ORONO, Maine — Sylvia Russell was flooded with memories as she sat Thursday morning in St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church after its last Mass.
Her First Communion. The St. Patrick’s Day parties. The nuns who lived nearby and taught at the parish school.
“All the people that I loved, I can see them all right here,” Russell, 68, of Dover, N.H., said as she fought back tears. “It’s like coming home.”
Russell grew up in Orono and in St. Mary’s parish. She returned Thursday to say goodbye to the 120-year-old stone church on Main Street. She was one of nearly 400 who packed the church on the day devoted to Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Last spring, church leaders in the Orono-Old Town area recommended to Bishop Richard Malone, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, that the church be closed on Jan. 1, 2009. Malone approved the recommendation and presided at its final Mass. The building is expected to be put up for sale before the end of the year.
The Rev. Wilfred P. Labbe, St. Mary’s pastor, told the Bangor Daily News last year that the major factors that went into the decision to close the church were declining attendance, an aging membership, its proximity to the Newman Center religious facility near the University of Maine, a severe shortage of priests and the expensive repairs the aging structure requires. Estimates to fix everything that needs to be replaced have run from $500,000 to $1 million, the priest said.
While worshippers Thursday mourned the loss of their spiritual home, they also celebrated the formation of a new parish named the Resurrection of Our Lord. It is made up of congregations at St. Mary’s, the two St. Ann Catholic churches on Indian Island and in Bradley, Holy Family Catholic Church in Old Town and Our Lady of Wisdom at the Newman Center. Labbe was installed Thursday as the pastor of the new parish and the Rev. Thomas Farley was installed as its parochial vicar.
“As you become members of this new parish of the Resurrection of Our Lord, you bring with you to this new community of faith all of the graced heritage, all of the richness of each of the former parishes,” the bishop said in his homily. “What you were in several smaller communities, you are now together in one larger community.
“And so it is that as you adapt and live into this new reality, with all of the stretching and letting go and growing accustomed that will be involved, you can, with God’s grace, become an even more vital, unified and effective Catholic presence in this area of our diocese.
“Now you can become something more than you were, greater and stronger and more cohesive. Together, you are contemporary witnesses to the Lord’s Resurrection in this region,” Malone said. “As Jesus rose from the dead, so the faith must rise in you.”
The bishop said that the closing of St. Mary’s and the formation of the new parish are part of the Catholic Church’s mission to evangelize. The plan that called in 2004 for consolidation of 135 parishes around the state into 83 by the end of 2009 is called the New Evangelism Plan and built on the reforms begun in the mid-1960s with the Second Vatican Council, according to Malone.
“We have an enormous challenge ahead of us here and throughout the state, where there has been a dramatic and troubling decline in Catholic practice,” he said. “Just 30 percent of the Catholic population is faithfully involved in the life of the church.”
Malone urged members of the new parish to become evangelizers and share their faith with others. He asked them to invite family, neighbors, friends and co-workers they know are Catholics to return to church as the shepherds who saw Jesus in the manager “made known the message that had been told about this child.”
Paul Gillett, 25, understands all that, but the closing of the church where he was baptized and that is located just a block from his parents’ house made him uneasy.
“It means I’ll feel a little bit more worried about my parents when I’m away,” Gillett, who is in the U.S. Navy and stationed in Hawaii, said after the Mass. “It was nice to know they had this faith community to come to, to care for them when I could not. Now that family will be dispersed.”
Gillett’s parents, Geoff and Gail Gillett, along with longtime members Dana and Mary Ann Devoe composed a prayer for those who considered St. Mary’s their spiritual home. It was included in the program for Thursday’s Mass.
“Heal hearts that ache with the closing of Saint Mary’s church,” it concluded. “Remember, love, and protect all the members of Saint Mary’s Parish Community. Give us the grace we need to fulfill God’s will in our new parish and to be joined with you in heaven’s everlasting joy.”