By Judy Harrison of the Bangor Daily News - PENQUIS - There may be a new church in town._ As Maine’s 234,000 Roman Catholics redraw the lines of their parishes and sell off property to cope with a shrinking number of priests, their bishop has approved a proposal to sell property in Dexter, Dover-Foxcroft, Milo and Sangerville to help pay for a new church serving the Penquis region.
It’s part of a statewide reorganization, launched 18 months ago, to address shifting demographics. The plan abolishes traditional parish lines and calls on the laity to play a much bigger role in the life of the church.
Bishop Richard Malone this month notified parishes around the state of approval or changes to their proposed reorganizations, which were submitted in June.
No other clusters in northern or eastern Maine proposed building a new church.
Malone called the Penquis plan "exciting and forward thinking" in a letter he sent to the parishes. He told the cluster planning committee to immediately begin a feasibility study on how to finance the new building, estimated to cost about $1 million and seat 250 to 300 people in the sanctuary. The bishop also instructed the committee to explore how difficult it might be to find buyers for church property.
The diocese has estimated that in four years there will be 61 diocesan priests under the age of 70 available to serve the state Catholic population. Eight of those priests would be assigned to special ministries either in the chancery in Portland or in chaplaincies.
Malone would have to approve the feasibility study before the properties are put up for sale.
"We spent close to a year analyzing a lot of data and talking about what would be needed to have a healthy faith community," said Jane Young, a member of the cluster committee in the Penquis region. "When we first started about a year ago, we thought we’d have a different result. But when we saw the data, it became pretty obvious what direction we should go in."
Young, 55, of Guilford moved to the area seven years ago. She attends Mass in Sangerville and in Dover-Foxcroft, depending on her schedule.
It would not be the first time that Catholic churches closed in the region.
In 2003, dwindling dollars and aging demographics forced parishioners to close St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church and its rectory in Brownville Junction. Those worshippers have been traveling to nearby Milo to attend Mass at the former St. Paul the Apostle, the smaller mission church of St. Francis.
Most of the churches in the cluster area are nearing or have passed their 100th birthdays. They are not energy efficient and need almost constant repair, she said.
All 28 clusters in the diocese were instructed last fall to complete a proposal indicating which one of four administrative models would be most appropriate for carrying out the work of the church.
The Penquis parishes are the only group in northern and eastern Maine to propose building a new facility. While no property has been purchased, the most central location would be in Silvers Mills on Route 7 north of Dexter.
The plan calls for selling nine or 10 buildings, including St. Anne Catholic Church in Dexter, St. Thomas Aquinas in Dover-Foxcroft, St. Francis Xavier-St. Paul in Milo and Holy Family in Sangerville, a mission of St. Thomas Aquinas. The cluster owns, in addition to the church buildings, two rectories, garages and parish halls.
For the time being, no changes will be made at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Pittsfield, the fourth parish in the cluster. The needs of that parish, which operates a school, are to be reassessed in five to eight years, Malone said.
"The days of there being one parish serving one town are pretty much over with," said David Denbow, 58, of Dexter, chairman of the cluster committee that made the proposal. "We have to think in larger terms. In the secular world, schools and hospitals have been consolidating for similar reasons."
He stressed that the decision was driven by the economy, the condition of the buildings, and "the fact that people in our parishes are aging, and the decline in population in this area," said Denbow, a parishioner for nearly 30 years at St. Anne’s.
"By consolidating and pooling their resources, the parish will be better able to serve all of its members," he said.
It also would mean large gatherings for events such as funerals, weddings, meetings and community functions would be possible, said the Rev. James Robichaud, pastor for the parishes. The largest church, St. Anne’s, seats only about 225, including in the balcony. The largest parish hall can accommodate only 75 people, which is not large enough for gatherings after well-attended funerals.
The current facilities, Robichaud said, are not handicapped accessible and don’t meet the requirements of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act. One location would allow an increase in programs in for children, teenagers and the elderly.
A facility that could accommodate 300 people also could be used by the larger community for different kinds of events, he said.
Currently, the priest travels each weekend to four locations to celebrate one Mass at each worship site. Once the new church is completed, most people would have to drive farther to attend Mass, but they would have a choice of four times to choose from, Robichaud said.
"The greatest advantage," he said of the proposed change, "is that it will give people a greater sense of community. It will allow people who are active in one parish to see that they have peers just as interested in the mission of the church as they are.
"It also will be a lot easier for folks to have a sense that they belong to the parish rather than going to Mass at a worship site," Robichaud said. "People now feel that I’m the priest that comes from Dover [site of the rectory] rather than, ‘He’s our pastor.’"
The sense of identity and history parishioners feel about a building is strong, Denbow acknowledged. The retired English teacher, who is studying to become a deacon, said he understands people’s resistance to selling off a church where their families have been baptized, confirmed, married and buried for generations.
"We have to start thinking of ourselves as one family that extends over a large area," he said.
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