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Sadness, joy are themes for closing of Waterville Catholic church

Alex Barber | BDN
Alex Barber | BDN
A crowd of nearly 400 look on at the final Mass led by Bishop Richard Malone at the St. Francis de Sales Church in Waterville on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012.
By Alex Barber, BDN Staff

WATERVILLE, Maine — Sun shone through stained-glass windows on a full crowd for the final time at St. Francis de Sales Church on Sunday afternoon.

Bishop Richard Malone, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, celebrated the final Mass in front of a full crowd of nearly 400 at the 137-year-old Catholic church on Elm Street. The property will be torn down to make way for senior housing.

“It’s a very sad day because it’s the end of this church’s service as a place of prayer and worship,” said the Rev. Joseph Daniels, pastor of Corpus Christi Parish. “I hope that, in time and in the days ahead, we can look back on this day as a significant step in the development of a renewed expression of the church’s presence in the Greater Waterville area.”

The church was closed and put up for sale for four years but received no offers. It will be torn down to build St. Francis Apartments, a three-story building with 40 one-bedroom units. It will be operated under the offices of the diocese.

“The property is being converted to a Catholic reuse and something that is in harmony with the church’s mission,” Daniels said. “Waterville is one of the most senior communities in the state. We know that senior housing is a very critical need.”

There’s a need for senior housing, as nearby Seton Village, which has 140 units, has a continuous waiting list of 90 people, said Corpus Christi Parish facilities manager Michael Hebert.

“We have conceptual drawings and layout of the whole property. Everything is moving very well and the city is very cooperative,” said Hebert, adding that the church demolition will be in the spring.

The new building will incorporate some features of the church including the stained-glass windows and the statue of St. Francis on the roof over the entrance to the church.

“We’re hoping to keep part of the tower, the area where the bell is and use it in a gazebo out front,” he said.

The church, which had not held regular Masses in four years, was used mostly for funerals, said Daniels.

Still, it held plenty of history, he said.

“St. Francis de Sales was dedicated in 1874. It may well have been the last church to be dedicated by Bishop David Bacon. He was the first bishop of the diocese of Portland,” said Daniels, adding that Bacon died about a month after the church was dedicated.

Daniels said there are seven other churches in the area, with two in Waterville. Those churches are able to accommodate the needs of the community.

“We’re dealing with three factors,” he said. “A decline in our population. Our present church population is becoming increasingly elderly. [And] we are feeling the dramatic effect of a shortage of priests.”

Daniels said there are 56 active priests serving the state.

“When I was first ordained in 1990, this area was served by, I believe, 12 priests. Now there are two,” he said.

Nearing age 70, Nancy Foster of Waterville said she came to the church as a little girl.

“This is to say goodbye,” she said. “There’s sadness, but there’s great joy and anticipation in what’s to come with the new housing. I think it’s very exciting.”

Speakers echoed Foster’s remarks with speeches of sadness and joy.

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