AUBURN, Maine — Few prayers remain for St. Louis Catholic Church.
The neo-Gothic landmark still sits just as it did when its last congregation gathered there in April. Stacks of spring fliers now gather dust on a table near the broad front doors facing Third Street. The grand nave — with its columns, arched ceiling and finely detailed stained glass — awaits a congregation and a priest’s message.
The church, however, may soon be gone.
Needed repairs to the brick structure and dilapidated roof are estimated to cost more than $1 million, far more than Auburn’s Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish can afford.
Bishop Richard Malone, who serves as the apostolic administrator for Maine’s Roman Catholic Diocese, has given his approval for the 98-year-old church to be torn down if a sale cannot be completed in a timely fashion, according to a diocese spokesman.
All that remains is a final decision by the Rev. Robert Lariviere to sell or raze. The priest, who took over the parish in June, has yet to make that decision.
“We will see what happens,” Lariviere said.
A last Mass has been scheduled for Aug. 29 at 5:30 p.m.
For many families, it will mark an era’s end.
Remembering the heyday
Linda Bartlett recently stood a few feet from the pew where her family always sat — four rows back from the middle aisle — and imagined it might all be gone.
“You don’t think it’s ever going to happen to your church,” she said.
The 53-year-old director of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish grew up attending Mass here with her family and going to classes next door at St. Louis School.
“You went to school with the kids who came to church with their families,” she said. “Everybody knew everybody. This was a community.”
The church was created during a Catholic boom in Lewiston-Auburn. Lewiston already had St. Joseph’s, St. Patrick’s and St. Peter’s. St. Louis parish was created in 1902 and served the mostly French-Canadian neighborhood in New Auburn. Parishioners first gathered in the new church’s basement. Then, when they raised enough money, they set to work on the tall, two-spired upper church, designed by architect Timothy G. O’Connell. O’Connell designed St. Mary’s Church in Lewiston’s Little Canada neighborhood and would later design the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Lewiston.
Workers placed St. Louis’ cornerstone in May 1915.
As much as the new church changed the look of the neighborhood, rising above the houses, shops and tenements, it became the focal point for community activity.
At its peak, the church and its school served between 1,000 and 1,200 families, said Gerard Dennison, who grew up nearby. The adjacent St. Louis School, which burned in a catastrophic 1933 fire but was rebuilt the following year, had 500 students.
“My whole spiritual life has revolved around this church,” said Dennison, who was part of a second generation to attend the church and the school. He graduated from the kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school in 1962. His mother, Regina (Routhier) Dennison, was part of the school’s class of 1925.
“I remember serving Mass as an altar boy seven days a week,” said Dennison, who is now retired. “The church held about 900 people with a beautiful choir upstairs. I remember ringing the bells dangling from a rope on the third floor in the belfry 15 minutes before Mass to warn everyone in the neighborhood. We had three Masses on Sundays and the church was full. The kids’ Mass was at 8 a.m. Midnight Mass was live on the radio, and we had to sell tickets as there was so much demand.”
Bartlett remembered families crowding into the pews while people stood in the rear of the nave.
“You’d have maybe a dozen to 20 people standing in the back because there wasn’t any room for them to sit,” she said.
At its height, the parish had three priests and 20 nuns. There were clubs, plays, social events and sports. They even had a candlepin bowling league.
“During winter carnival, there was a father-son hockey game and mother-daughter broom hockey,” Bartlett said. “All the sports were run through the church, so there was never a conflict with Mass times, like there is now.”
Amid the activity, parishioners also found peace.
“After school, I used to stop by the church and go in all by myself,” said Rachel Duquette of Auburn. “As a young girl, I was awed by its magnificence. I would sit in the front pew and stare at the large cross in front of me that held the crucified Jesus. It made me so sad, but yet I felt a sense of peace and calmness there. I loved that alone time.
“Then someone vandalized the church and the doors were kept locked,” she said, “It was a sad day for me.”
Times changed. Folks moved.
The school closed in 1969. That building survives as a rehab facility run by Catholic Charities. A three-story, white rectory behind the church was torn down for a parking lot.
And though the days of standing-room-only Masses were gone, the church continued to maintain strong congregations until this spring, Bartlett said.
Saturday afternoon Masses still drew 200 or more people, she said.
It was enough to keep a sound church building operating. But maintenance was deferred as collections suffered.
Cracks opened in the roof. Masonry crumbled.
“It’s such a tall building,” Bartlett said. “We only look from the ground up.”
Last fall, a parish analysis found severe structural problems in the church. Issues included large cracks down a tower, cracks in a concrete overhang and a deteriorating stone crown on the roof. This winter, the church took down one of the bell towers.
Finally, when a crack appeared near the front doors, the parish closed the church. Saw horses and caution tape blocked the stone steps.
It has remained closed since April.
The parish’s Finance and Pastoral councils have recommended that the church be deconsecrated and torn down at a cost of about $120,000.
The city of Auburn has talked with at least one developer who may be interested in reusing the church building, said Roland Miller, Auburn’s director of economic development.
Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte hopes something can be done to save the structure.
“It’s no longer going to be used as a church,” he said. “That’s been the decision. But the building itself stands.”
LaBonte has met with the Rev. Lariviere as well as Monsignor Marc Caron, who leads Lewiston’s Prince of Peace Parish.
Caron is dealing with his own closures. In 2009, his parish shut St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s churches. The latter was recently purchased by Central Maine Healthcare, which announced Aug. 8 that it was rethinking plans to raze the Main Street church building for a parking lot.
LaBonte believes that any reuse of St. Louis Church must be quick, lest the weather and inattention take over.
“Windows get knocked out,” he said. “Elements come in. If you have a building that goes through five or six winters that way, forget about it.”
He also warned that the money that saved St. Mary’s in Lewiston — restoring its grandeur and remaking it as the Franco-American Heritage Center — will not be available for St. Louis. St. Mary’s used millions of dollars in federal grants that have dried up in recent years.
“It was in a very different era of free government money,” LaBonte said.
Keeping St. Louis
The mayor wants to be optimistic.
Though he attended St. Patrick’s as a boy, LaBonte often accompanied his grandmother to St. Louis. He knows what the church means to folks.
“This building stands for this neighborhood,” said LaBonte, who lives nearby.
Eighteen-year-old Jordan Tate never saw the church in its heyday, but she wants city leaders to save the church she described as “a treasure in a sagging town.”
“As a child I went to Mass every Saturday with my family,” she said. “I was first amazed by the front doors, which seemed larger than life. Inside, my eyes were drawn to the deep dark wood detailing. However, of all the inspiring features of the building, the stained-glass windows were my favorite. One can simply get lost, as I often did, in the colors and images they contain, yet still notice something new about them every time.”
LaBonte walked through the building recently, still marveling at little details throughout the building. He stood in the choir loft and imagined the singers crowded onto the custom-made wooden benches.
St. Louis will soon stop serving as a church, but its work ought not to be finished, he said. Reopening the building in another form is a way of carrying on its heritage.
“I have hope because I’m an optimistic guy who believes in the community,” he said.