What do you do with a church when membership is too small to keep the building maintained?
It’s not a new problem, as declining church memberships and rising energy and other costs challenge congregations in Maine and the nation.
But the fragile future of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Caribou is particularly poignant. The stately white frame landmark with the iconic caribou weathervane atop its cupola is the oldest church building in the city.
Constructed in 1867 on a site high above the Caribou Stream, the building first served several denominations, including Methodists, Baptists, as well as Universalists, who met together and took turns leading the services.
“For the next 25 years,” writes Lora K. Sincock in a 1935 church history, “the walls of this Meeting House resounded to denunciation, argument, pleading and just plain talk, according to the ideas of the minister who happened to take his turn at the pulpit.”
The village was called Lyndon at the time and the Lyndon Union Meeting House Association had been formed to add a church to the growing number of homes and businesses in the community, ending the days when combined church services were held in the town’s schoolhouse. The association purchased the site for $50 and raised funds for the building by selling pews for between $50 and $100 each.
The association dissolved as denominations erected their own church buildings. The Baptists left the Meeting House in 1870 and met in Vaughan’s Hall until they completed a building on High Street. The Methodists withdrew in 1885 and met in the Grange Hall until completion of their church building on the corner of Sweden and Prospect streets.
The Universalists were chartered as a parish in 1895 and acquired the property in 1904, one of two Universalist parishes in Aroostook County, the other located in Oakfield.
The history of the church is interwoven with the history of the town that would become the city of Caribou, marked to this day by six stunning stained glass windows dedicated to early members, such as the family of Ivory Hardison, the township’s first American settler; the family of W.C. Spaulding, a prominent businessman; Samuel W. Collins, who founded a grist and saw mill on the Caribou Stream in 1844; and his brother David Collins, builder of roads and bridges.
The significance of this history made it even more difficult for the current Unitarian Universalist executive committee, on April 7, 2013, to authorize its treasurer to contact a realtor and put the historic church building up for sale.
“It’s been a long, long time coming,” Nancy Beloungie, committee president, said following the decision. She traced several years of efforts to explore options for sharing or sale of the building with groups such as the Caribou Historical Society, the Nylander Museum, other religious groups and a veterans group. The Unitarian Universalist New England District declined to acquire the building and the City of Caribou rejected an offer to accept it as a gift.
“We have approached every realistic group we could think of,” said Minister Maury Landry. “Which is not to say there is not another group out there,” added executive committee member Colleen Murphy, who has attended the church all her life. “An arts and performance center would be a wonderful way to use the building. Its acoustics would make it a perfect venue for smaller events.”
Church members are willing to entertain other proposals to put the facility to use. Inquiries can be directed to Carol Pierson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The decision to sell grew from a realization of the need to act while the building is still in good condition. Recent improvements include a newly painted sanctuary, a new accessibility ramp and accessible bathroom, roof repairs and renovations of the front entrance. But the aging congregation’s shrinking numbers and assets make continued maintenance impossible.
“If you don’t make changes at a certain point with a critical mass, then options dwindle,” Landry said. “We are not alone. We are definitely not alone.”
He recalled the deterioration of the sister church in Oakfield that sat idle for years after it closed its doors, before it was acquired for renovation by the town’s historical preservation society. Keys to the building had been left with the last two members who died in their 90s.
“You could look through the broken windows and see the hymnals where they were left in the pews,” he said, emotion rising in his voice. “We can’t let this happen. We would rather it be used.”
Murphy agreed. “It has taken years for me to bring myself to the point when I could say ‘we need to do this.’ I would so much rather see the building used than sit empty and fall apart.” She remembered the days when the church was a vibrant, busy part of the community with two women’s groups and a men’s group.
“Now is the time to turn the building to its next phase,” she said. “I want to see life in the building again. I don’t want to be the 90-year-old with the key.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.