ORONO, Maine — The former St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church opened its doors to the public for the first time in three years during the Stillwater Artsapalooza celebration Saturday night.
St. Mary’s held its final Mass on Jan. 1, 2009. The Rev. Wilfred P. Labbe, St. Mary’s pastor at the time, told the Bangor Daily News in 2008 that the church’s heating system, foundation and stone exterior needed extensive repairs estimated at more than $500,000.
The church’s doors remained locked until Fariba Dayhim and her husband Shahram Pourmomtaz bought the 1.1-acre site at 89 Main St., which includes the church, convent and rectory, in April 2010.
“It’s too beautiful to keep to ourselves,” Dayhim said.
Dayhim and Pourmomtaz said they hope to reopen the church in the next few months as a community and events center. They don’t have a name for the repurposed facility yet, and said they will reach out to the community for suggestions.
Dayhim, a surgeon at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, said she and her husband fell in love with the shuttered property when they moved to Maine in 2009 and wanted to renew the beauty of the church, which builders completed in 1905.
The couple quickly set to work, hiring painters, stone masons and carpenters to refurbish the former house of worship.
They soon discovered the wood in the north steeple of the church, which housed the bell, was badly rotted and the 2,500-pound bell was at risk of crashing down into the church.
Instead, in October 2011, workers lowered the bell to the ground, where it now is on display outside the former church. Inscriptions on the bell indicate that it was cast by Meneely Bell Co. in Troy N.Y. and donated to the church in 1914. Among the donor names inscribed on the bell is Maine Gov. William T. Haines.
Restoration of the north steeple has been completed, but work on the south tower continues. Stone work also is ongoing, but Pourmomtaz said he expects all the major projects will be completed in about two months.
“This is the only time [the church] has been safe enough to open,” Dayhim said.
Dayhim said she often sits in the pews of the former church, thinking while she watches the sunlight cast colorful hues on the historic building’s interior.
She said she often hears stories from residents who were baptised, married and then had children baptised and married all in her church.
“I think that’s what this place does best, it keeps memories,” Dayhim said. The couple said they hope reopening the building as a community center will allow community members to create new memories in the old St. Mary’s.
Artsapalooza attendees who entered the church over the course of the evening were treated to a play and choir performance by Hermon High School students, singing by Christina Long and alternative rock from Lampstand.
Other performances, art displays, auctions and events were on display throughout Orono’s downtown Saturday.