A popular pontiff helps, but restoring the Catholic Church in Maine has been the product of tough business decisions and adapting to changing times and demographics. As some traditions fall by the wayside, new ones are being forged, especially by Maine’s immigrant community.
While Pope Francis has inspired Catholics and non-Catholics alike, church officials also are quick to credit their businesslike efforts — consolidation, efficiency, adaptation to modern schedules and changing demographics — as spurring its growth.
Portland diocese spokesman Dave Guthro points to the consolidation of parishes over the past decade as one of the reasons for the growth in membership.
“One of the long-term goals of reorganizing the diocese was to enable pastors to better evangelize regionally,” Guthro said.
That reorganization, known as the New Evangelization, came under Bishop Richard J. Malone to deal with an anticipated shortage of priests. During Malone’s tenure, from 2004 to 2012, 135 parishes were consolidated into 55.
The Rev. Timothy Nadeau, pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Parish, credits its vibrancy to reorganization. The parish is made up of six churches — two in Brewer, two in Bangor and one each in Hampden and Winterport — and has been growing in population.
“St. Paul the Apostle Parish is blessed to be in an area of our state which is thriving with young families moving into Greater Bangor from other parts of the state and further away,” he said in an email. “Because of this social and economic growth, we are welcoming more individuals and young families into the parish.”
Many families with children attend Mass at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at St. Teresa Catholic Church in Brewer. That time was not offered until after reorganization and is more convenient for families, according to Nadeau.
In southern Maine, the church is adapting to more than just schedules. A new wave of immigrant Catholics who have settled here are making the church a place where they build and serve their communities.
Since 2000, the number of foreign-born Catholics in the U.S. has risen from 10.9 million to 15.3 million in 2014, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University .
Sacred Heart/St. Dominic, in Portland’s West End, is one of the few congregations in Maine that reflects this trend of change in America’s Catholic Church. It’s perhaps Maine’s most diverse congregation, and most engaged, as its congregants successfully led a fundraising effort to restore the church’s crumbling tower, staving off possible closure.
“This parish has everything except money,” said Gary MacDonald, 61, who attends Sacred Heart. “Money’s easier to solve than the other things. Community’s hard to find. Faith is hard to find. That sort of spirit of solidarity is hard to find. There are people here who have come from horrible circumstances in Africa and South America. We’re in one of the poorest parts of the city and despite all those challenges, there’s something extraordinary here that keeps growing and growing.”
Mass at Sacred Heart is celebrated in Spanish every Sunday afternoon and the Gospel is read in English and French on Sunday mornings. The music weaves the traditional hymns of the American Catholic Church with the sounds and instruments native to worshippers’ homelands.
Jose Perez, 35, came to Portland from El Salvador in 2001. He is now studying to become a deacon at Sacred Heart/St. Dominic.
“I’ve been called to serve the church, but in my case I want to stay with the Latino community,” he said. “Most [immigrants] come with no family and they need someone who can welcome them here and help them find a job or what they need. I think God is calling me to serve this beautiful community.”
When Perez arrived in Portland, he was living with an uncle, an evangelical Christian. He felt uncomfortable asking his uncle where to find a Catholic church, but believed if he could find one, he would find other Spanish-speaking Catholics.
“One day I said, ‘I have to go find the community I’m looking for,’” he said. “I was just walking down Danforth Street. I just turned to my right and I saw this beautiful church.”
Perez went to the door to read the notices. What he saw was “misas en espano, domingo, 12:15 horas” — Mass in Spanish, Sunday, 12:15.
“God brought me to Portland and to this church,” Perez recalls. “At that time, it was the only church in Maine with a Mass in Spanish.”
This immigrant community is also restoring a passion for the church in Maine. It’s not duty, as parishioners like Helene LaPointe would understand, but a spiritual energy the diocese desperately needs in its pews to survive and thrive in Maine.
“When I don’t come to Mass on Sunday, I feel myself empty,” Solange Tchatat, a native of Cameroon who moved to Portland in 2011, said recently at Sacred Heart. “You come to Mass to get your strength for the week, because everything during the week just shoots through you. That’s what Sunday means to me.”
Epilogue: Not only in church
On Dec. 5, Bishop Robert Deeley presided over the Hour of Power, drawing a large crowd of young Catholics. He spoke to them about the “wonderful grace” of seeing young people growing a relationship with Jesus, and urged them to support each other in their faith.
“You have discovered something in Jesus that brings you here tonight,” the bishop said. “The companionship you have in this group, as you draw strength from each other, will help you invite others to join you and they, too, might be touched by the love of Jesus.”
After blessing their food, chatter resumed around the table.
They texted, talked about movies and discussed plans for an ugly sweater-themed holiday party the next night. They also discussed their faith and favorite priests, in an environment more accustomed to praising sports figures with reverential tones.
Christine Savage said what most at the table were likely thinking.
“Why should God,” she asked, ‘“only be in the church?”