Voters in Castine may give ownership of the Unitarian Universalist church on Court Street to the congregation at May's town meeting. An apparent administrative oversight has put the ownership in limbo. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

Who exactly owns the Unitarian Universalist church in Castine? That’s the question that the town is hoping to answer this spring after more than 100 years of ambiguity.

One of the oldest houses of worship in eastern Maine, the church in the seaside community has long been assumed to be owned by the local congregation but town and church officials recently found there is nothing in writing to prove that. That’s why locals will vote at their May town meeting on an article that would legally codify that the property does, in fact, belong to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Castine.

The ambiguity of ownership was discovered when the church was considering a potential renovation but couldn’t find a deed for the property, said Brooke Tenney, the president of the church’s governing board.

Town officials, the church and the local historical society all combed through records to find evidence of the church’s ownership, but came up empty.

“Nobody knows how this all came to be,” said Shawn Blodgett, the Castine town manager.

Technically, the property could still belong to the town. The land was donated to Castine in 1790 and the church was built with taxpayer funds the following year.

The Unitarian Church in Castine circa 1870. The church later became the Unitarian Universalist church. Credit: Courtesy of Castine Historical Society

Back then, the holy building hosted both Sunday services and town meetings.

“This was not only your town’s church but also your meeting house,” said Lisa Simpson Lutts, the executive director at the Castine Historical Society. “It functioned very differently than churches today.”

Municipal business later shifted out of the church and eventually ended up in Emerson Hall, the site of the current town hall, in the early 1900s. The town is believed to have withdrawn its involvement in maintenance of the church property in the 1800s, but never – on paper at least – transferred ownership to the congregation.

If passed, the town meeting article would make the church the official owner of both the land and the building.

“This is simply correcting a century-plus old administrative oversight,” Blodgett said.

Both he and Lutts reckoned that other small New England towns where churches served as early community centers had run into similar issues.

The article will also have language that would revert the property back to town control if it’s no longer used as a house of worship or if the congregation dissolves. The church is onboard with the article and has already changed its bylaws to reflect the dissolution clause.

Tenney was confident a vote in a town meeting would clear up this long-standing murky chapter that many didn’t know even existed, but said it would still come as a relief to the congregation.

“We’ll know who owns the church,” she said. “Whether we were going to build or not, it’s good to clean this up.”