WATERVILLE — The gold cross and ball at the top of the steeple of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church was removed and lowered to the ground Tuesday, 139 years after it was erected.

The cross removal was one of the final steps before the steeple and bell tower were to be dismantled later in the day.

“My great-grandparents were married there, my parents were married there, and I was baptized there,” Robert Chenard, 75, said as he watched the removal. “We have six generations with that church. I feel like it’s part of us, it’s been there so long; but you have to move on.”

Chenard stood with a camera in the rear parking lot of Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce on Elm Street with about a dozen other people who were watching the demolition.

The director of the Maine Franco-American Genealogy Society, Chenard also is vice president of the Taconnet Falls Chapter of the Maine Genealogical Society and a member of the Waterville Historical Society. He has lived on Pleasant Street, just behind the church, since he was 3, he said.

It was with mixed feelings that he watched a large crane from W.H. Green & Sons, of Augusta, remove the cross and ball, which touched the ground at 12:18 p.m.

“It’s part of my culture; it’s part of my being,” Chenard said.

The crane company’s owner, Gene Green, spent more than two hours in a bucket at the top of the steeple, sawing and hammering away until the ball and cross came loose and the crane slowly lowered it to the ground.

The cross itself is steel, Green said, shortly after stepping out of the bucket and onto the ground. The ball on the bottom of the cross is wood covered with tin, he said.

“It wasn’t very heavy; it was only 1,500 pounds, or something like that,” Green, 51, said. “We’ll take the rest of the steeple down today.”

After the steeple’s removal, Danley Demolition Co. Inc., of Fremont, N.H., was scheduled to raze the rest of the church and plans to have the property cleaned up by a week from Friday, according to Allen Mitchell, of Dicon, a construction company owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. Mitchell, who was at the site, is clerk of the works for the project, which will include building affordable housing for seniors on the property. The general contractor for the project is Zachau Construction Inc., of Freeport.

The parish hall and rectory next to the church at 52 Elm St. were removed earlier this month.

The 21,388-square-foot church was for sale for about four years and attracted no buyers before the decision was made to demolish it.

Corpus Christi Parish officials say the decision was driven by a shortage of priests, high heating costs and the cost of plowing and sanding. The cost to maintain the building was $40,000 to $50,000 a year.

The Diocese’s Bureau of Housing bought the property from the parish and got the mortgage through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A separate company, St. Francis Apartments, Inc., was created to operate the future housing complex.

The new 34,071-square-foot building, designed by CWS Architects, of Portland, will be three stories tall and have 40 units. People 62 and older whose incomes qualify under HUD standards will be tenants, according to parish facilities manager Mike Hebert. He said if all the people who applied for housing qualify, the units will be full on the first day. The building is expected to be completed in June 2014.

An 18-unit expansion will be built in the future if HUD money is available, according Hebert.

“It’s so sad”

Katherine Dall, 70, stood on Elm Street on Tuesday morning, lamenting the removal of the cross and ball and, eventually, the church.

“It’s so sad. It’s a travesty, in my mind,” Dall said.

She said she walks every day from her home on Dalton Street to her “second home,” Jorgensen’s Cafe downtown. She said she always has admired the church’s architecture.

“It’s a travesty for such a tall, stately, well-preserved historical Catholic church that could have been transformed to a bookstore, women’s shelter, or a safe haven for teenagers, and the parish hall could have been a teen center,” she said.

A retired junior high school language arts teacher, Dall said she attended a wedding at St. Francis in the 1960s, after her family moved to Waterville from New Hampshire in 1956.

“It’s got a very simple yet elegant persona,” she said. “It’s a bright, shining star that is meeting, unfortunately, its demise.”

Standing next to Dall was David Begin, 65, of Waterville.

“All I can say is, it’s a very sad thing,” he said. “I feel that that building could be used for other things.”

Begin cited a library annex as a possible use for the church.

“It doesn’t seem like they have any sense of history,” he said of the church. “If the Europeans did this, we’d have no cathedral — we’d have no Notre Dame.”

Raymond LaPointe, 53, of Waterville, was in the chamber’s parking lot, filming the demolition for his mother, Carol Pouliot, of Greenville.

“She has strong ties to this church,” he said. “She was baptized and married here and had her holy Confirmation, First Communion here. I’m planning to put some of this on DVD if I can. It’s a sad thing, definitely. It’s been here since 1874.”

Chenard has researched the area’s Franco-American history, including that of the church, and has put much of it on his website, home.gwi.net/~frenchgen. He said St. Francis was the second Catholic church built in Waterville. The original church was built on Grove Street and later moved to Temple Court; ultimately, it was turned into a tenement.

Chenard’s great-grandparents came to Waterville from Canada in the mid-1880s and their families grew up here, he said.

“When they died, their funerals were held here at St. Francis,” he said. “My maternal grandparents were married here, my parents were married here. I went to school here up to the eighth grade. There was another building here and it was St. Francis de Sales Parochial School.”

That school opened in the 1890s and was torn down in the 1960s, he said.

“They couldn’t afford to run it anymore,” said Chenard, who worked for the government as an explosives instructor before retiring. “It was too expensive. They ran out of teachers and they had to get lay teachers.”

Moving on

Mitchell, of Dicon, said he and this company have salvaged a lot of items from St. Francis to add to the new senior housing.

“It’s going to be a nice project,” he said. “A lot of stained glass is being used and some of the woodwork. I was in here last winter, salvaging.”

A gazebo-type structure will be built to house the church’s bell, according to Mitchell.

“I call it the bell house,” he said. “It’s going to look like the bottom half of the (church) tower, without the spire — without that steep-spired roof on it. I salvaged the trim over the louvers, and that’s going back into the new bell house. We’re making new crown molding, and that’s being matched exactly to what it was, to go back on the new bell house.”

The bell house will be placed somewhere on the property, he said.

The cast-iron statue of St. Francis that was removed from in front of the church is in Auburn being sandblasted and powder coated, Mitchell said. The statue will be included in the new building, as will five large stained-glass windows from the church. Another window will be placed in the future expansion, he said.

St. Francis was built for the growing Catholic population in Waterville in the mid- and late-1800s, according to Chenard. Fundraising for the church started in 1871, and by the summer of 1872, construction was underway. The church was completed in 1874. Side galleries were added to the church and completed in 1888, which increased seating from 600 to more than 1,000, according to Chenard.

The church was renovated in 1941, then again in 1964 and 1969, according to the parish’s website. The side galleries were dismantled and windows depicting the 12 apostles replaced the original stained-glass windows.

Bernard Doyon, 65, of Rome, pointed to a blue house behind the church and said he grew up in it and his nephew now lives in it. He and his family attended the church and, when he was 12, he climbed up the drain pipe of the church and crept across the roof to try to get into the belfry, but failed. Later, he and a friend went into the belfry from inside the church, he said.

As he recalled events from his childhood and watched the cross and ball being removed, Doyon reflected on what it all means.

“Progress has to be done, right?” he said. “It doesn’t matter. Things change, right?”

Amy Calder — 861-9247
[email protected]