HALLOWELL — The administrator for several Augusta-area Catholic churches has recommended the closure of Sacred Heart Church.

The Rev. Francis Morin, the administrator of the Augusta-based St. Michael Catholic Parish, wrote a letter last week to Bishop Richard Malone, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, requesting permission to close Hallowell’s only Catholic church.

Morin became administrator of Sacred Heart last month after the death of Sacred Heart’s pastor, the Rev. George Hickey.

Because of the congregation’s small size, its location near other Catholic churches and staffing problems, Morin decided it didn’t make sense to keep the 318-member church open.

“It’s my opinion, and that was the recommendation I made to the bishop, that it’s not good stewardship to do that,” Morin said Monday.

Morin’s letter was distributed to parishioners in the church bulletin over the weekend.

Parishioners expressed disappointment Monday, but some maintain hope that alternative arrangements can be made. Several said they think officials have moved too quickly, without giving them an adequate chance to respond.

“We don’t feel we’ve had an opportunity to air out maybe a little bit of a different model, thinking outside the box a little bit, to see if this couldn’t be tried or that couldn’t be tried,” said Peter Bourque, of Farmingdale, head of the church’s pastoral council. “I think we need to have those conversations.”

Bourque said the council has sent a letter to the diocese requesting a meeting to discuss options, such as relying more on deacons or retired priests.

Dave Guthro, spokesman for the diocese, said the diocese office received Morin’s letter Monday, triggering a multi-step review process.

He said “there’s there’s no time frame” for how long the process will take or whether it would be possible to finish it by the end of October, which Morin has said would be the target date for closure to avoid heating costs.

Malone will consult with an advisory group of priests from around Maine and meet in person with Morin to review the reasons for his recommendation, Guthro said, adding that Malone also wants to hear from parishioners, who can send letters to him at the diocese office in Portland.

Malone is also bishop of the diocese in Buffalo, N.Y., and is involved in committee work with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; but Guthro said Malone comes frequently to Maine, where he is the apostolic administrator.

Morin’s case for closing Sacred Heart includes the relatively small size of the congregation and the proximity of other churches. St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Augusta and St. Joseph Church in Gardiner are about two miles and five miles away, respectively.

In addition, there are only 56 full-time priests in Maine, and only eight of them are younger than 50, Morin said. He and another priest oversee six churches, including Sacred Heart, in the Augusta area.

Sacred Heart parishioners said the congregation is more vital now than it has been in decades, with several young families among the members and about 40 children enrolled in religious education classes.

Mathew Scease’s 5-year-old daughter is one of them.

He said his family will continue to attend church regularly, no matter what happens.

If Sacred Heart closes, however, he wonders what will happen to young people who are forming a connection to the Catholic church there.

“I just think it’s a shame,” said Scease, of Hallowell. “The feeling of community I get at this church is very strong, and I just don’t know if we’re going to be able to find it again in another area church.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
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