Boats are in the water off the coast of Stonington
In this Wednesday, May 6, 2020, photo, lobster boats sit idle in Stonington, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

A nearly 130-year old church in Stonington will open its doors for services for the last time next month. With dwindling attendance on an island with a shrinking population, members voted late last month to close the house of worship.

The final sermon at the Stonington United Methodist Church will be delivered on June 26 and the church will officially close a few days later.

“A lot of it had to do with an aging population of the congregation and not a lot of young people coming in to take up the mantle,” pastor Susan Davenport said.

The church was founded in 1893 and among about a dozen churches in Deer Isle and Stonington today. About 50 years ago, Sunday school could have 200 children alone, according to Evelyn Duncan, a Stonington Select Board member and member of the church. Now there are a few dozen members and only a handful of people who regularly attend services.

The Stonington United Methodist Church is set to close next month. It is one of several congregations on the island that has been seeing dwindling attendance in recent years. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

“You can’t sustain a congregation like that for very long,” Davenport said.

The dip in attendance mirrors drops in the island population. When the church opened during the granite boom, the population was at about 4,000 people. Now it hovers around 1,000.

“We don’t have a ton of young people on the island anymore,” Duncan said. “The next generation is not necessarily there as it was in the past.”

Church attendance does increase in the summer when the island population swells though, and that’s helped the congregation stay afloat in recent years.

“If it wasn’t for summer people in the last 10 years, we wouldn’t be here now,” Duncan said.

Davenport had already planned to step down from the pulpit at the end of June. The difficulty in finding someone to take her place also played into the congregation’s decision to close the church.

The Stonington Methodist church is not alone in seeing empty pews. When the Howland Methodist church closed last year, it was the 11th of the denomination’s churches to close in Maine since 2016.

Other congregations on the island have seen fewer parishioners, too.

“I do think church attendance for most of us is low,” said Lorraine Knowlton, the pastor at Stonington’s Community of Christ Church. “Certainly lower than it used to be.”

During her 20-year run as pastor, she could easily have 50 to 60 adults and about the same number of children. Now she peaks at about 15 churchgoers.

Knowlton thinks it has more to do with how people are practicing religion than local demographics.

“The trend is a change from worshiping in the church – in pews – to doing it more outside the walls of the church,” she said. “I don’t think it’s because people think less about the things that the church teaches.”

COVID also hit churches hard, adding another cut in attendance, according to Knowlton.

What’s next for the island’s methodist church is up in the air. The New England Conference of the United Methodist Church, which owns the building, will have the final say after Davenport hands over the keys at the end of June.

“It’s very sad that it’s closing,” Duncan said. “It has a history of over 100 years. It’s been one of the linchpins in the town.”