BANGOR, Maine — Roughly 80 people from Greater Bangor gathered at St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Saturday morning to learn more about refugees coming to Maine and what role the church is playing in efforts to help them resettle here.

“The Role of the Church Welcoming New Neighbors,” an information session on helping refugees build new lives through resettlement in Greater Bangor, was presented by St. Paul the Apostle Parish and Catholic Charities Maine, which has held the federal contract in Maine to be the primary provider of refugee resettlement services since 1975.

“I’m here to learn. I started at zero and now I’m at about 4 percent of what I need to learn,” said the Rev. Michael Whalen, a deacon with the parish that serves Bangor, Brewer, Hampden and Winterport. “I suspect that at some point we’ll be more involved than we are today in refugee resettlement, although I don’t know that.

“It’s so much part of our faith and ministry. If it’s important to our church and our bishops, it’s important to me,” he told the BDN during a break in the event.

As Whalen sees it, welcoming strangers is nothing new to Maine.

“I remember going up to visit my maternal relatives up in Fort Kent. I remember that when you’d show up, the first thing you got was a great big hug. And then they’d want to know have you had something to eat, are you hungry and if you said yes, you’d be deluged with food,” Whalen recalled.

“And then they’d say well can you sit and talk for a while and then at some point, long after you’d got there, if they didn’t know you, they’d say who are you and why are you here? The ‘who’ and the ‘why’ was far down the road,” he said.

“That’s my very simplistic model for welcoming a stranger in Maine and I really like the thought of the parable to the Good Samaritan as a model for what’s happening here,” he said.

Although refugees and asylum seekers who come to Maine through Catholic Charities initially wind up in southern Maine — primarily in the Portland and Lewiston areas — because the federal contract requires them to be resettled within 100 miles of Portland, there is an interest in bringing immigrants in general to the Bangor area as a way of bolstering the region’s workforce.

Hamet Ly of Catholic Charities’ Refugees and Immigration Services, who was among the presenters Saturday, said that the world is in the midst of a refugee crisis.

He said that in 2015, the world witnessed its largest number of forcibly displaced people — an estimated 65 million. Of those, only 21 million have been granted refugee status, Ly said.

Last year, the U.S. admitted about 85,000 refugees, he said. The total was going to be increased to 100,000 this year but the Trump administration objected and it appears half that number will be allowed into the U.S.

Processing refugees can take from two to 20 years.

“It’s almost a lifetime for these people who are so vulnerable,” he said.

As it stands, the majority of refugees resettled in Maine — including the 442 who moved here in 2015 and the 642 who arrived last year — come from Iraq, Somalia and Congo and most end up in the Portland and Lewiston areas and in Augusta to a lesser extent because those cities have the infrastructure, jobs and transportation that refugees need to get their lives back on track.

Some newcomers, however, have spread out to other locations, including Rockland, Biddeford and Gardiner, he said.

Anyone interested in learning more about how to help new Mainers — whether through donations of money or home furnishings, volunteering to be an American friend, professional mentor or companion, being an employer or an advocate educating communities about refugees — can contact Catholic Charities’ Refugee and Immigration Services at 532-2728 or

Those interested in helping also can contact the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine at 753-0061 or the Islamic Center of Maine at 866-3410 or