Representatives from Catholic parishes in Augusta and Hallowell will pitch their proposal to the bishop and his advisers today in a bid to keep Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Hallowell open.

The proposal is a reversal of a recommendation last month by the administrator of the local parishes to shut the doors of the Summer Street church by the end of October.

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

Morin said despite his initial recommendation to close the church, it’s the bishop’s wish to keep it open.

“I had proposed closing because I felt it was small enough that it could adapt to people going to the nearest churches on either side of it, but (Malone) felt that it’s not the right time, if it’s ever going to happen,” Morin said by phone Tuesday.

Morin said he and the heads of the pastoral councils of Sacred Heart and St. Michael are scheduled to meet this afternoon with the College of Consultors, which is an advisory group of priests to the bishop, and Malone, who will be teleconferencing from his post in Buffalo, N.Y., to discuss their proposal.

If the proposal is accepted, Sacred Heart will merge with St. Michael, moving all administration work to the Augusta office.

The Hallowell church will remain open as a place of worship, although the number of services will decrease from twice a week to once a week, Morin said. The other programming and use of the church will remain the same. He said they probably also will be looking for permission to sell the empty rectory eventually.

The proposal recommends implementing the merger in December. Morin said the bishop could decide to change that or any other parts of proposal, but he doubts that will happen.

The merger had been in the works since 2007, when the diocese agreed to let Sacred Heart operate as its own parish until its pastor at the time, the Rev. George Hickey, retired or died. Hickey’s death in August started the ball rolling on finding a new direction for the parish.

Morin’s recommendation to close Sacred Heart generated immediate resistance.

Parishioners of the approximately 300-member church and members of the community said the closure would hurt a vibrant congregation and rob the city of an important institution.

Attendees of a Monday night meeting between Morin and the financial and pastoral councils of Sacred Heart and St. Michael, however, said the discussion left them upbeat about the possibility of Sacred Heart remaining open.

Frank O’Hara, a member of the congregation, said there was a consensus at the meeting to support the proposal, and he gave credit to Morin for bringing the plan together.

“I’m thrilled. I’m very happy. I feel great,” O’Hara said the day after the meeting. “I just feel like the church was very supportive to our concerns, and it’s just a nice feeling going forward.”

He said the congregation recognizes the need to share costs for efficiency, but the Catholic Church also needs lively local communities.

“We think this is an answer that gives the best of both worlds,” O’Hara said.

Peter Bourque, chairman of Sacred Heart’s pastoral council, who will be in today’s meeting with the Portland diocese, said the meeting Monday was positive.

“Despite the last few months, we’ve continued to remain hopeful that we’ll remain as a worship site,” Bourque said. “That ultimate decision lies with the bishop.”

He said there’s been great support for remaining open from both parishioners and members of the public.

“Certainly that can’t hurt, I don’t think,” Bourque said.

Dave Guthro, spokesman for the diocese, said there’s no timetable for the decision about whether to keep the church open. The bishop will consult with the College of Consultors, who will make their own recommendation to the bishop, Guthro said.

Morin said he expects the bishop will agree to keep the church open for the foreseeable future. He said the diocese eventually could decide to close the church, depending on finances or changes to the congregation; but “nothing will be decided on that for a long time.”

Paul Koenig — 621-5663
[email protected]

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