WATERVILLE — St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, its rectory and its parish hall will be razed this month and replaced with low-income housing for seniors.

The 137-year-old, 21,388-square foot church at 52 Elm St. was for sale about four years — attracting 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 of maintaining the building was $40,000 to $50,000 a year.

“The hall will be demolished probably sometime next week,” parish facilities Manager Mike Hebert said Thursday. “The crane will come in the following week to take down the steeple and the bell.”

After that, the church building and rectory at the corner of Elm and Winter streets will be torn down, debris removed from the site, ground work done and the housing unit built. The estimated completion date is June 2014, Hebert said.

The new 34,071-square-foot-building was designed by CWS Architects, of Portland. The landscape architect is Carroll Associates, also of Portland.

Workers will start taking slate off the church roof and remove copper this weekend; and then on Monday, Danley Demolition Co. Inc., of Fremont, N.H., will arrive.

Once the buildings are razed, Donald J. Gurney Inc., of Waterville, will do excavation work on the site and build a foundation and parking lot, according to Hebert.

Zachau Construction Inc., of Freeport, then will build a three-story, 40-unit building for people 62 and older who have little income and qualify under U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development standards.

“We have plans for an 18-unit expansion down the road if HUD money is available,” Hebert said.

He said people already have applied for housing there.

“We have a waiting list that, if everybody meets the financial requirements determined by HUD, the building will be full on the first day. That’s the kind of need that’s out there.”

Over about five years, the parish held meetings with parishioners to discuss the church’s future. Last year, after the parish announced the church would be razed, residents turned out at meetings to say it was a historic building, was part of the fabric of the community and should be preserved.

Waterville businessman Charlie Giguere circulated a petition asking the parish to reconsider demolition.

“It’s a sad day for historic buildings in Waterville and a sad day for the French Canadian population of central Maine,” Giguere said Thursday.

Gilman Pelletier, 75, of Waterville, said it’s sad to see the church go, but people must adapt to change.

“I think it’s too bad,” he said. “It’s been a nice church. It’s been there forever and ever, it seems.”

However, he said, everyone has to cut costs, the church is no exception, and the demolition is necessary.

“It’s a sign of the times, and it’s the economy, and people are moving to other states, and the older folks are leaving us, and the younger folks have changed with it,” he said.

A longtime lector for the parish, Pelletier helped with funerals and other services at St. Francis for several years. He also is a longtime Meals on Wheels volunteer and familiar with issues involving seniors. The new apartments will fill a gap, he said.

“We need housing in this area, and I think it will be a great place for the elderly,” he said.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland’s Bureau of Housing bought the property from the parish and got the mortgage through HUD. A separate company, St. Francis Apartments Inc., was created to operate the new complex.

The housing is open to everyone — not just Catholics — because it is federally funded.

The church, hall and rectory have been fenced in while work is being done on the site.

“We’ve removed all the stained glass. We started a month ago, taking the stained glass out,” Hebert said. “We’re going to use five of those windows in the new building. Some are in storage. All the pews went to a new Catholic church being built in South Berwick.”

Some of the more ornate woodwork, both inside and outside of the church, is being saved to use in the new building, he said.

The bell and part of the steeple will be housed in Plexiglas and placed on the lawn; the statue of St. Francis over the church’s main entrance also will be kept on the grounds. Hebert said the new building will be reminiscent of St. Francis in that anyone familiar with the church will walk into the lobby and immediately recognize items there.

Dicon, a construction company based in Portland and owned by the diocese, has been removing ornate molding on the outside of the building. Danley Demolition will remove copper, roof slate, granite steps and other material for resale, Hebert said.

The main entrance to the new building will be on Elm Street, but people also will be able to enter and exit the property from nearby Percival Court, he said.

The diocese’s Bureau of Housing owns elderly housing throughout the state, including Seton Village, which is off Kennedy Memorial Drive and has 70 buildings. Hebert said Seton also is in great demand, with a waiting list of about 90 people.

St. Francis church was built in 1871 and side galleries were added in 1888. The side galleries were dismantled in the 1960s and the original stained-glass windows replaced.

On May 21, 2012, four members of the Planning Board approved a plan for senior housing on the site, one member abstained and two were absent from the meeting.

Amy Calder — 861-9247
[email protected]

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