WATERVILLE — The winter sun beamed brightly through stained-glass windows of the 12 Apostles at St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic church Sunday for the last Mass celebrated in the 137-year-old parish church.

It was a good day. It was a sad day.

“This is a bittersweet day,” said Mike Hebert, facilities manager for Corpus Christi Parish, of which St. Francis is a part. “It’s tough for everybody to see this go, to see it come down, but we’re going to put up a 40-unit, low-income, elderly housing; and that is keeping with the mission of the church, by helping the less fortunate and the elderly have a decent place to live. We’re moving on.”

Bishop Richard J. Malone of the Portland Diocese officiated at Sunday’s final Mass, flanked by a dozen priests who joined him for the celebration.

Old folks, young families, infants and children filled the 400-seat church for the occasion, celebrating with hymns, homilies and readings from Scripture, all tailored to draw meaning from the closure and the history the Waterville congregation has made.

“Praise the Lord That Heals the Broken Heart” was one of the hymns.

“It’s a very sad day, filled with mixed emotions,” the Rev. Joseph Daniels, pastor of St. Francis, told the congregation. “We have much to be thankful for over the proud history of this church. Bishop Malone comes to us today stepping into considerable history.”

St. Francis was built in 1871 and dedicated June 14, 1874, by Bishop David Bacon, first bishop of the Diocese of Portland, Daniels said from the lectern Sunday. The diocese was founded in 1853. When Bacon came to Waterville, there were eight churches served by six priests in Maine. When Bishop Bacon died, the Diocese of Portland had 63 churches, 52 priests, 23 parish schools and a Catholic population of 80,000.

In addition to the 21,388-square-foot church, the adjacent rectory and church hall at the corner of Winter and Elm streets will be razed to make way for the new building.

The church has been used for the last year only for funerals and weddings. The need to raze the church, one of several in the Corpus Christi Parish, is driven by several factors, according to Hebert.

“It’s a shortage of priests and it’s heating costs and it’s plowing and sanding,” Hebert said last week. “It’s just gotten to be too much. We really can’t justify the expense.”

In his address to the people Sunday, Bishop Malone acknowledged that the day indeed was sad in many ways, but it also was a day to be thankful for the heritage of the St. Francis parish. He said the people will bring their faith and their strength to other churches, wherever they go.

“To me, though there is sadness, it also is a time of hope,” Malone said. “God’s people will move forward in hope and with courage, even with a tear in our eyes.”

The bishop, noting that Sunday also was Super Bowl Sunday, assured parishioners they would all be home by game time.

In his homily, the Rev. Scott Mower, a pastor in Ellsworth whose family originally is from Waterville and Winslow, gave a history of the region from the first Catholic Mass celebrated in 1841 in a home on Water Street, a house that still stands today. There were few Catholics during those years, but soon the mills were built, the railroad came to town and people — including many Roman Catholics — flocked to live along the banks of the Kennebec River, he said.

The first church building in Waterville was built in 1851 on Grove Street, and as the Catholic population continued to grow, more churches were needed, he said. Ten years later, St. Francis was built.

“What a jewel in the crown of the diocese of Portland,” Mower said of the St. Francis de Sales church. “A brick church on a main street; such beautiful architecture and an exciting, vibrant Catholic congregation that helped to make it all possible.”

The church’s main mission was never about the building itself, Mower said. It was always about the message of faith, the generations of people worshipping together and taking that message wherever they go.

The elderly-housing plan needs a final commitment from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as the city’s Planning Board. An application was filed with HUD in June for the plan and was accepted in November.

If the project gets final approval, Corpus Christi Parish will sell the property to the Diocese of Portland’s Bureau of Housing, which will get the mortgage through HUD. That Bureau of Housing owns housing complexes for the elderly throughout the state, including Seton Village in Waterville.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

 


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