Roman Catholic parish committee recommends closing historic South Portland church

By David Harry, The Forecaster
Posted Jan. 25, 2013, at 2:01 p.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — A parish committee is recommending St. John the Evangelist Church be closed by July.

Monsignor Michael Henchal, pastor of the cluster of four Roman Catholic parishes in South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough, said a decision has not been made. But the recommendation and future of the church at 611 Main St. will be discussed at a parish meeting on Sunday, Jan. 27.

The parish finance commission, according to a church newsletter, determined St. John’s “financial outlook for the short term is doable [though at a deficit] but not stable for the long term.”

It has recommended the church celebrate one weekend Mass for now, but anticipates June 30 will be the last day the church is open.

The recommendation is also based on no unforeseen circumstances — for example, failure of the boiler or sound system — forcing it to close at an earlier date, according to the bulletin.

Henchal estimated the church averages weekly attendance of 150 people, but was uncertain of the total number of parishioners. He said the meeting with parishioners on Sunday could lead to more ideas and a determination to keep the church open.

“There could be a half-dozen more steps,” he said. “This is a very preliminary thing.”

South Portland historian Kathryn DiPhilippo’s research shows the church was built in 1940 to meet a population increase on the western side of the city. The parish dates to 1866 and services were initially held in the chapel at Calvary Cemetery.

The parish cluster also includes Holy Cross Church on Cottage Road, Holy Cross School on Broadway, St. Maximilian Kolbe Church off Black Point Road in Scarborough and St. Bartholomew’s Church on Two Lights Road in Cape Elizabeth.

Fate of the food pantry

Thursday morning sustenance in the basement of St. John the Evangelist Church has been a local tradition since the South Portland Food Cupboard began operating there in 2001.

The volunteer-staffed, nonprofit food pantry serves families from as far away as Gray and Biddeford.

But its days at 611 Main St. are numbered, Director Sybil Riemensnider said this week, because the church may close by June 30.

Monsignor Michael Henchal, the parish pastor, said no decision has been made to close or sell the church.

“I think they really got ahead of the story,” Henchal said, adding he has told pantry officials they are welcome to stay beyond June 30.

But Riemensnider said the search for a new home is already under way. A subcommittee of the board of volunteers has been formed to lead the search, and she said there have been two visits to potential new sites.

After more than 12 years in the same location, not just any location will do for the pantry, where demand is peaking.

Last November, 334 families consisting of 855 individuals received food. Both amounts set records, and came after the pantry served nearly 3,300 families and 8,000 people in the fiscal year ending last June 30. A quarter of those served are 12 and under, and 20 percent are between ages 31 and 45.

Six months into the current fiscal year, nearly 1,800 families and 4,300 people have received assistance.

The food cupboard needs at least 4,000 square feet of space, which must comply with federal Americans With Disabilities Act standards, have ample parking, bathrooms, a kitchen that can accommodate installation of walk-in freezers — and low rent.

“And we would like it all on one floor if we can,” Riemensnider said.

City Manager Jim Gailey and Mayor Tom Blake last week observed the weekly distribution of food, and said there is no municipal space that fits the pantry’s needs.

“I was expecting tables and tables of food for people to choose from as they walk around the main hall. What I experienced was a very well-run machine,” Gailey said. “Unfortunately, the city does not have any available space that would suit their needs.”

The “well-run machine” is a testament to years of experience; strong support from companies including Hannaford Bros. and Smaha’s Legion Square Market, and more than 50 volunteers who pick up food, process clients, set up tables, and carry packages to vehicles.

“We can talk a blue streak, but it is amazing to see,” Riemensnider said. “And everyone here is nice to the clients, [because] it could be us tomorrow.”

Then there is Riemensnider herself, now partially hobbled in a walking boot after breaking her left leg last month. Attuned to details, she is affectionately called “the Captain,” by pantry volunteers.

“The Captain has to steer the ship,” volunteer Riaz Hamid said.

Riemensnider keeps detailed and confidential records of those served, and is trying to expand services to include more personal care items and to pay utility bills.

“I can’t go home at night to my nice condo and have this on my head,” she said, about knowing there are people in need who may have exhausted all other resources.

Clients are limited to one visit per month and must have monthly incomes of no more than 150 percent of the poverty level.

The South Portland Food Cupboard does not refuse clients from outside the South Portland-Cape Elizabeth-Scarborough area, but 62 percent of its families served are from South Portland. Scarborough families make up 7 percent of the client base and 2 percent come from Cape Elizabeth.

In fiscal year 2011-12, the cupboard was funded with $78,000 in donations from a variety of sources. Blake said the city has contributed $2,500 annually.

“We are raising just from the goodness of the community,” Riemensnider said. “I am overwhelmed by the generosity of the people of South Portland.”

She is also confident a new location can be found, although it could require operational changes and budget adjustments to cover rent and utility expenses not charged by the parish.

“The move does not bother me, it is the income in the future,” Riemensnider said. “We have to do more fundraising and have to hire someone where we have never paid staff before.”

CORRECTION:

A previous version of this story attributed David Harry’s photo to the BDN. The photo is provided by The Forecaster.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/01/25/news/portland/roman-catholic-parish-committee-recommends-closing-historic-south-portland-church/ printed on July 22, 2014