Parishioners sit distant from one another during Ash Wednesday mass at St. John Catholic Church on York Street in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland blasted Gov. Janet Mills’ recent order dialing back restrictions on indoor religious gatherings as “totally unacceptable.”

Bishop Robert Deeley said Thursday the diocese has asked for the governor to permit churches to fill up to 25 percent, but that those requests have been rebuffed.

Under a previous order, no more than 50 people could gather in a Maine house of worship. Now that limit has been raised to five people per 1,000 square feet or 50, whichever is greater. That’s the same as retail stores.

But the diocese said that fewer than 10 of the 141 Catholic churches across the state will see their capacities rise under this order.

“This ruling is unacceptable and does nothing to provide relief to our parishes and parishioners. Many Maine Catholics who were frustrated by the previous limits are now perplexed and upset. The governor must reconsider this and go to a percentage model,” Deeley said.

For example, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland can hold 700 worshippers and the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Lewiston can seat 1,500. Mills’ new guideline will only increase capacity to 75 and 105 respectively, Deeley said.

St. John Catholic Church in Bangor, the largest Catholic church in the parish that includes Bangor, Brewer, Hampden and Winterport, can accommodate 900 worshippers but just 60 may gather for worship under the new guideline.

Deeley said that Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut have permitted churches to fill up to 50 percent capacity, while more than 30 other states place no restrictions on indoor religious gatherings.

“It is difficult to understand the state’s position when we have shown that we can successfully operate our churches and schools, which offer five days of in-person learning per week,” he said.

Deeley’s criticism of Mills, issued the day after Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, was his harshest so far. In November, as the Advent season approached, the bishop denounced the governor’s decision to roll back indoor gathering limits to 50 people because of rising infection numbers just five weeks after she’d increased them to 100.

The Rev. Jane Field, executive director of the Maine Council of Churches, said Thursday that the organization, made up of Protestant denominations, has not received any negative feedback from clergy or lay members about the current guidelines. She said churches in the group’s denominations, for the most part, are not gathering for in-person worship services, which is a sacrifice.

“While it is a difficult and painful sacrifice, we believe that we are called to make that sacrifice to protect the well-being of our neighbors, whom we are called to love sacrificially — to keep them healthy and alive during this pandemic,” Field said. “I do want to acknowledge that there is a significant doctrinal and liturgical difference between Protestants and Roman Catholics when it comes to requiring weekly in-person attendance and access to the Eucharist.”

Deeley has suspended the requirement that Maine Catholics attend weekly Masses.

Lindsay Crete, a spokesperson for Mills, said Thursday that the governor “strives to balance the need to protect public health with other important considerations.”

She also said that the governor’s staff had spoken multiple times with representatives of the diocese, along with other faith communities, over the past several months.

“Their opinions were heard and taken into consideration; the bishop simply disagrees with the result,” Crete said.

The governor’s restrictions on indoor religious gatherings have been a lightning rod for criticism. One church, Calvary Chapel of Orrington, sued Mills over those limits last May, saying that they violated the First Amendment and Mainers’ religious liberty. A federal judge sided with Mills in that fight, and an appellate judge later upheld that decision.

On Thursday, Calvary Chapel renewed its motion for an injunction lifting the limits, citing a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned a ban on indoor services in California.

Despite the criticism over those restrictions, most churches in mainline denominations complied with the order to limit transmission of COVID-19. Maine’s Catholic churches have been among those that adhered closely to those limits and others imposed by the diocese.

The Episcoal Diocese of Maine will continue online-only worship services in the near future, according to Bishop Thomas Brown. The 58 Episcopal churches in Maine have been conducting services remotely since Nov. 2, at the start of the state’s largest wave of coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic nearly a year ago.

“We continue to affirm that we respect the guidance of the Maine CDC and the direction of Gov. Mills,” he said.

Brown said that he is encouraging Episcopalians to begin discussing what reopening might look like for their church.

Deeley pointed out Thursday that no virus outbreaks have been traced to any of Maine’s Catholic Masses. Several churches across the state, including Protestant churches in Brooks, Calais and Sanford, have been linked to large virus outbreaks.

Deeley’s criticism comes as Maine’s 250,000 Catholics mark Lent, a significant six-week period of religious observation when Christians prepare to commemorate the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

“Not having daily and weekly access to the Eucharist, the very presence of Christ, has been a great hardship for thousands of Maine Catholics, particularly when our neighboring states are allowed to provide this opportunity. Our parishioners have suffered enough,” Deeley said.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.