HOULTON — The Rev. Leslie Nesin will celebrate Easter with her flock at Church of the Good Shepherd for the last time Sunday as their priest.
Nesin, 66, of Howland will retire next month after nearly seven years as the spiritual leader of a congregation formed in the 1880s. When she arrived, many longtime parishioners were convinced Nesin would be the priest who’d oversee the shuttering of Good Shepherd’s doors.
Under her leadership, however, the church has experienced steady growth and nearly doubled in membership in a revival few would have predicted a decade ago. At that time, a Canadian priest drove across the border to conduct Sunday services, but was not available for pastoral or administrative work.
“During that time, when we didn’t even have a half-time priest, we realized that we would have to do just about everything a priest did,” Joan Logan, 73, of Houlton said. “We grew a lot during that time — not people-wise but faith-wise.”
The first time Michael Clark, 76, of Houlton stepped inside the church sanctuary in 1961, it was full. Over the years, he witnessed a steady decline in membership and income before Nesin’s arrival.
“We rent [Watson Hall] to the Rotary Club,” Clark said after Sunday’s service and the distribution of palms. “We feed them every Monday. The congregation wouldn’t still be here if it weren’t for that income.”
Nesin and church leaders agreed that Good Shepherd might not have survived without the financial assistance and guidance of former Bishop Chilton Knudsen and her staff in Portland. Vicki Wiederkehr, canon for Formation and Transition Ministry, worked closely with the congregation to develop a blueprint for the church’s immediate future called the “Houlton Plan.”
The first thing the congregation would have to do was increase its annual income by about $44,000, Wiederkehr said earlier this week in an email response to questions.
“The ‘Houlton Plan’ established goals for a three-year period rooted in the general categories of growth, communication and outreach,” she said. “Goals included enhancing or adding children’s sermons, Sunday School, adult and youth programs, website development, updating signage in the community, inviting a friend to church and increasing community involvement.”
The plan also included increased pledging by current members, applying for a diocesan grant to help pay start-up costs to implement new goals and drawing down from church endowment funds.
“By setting these goals and objectives, the vestry was able to move closer to calling a [half-time priest] to ‘shepherd’ them during that initial and critical three-year period,” Wiederkehr said.
Nesin had been a priest for just a year when Knudsen asked her to serve part-time at Good Shepherd, where the congregation later invited her to stay on. Born in Dayton, Ohio, Nesin described herself as an “Air Force brat” who grew up attending services at base chapels.
“[I was] baptised in the Presbyterian church, my father’s faith tradition, confirmed in the Lutheran church, my mother’s, got ‘saved’ at 19 through Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, a valid experience, found that fundamentalism and I didn’t fit, joined the Episcopal church in 1977 and never looked back.”
A graduate of the Johns Hopkins Hospital School of Nursing in Baltimore, Nesin spent 30 years in nursing and at the age of 28 became the first Director of Nursing when Penobscot Valley Hospital opened its doors in Lincoln in 1973.
Nesin said that after her husband, Dr. Boucard Nesin, died in 1992 at the age of 70, she began attending St. James Episcopal Church in Old Town.
“During a spiritual crisis, I went to Bangor [Theological] Seminary to see if I could find some answers, especially about the validity of the Bible stories in the light of history,” Nesin said. “I did and kept on going.”
She graduated from BTS in 2002 and was ordained in 2003. The next year, she began her work in Houlton.
Nesin said earlier this week that one of her greatest rewards during her tenure at Good Shepherd has been “seeing a positive attitude, a joy emerging.”
“I think at 67, and nearly seven years, it’s time for some new energy and new ideas at Good Shepherd,” she said in an email. “We’ve done a great deal together, [but] it feels like we’ve plateaued and I believe in moving over so other ideas can come in.”
While the new shepherd for Good Shepherd is not expected to be announced until this summer, parishioners are planning a goodbye event May 7 and 8 for the retiring one. Nesin will celebrate a final Mass with her congregation on Mother’s Day.
“Leslie makes people feel welcome,” Dana Delano, 50, of Houlton said after the Palm Sunday service. “She’s very good at finding out what people’s talents are and putting them to work. Everybody’s got spirituality and personality. She’s good at finding where they intersect.”