AUBURN, Maine — Compounding structural problems with the St. Louis Catholic Church have led church officials to recommend to the bishop that the 1905 building at 80 Third St. be deconsecrated and razed.
At a Sunday meeting at Sacred Heart Church in Auburn, parishioners of both churches filled the downstairs in anticipation of hearing what will become of St. Louis Church.
Pam Vaillancourt of Auburn, a member of Sacred Heart who went to the meeting as a show of support, said, “We’re just here to support them. It’s their home.” It was a sentiment throughout the room as people met, hugged and hoped for the best.
Those hopeful feelings faded when, in his opening prayer, Father Richard McLaughlin quoted from Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”
McLaughlin likened the assessment of St. Louis to an elderly relative going to the doctor and finding out there is something seriously wrong with them. As more tests come back, the prognosis gets worse. He likened St. Louis’ condition to one of a pervasive illness.
Making an effort to soften the blow, McLaughlin noted that the news will be met differently by each person and that each response should be respected. He used the five stages of grief as an analogy: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, hopefully, McLaughlin said, acceptance.
Pictures were shown of the current damage and structural issues with the building. With cracks in the masonry, deteriorating stucco and stone work, and water pouring into the walls, the feasability of repairing the structure dwindled. Even the lights are so old that the bulbs needed are no longer produced. To install new fixtures would mean a complete rewire of the building. Projected repairs to the ailing building could exceede $1 million.
According to the report, read by parishioner Ashley O’Brien, three spires had to be removed last month at a cost of $20,000. According to O’Brien, the spires were seen swaying in the wind by tenants across the street.
McLaughlin told the parishioners, “We did the best we could.” Bits of lumber and straps now hold one of the towers together. Discussing future options, McLaughlin read a statement from the bishop.
In the autumn of 2012, the Building and Grounds Committee serving Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Auburn assessed the condition of St. Louis Church. The committee observed serious structural issues that would require extensive and costly repairs. The committee and DICON (the Diocese of Portland’s restoration and construction company) were in agreement that the repairs would exceed $1 million.
The issues include large cracks down a tower wall that is now supported by braces for safety, cracks in a concrete overhang, a deteriorating stone crown on the roof of the church and loose bricks, which are now covered with rubber to prevent further water and wind damage.
In March 2013, Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish was advised by its insurers and DICON that it was no longer safe to permit people to enter or leave the building by the front entrance after a crack was found on the left side of the church’s main entrance.
Parish officials tried to keep St. Louis open as long as possible, but due to the new safety and logistical concerns, the parish was forced to announce that the church would close indefinitely.
The Masses celebrated at St. Louis Church were transferred to Sacred Heart Church on 24 Sacred Heart Place in Auburn. Parishioners who usually worship at St. Louis Church have cooperated with this change and have incorporated their ministries at the alternate location.
Understanding that these growing structural issues would undoubtedly increase the enormous cost of repair, the parish’s Finance and Pastoral Councils were faced with three options: procuring a loan for the repairs, selling the property or razing the building.
In the current economic climate, the councils came to a unanimous decision that Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, even if it were able to secure a loan, would not be able to service the debt or raise the funds necessary to continue the church’s operation. Selling the building and property was also deemed an untenable path as the market for such large churches is extremely limited, causing the properties to remain on the market for a long period of time.
It was determined that razing the building at a cost of approximately $120,000 was the most prudent option. The parish hopes to cover these costs through the sale of the church’s stained glass windows and other furnishings.
Permanent closure of St. Louis Church has not yet been approved. Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, in conjunction with the Diocese of Portland, will continue to provide updates to the parish and local communities as the process evolves.
A question-and-answer session followed the presentation for parishioners to express their concerns. Gerrard Dennison of Auburn, a self-described “lifelong St. Louis member,” said his “grandparents are rolling in their graves” at the news of the recommended closure.
Dennison said the decision had been made before hearing from the congregation. He suggested the Catholic Diocese sell off some of its other properties to repair St. Louis, which he referred to as “our basilica.”
Responding, McLaughlin noted that “time is a factor,” referring to the rapid decay of the structure. He went on to say that the diocese has two properties in Lewiston that have been on the market for some time with little luck finding buyers. McLaughlin said, “It just seems like (tearing down the church) the only prudent thing we can do.”
A parishioner who did not want to be identified approached the microphone and said, “When is this bishop leaving and when are we getting a new one?” eliciting some applause as well as a moment of levity from the attendees. She questioned the matter of money, asking if the church members were any better off when they built St. Louis.
Jeannette Hould of Auburn said she felt the worst for the older members of St. Louis. In her 60s, Hould said, “I’ve been there my whole life,” talking of her family and their growth in the church. She described it as a place where she took all her sacraments. “Look at all the older people around the room,” Hould said, noting with disappointment that after a lifetime at St. Louis, neither she, nor the others there, would be able to have their funeral there.
Others spoke of recent church closures in the state, wondering why the church is having such a difficult time attracting younger generations. Father Rob Lupo responded, citing Maine as No. 1 one in the nation for un-churched people as well as being the “grayest.”
Then Lup asked, “When was the last time you’ve invited someone to Mass with you?”
Lupo, a member of the priesthood for only five years, has seen three closures already. “This is not why I went into the priesthood.” His hope for the future of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish is that, years down the road, those involved in the process today will say, “If this hadn’t happened, then this other great thing wouldn’t have happened.”
A reunion for graduates of the former St. Louis School who attended between 1954 and 1962 is planned for 12:30 p.m. June 2 at Gipper’s.