HALLOWELL — After the death of its longtime priest last week, the city’s only Catholic church has fallen under control of the leader of five other capital-area churches.

Dave Guthro, a spokesman for Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, said the Rev. Francis Morin, administrator of the Augusta-based St. Michael Catholic Parish, is in charge of Sacred Heart Church on Summer Street after the death of the Rev. George Hickey.

Hickey, an Augusta native who had served as pastor of the church since 1999, died Friday at age 75 after a long illness. Before then, he was pastor at churches in Benedicta and Hampden.

Now the Hallowell church’s future is uncertain. It could continue as a separate church, with services led by a host of priests; or it could be closed, forcing parishioners to go elsewhere.

Morin said he’ll hold a Sept. 4 meeting with church officials to determine Sacred Heart’s future, and “nothing definitive one way or the other” has been decided.

“Everybody I know in that community wants to keep the church open and functioning and think it would be a loss if it went away,” said Frank O’Hara, a parishioner from Hallowell.

The change has been long expected, Guthro said.

Under an arrangement that split Maine’s Catholic churches into 27 geographic clusters effective in 2007, Sacred Heart was kept out of a plan that grouped many capital-area churches under the St. Michael Catholic Parish, with one administrator.

That parish now includes five churches: St. Mary of the Assumption and St. Augustine in Augusta, St. Joseph in Gardiner, St. Denis in Whitefield and St. Francis Xavier in Winthrop.

Before the 2007 arrangement was finalized, Guthro said, it was agreed upon that Sacred Heart would continue as its own parish under Hickey’s leadership until he retired.

After that, however, Sacred Heart would come under St. Michael parish’s control, Guthro said. Together, the two parishes make up one geographic cluster.

“For years that’s been understood, but that hasn’t been talked about over the past year,” O’Hara said, saying even though Hickey has long been sick with a host of retired priests filling in for him, his death was still unexpected.

Hickey could have retired in 2008, but he decided to stay on, saying in a note to Bishop Richard Malone that he wished to remain a priest until his 75th year, a wish that was fulfilled. At his death, it had been more than 40 years since he was ordained to the priesthood.

For now, Guthro said, Sacred Heart officially will remain an independent parish — a unit with churchgoers whose pastoral care is entrusted to one priest — under Morin’s control, not yet grouped with other capital-area churches.

O’Hara said Hickey was instrumental in building a diverse congregation now consisting of around 120 members, and while having another permanent priest in charge of the church is unlikely, parishioners don’t want to move.

“It’s a very close community,” he said.

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652
[email protected]

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