HALLOWELL — The head of Maine’s Catholic diocese decided Wednesday to keep Sacred Heart Catholic Church open, a delight to parishioners coming just weeks after the church’s administrator recommended shuttering it.

After a teleconference Wednesday with local church officials and a panel of advisors, Bishop Richard Malone of the statewide Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland decided to merge the Summer Street church with the Augusta-based St. Michael Catholic Parish, effective in January.

The Rev. Francis Morin, administrator of the church and the parish, said Malone’s decision to keep the 318-member church was based on a sentiment that the church, though small, is strong, active and relatively young.

“I think he was taken by that and pleased by that,” said Peter Bourque, of Farmingdale, chairman of Sacred Heart’s church council, who participated in the call with Malone.

Morin made a recommendation in September to close the church after the August death of the Rev. George Hickey, an Augusta native who had been Sacred Heart’s pastor since 1999.

Morin’s recommendation cited the financial burden of keeping the church open, especially given its proximity to other congregations in Augusta and Gardiner.

There is cost-cutting involved with Sacred Heart’s staying open: The next-door rectory, formerly Hickey’s residence, may be sold or rented, Morin said.

He said there will be only one Mass per weekend on Sunday, down from the two it has now on Saturday and Sunday. That change will take effect on the first weekend in January.

Also, there will be no permanent priest at Sacred Heart. Morin said he and three other priests will say the weekly Masses.

Frank O’Hara, a parishioner from Hallowell, called the deal “a good compromise,” as parishioners always expected that they wouldn’t have a permanent pastor after Hickey’s death or retirement.

Sacred Heart operated as its own parish under Hickey’s leadership, even though it was geographically in the middle of the St. Michael parish it will soon join, composed of St. Augustine and St. Mary churches in Augusta, St. Denis Church in Whitefield, St. Francis Xavier Church in Winthrop and St. Joseph Church in Gardiner.

In 2007, the diocese agreed to let Sacred Heart operate as its own parish until Hickey’s retirement or death. After that, the agreement was that the church would merge with St. Michael.

That could have meant closure or the merger, which will move administrative work to the Augusta parish. The latter won out.

Malone made that decision in concert with the College of Consultors, an advisory group of priests.

After speaking with Bourque and James Hebert, chairman of the St. Michael pastoral council, he immediately issued the decision to keep the church open.

It was a 180-degree turn from the gloomy outlook early on in the process, when Bourque said most “kind of assumed the college wouldn’t recommend differently” than Morin. Many were bracing for closure.

Also, a Monday night meeting between Morin and the financial and pastoral councils of Sacred Heart and St. Michael raised parishioners’ spirits. Attendees said the discussion left them optimistic about the church remaining open.

Morin’s initial recommendation also drew a strong response from parishioners, drawing the City Council’s attention.

Councilor Mark Sullivan, who isn’t a parishioner but represents Ward 4, which includes the church, sponsored a resolution urging church leaders to keep it open, citing its community effect.

He said Wednesday that Malone’s decision is a “great tribute to the parish,” which is “such an integral part of this city.”

Many parishioners hadn’t heard the news of Malone’s decision Wednesday afternoon. Linda Masciadri, of Hallowell, called Malone’s decision “wonderful,” saying Sacred Heart is a welcoming church, drawing young families with children.

“It’s a thriving parish, even though we’re not very big,” she said.

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652
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