PATTEN, Maine — As news spread about a grassroots effort to save Patten’s oldest church from demolition, calls, emails and offers of support flooded the Save the Church founder’s phone lines and inbox.
“My email blew up,” said Marcia Pond, who initially tried to save the endangered church on her own. “We are getting stories from people whose ancestors founded the town, from people who say, ‘don’t let it happen.’ It rekindled a fire in people and they are looking into their history.”
A Feb. 11 Bangor Daily News article about the 1845 Regular Baptist Church spurred an impassioned outpouring of support from locals, former residents, business owners, out-of-staters and the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, all wanting to know more about the church and wanting to help.
Tearing down the church steals a piece of the town’s history for people, Pond said, recounting stories from callers.
“One woman in her 70s said it was her safe place growing up,” Pond said. “You don’t want to erase your history. Some of the first people here took their time, money and talent and built this church together.”
The Save the Church Preservation Committee is exploring how to repurpose the building for community use and, most importantly, getting the town to convey the church property to the Patten Historical Society, Planning Board Chair Ron Blum said. Blum is on the grassroots committee.
“We are hoping we can talk with the selectmen about how to proceed and see if we can appeal to them,” Blum said. “It’s a headache for them, and they don’t want it. We will take it.”
In recent weeks, the well-established nonprofit historical society has taken the committee under their wing and created a building fund account for donations, Blum said.
In less than two weeks, the small preservation group added new members, including two grant writers, a professional carpenter, a craftsman, a mason, a researcher, business owners and others willing to help save the historic church.
“Everyone in the group has different talents,” Pond said. “It’s exciting to have so many people come together to do this. When the building was first built people gave lumber and time, like what we are trying to do.”
Until now, the town had denied the committee’s requests to access the building, but they now have permission to go inside the building to take interior photos for the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.
The Select Board in September voted to flatten the historic building and in its place plant a few flowers, add a picnic table and designate it as a small downtown veterans memorial, said Cody Brackett, chair of the Select Board, who was absent from the vote.
When Pond heard the decision, she expressed her concerns at a regular Select Board meeting and appealed to the selectmen in writing, asking for time for the group to save the building, Pond said.
The church was completed in 1845, three years after the town’s founding. To raise money to build the church, the town founders sold shares — 42 shares at $45 each — for a total of $1,890, said Debbie Coolong, author of “The History of Patten and Mt. Chase.”
“They could buy their shares with cash, supplies or labor,” Coolong said.
In the mid-1800s, young men reported to muster into the Patten Rifle Company D, a voluntary militia at the church. By the 1860s, these recruits were headed south to join the Union Army’s 20th Maine.
The church building was sold to the town in 1928, and served as the Veteran’s Memorial Library for more than 92 years. The library also became the unofficial depository of memorabilia from residents and was home to the Patten Lumbermen’s Museum before the museum moved to its current site in 1963, Blum said.
The library left the church building in 2020 and is temporarily housed in the Patten Lumbermen’s Museum.
Brackett is willing to listen to a viable plan, but the vote to demolish still stands, he said earlier this month. He is talking to demolition and salvage companies, trying to find a demolition company that will take the building’s salvage like stained glass and hand-hewn beams as payment, he said.
The preservation group’s plans include growing membership and working with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. They have also drafted a warrant to demonstrate residents’ desire to preserve the building with a vote.
After reading the February article, Michael Goebel-Bain, historic preservation coordinator for the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, reached out to Pond.
“We need photographs of the inside and out,” Goebel-Bain said Friday, adding that it will help them determine if the building is eligible for historic registry.
When the state commission reviews historic buildings, preservationists consider whether the building is historically significant by evaluating its history and its architecture, the building’s integrity and whether the historic qualities have been altered.
Goebel-Bain said a building’s religious associations can be an important piece in the decision for historic registry.
Eligibility would qualify the church for state grants like the Certified Local Governments matching grants.
“Right now we’re waiting for more information. We need interior photos. I told Marcia ‘do the best you can to get the interior photos even if you have to take them through a window,’” he said.
Pond is optimistic.
“There are a lot of good people willing to help,” she said. We’re really off to a good start.”
The next committee meeting is 4:30 p.m. Monday in the Methodist Church.