1988 — Main View apartment complex opens in former school
2008 — Parishioners recommend closing church
Jan. 1, 2009 — Last service to be held
Sources: ”Historical Sketch of Orono” by Clarence A. Day and Bangor Daily News archives