AUGUSTA — The members of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church have gathered Sundays on Summer Street for the last 130 years, but that will change in the new year.

Beginning Jan. 4, St. Mark’s will enter into a new era when it begins worshiping with the people of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church at their building at 209 Eastern Ave.

“There’s every single emotion,” said the Rev. Erik Karas, Prince of Peace’s transitional pastor who will assume the role as priest-in-charge of St. Mark’s on Jan. 1. “There’s sadness as it draws to a close. There’s some excitement in some for trying something new. There’s a lot of wondering how things will look. There’s a flood of every emotion.”

Sunday marked the last traditional Eucharist service to be held at the historic church building located at 9 Summer St. The large stone church, nestled between Summer and Pleasant streets, will host a Christmas eve service at 3 p.m. Wednesday and a Lessons and Carols service at 9:30 a.m. Sunday.

Karas was careful not to call the transition a merger between the two churches. St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and Prince of Peace Lutheran Church will continue as two separate church congregations that come together for a joint service every week and share the same clergy and the same church building.

“It’s an experiment is what it basically is,” Karas said. “We want to be one congregation, not two separate ones, in everything but the legal stuff.”

St. Mark’s Senior Warden Elizabeth Praul said Sunday was a sad day for many, but emotions were bolstered by an afternoon spent greening the church in preparation for the Christmas eve service. St. Mark’s, she promised, will go on.

“The building is not St. Mark’s,” she said. “The people are St. Mark’s.”

Heidi Shott, canon for communication and advocacy for the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, said St. Mark’s ministries, which include Addie’s Attic Clothing Bank and the monthly public supper, as well as the multi-congregational Augusta Food Bank, will all continue to be based at St. Mark’s parish hall. Shott said dwindling membership has made it difficult for St. Mark’s to continue operating the ministries while simultaneously keeping up its large and costly physical plant. St. Mark’s, which has about 30 members, has met with the roughly 60 members of Prince of Peace during the winter months for the past few years. St. Mark’s members, as well as members at Prince of Peace, voted to make the move permanent.

“Over time they said, ‘We have three buildings and a lot going on, but our members are getting older and they’re all involved in a lot. Maybe we need to think about other options,'” she said.

Praul said she was proud of the congregation for making the decision to leave and thankful to the “welcoming” congregation at Prince of Peace. St. Mark’s Church, which was founded in 1840, has met at the Summer Street church since 1884.

“The people who are St. Mark’s Episcopal Church are truly an inspirational and courageous group,” she said. “While feeling great sadness at having to leave the building that has housed them for so many years, they are bravely setting out on a journey with hope for the future.”

Karas, too, applauded St. Mark’s for taking action to preserve its ministries.

“I find their faithfulness inspiring,” he said. “The change is very emotional but focused on ministry. The people of St. Mark’s are ensuring that the ministries housed there will have a place to continue. At the same time we are joining together to look for new ways to serve.”

The future of St. Mark’s buildings, which includes the parish house, rectory and church, remains to be seen. Shott said the church has organized a property committee to research options. The rectory is in the process of being appraised and could be sold separately, Shott said. There may be agencies interested in purchasing the parish hall and keeping the ministries, Shott said.

“Those are vital community ministries,” she said. “However it takes shape, a year from now we might be having another conversation. We’re really stepping out into something new.”

In August, church leaders said “a fragile financial condition” led to a plan to close St. Mark’s Home, residential housing for women, by the end of the year.

Episcopalians and Lutherans joining forces is not new. Shott said sharing of clergy between churches of The Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America was established in 2003 when both denominations approved an agreement named “Called to Common Mission.” Churches throughout the country have taken advantage of the opportunity, including Christ Episcopal Church in Norway and Trinity Lutheran Church in South Paris. The churches earlier this year came together in an arrangement similar to the one being employed by St. Mark’s and Prince of Peace.

“Denominations have said, ‘We need to work together,'” Shott said. “Everyone is going into this with good faith and a good heart.”

Episcopal churches, like those of other denominations, have struggled to maintain membership. Three congregations closed in 2014, including two in the Aroostook County communities of Caribou and Mars Hill and in Waterboro in York County. St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Richmond closed in 2012. The property, including two buildings and a half-acre lot, was given to the town.

Shott said the five Episcopal Churches of Southern Kennebec Valley, including St. Mark’s and St. Barnabas in Augusta, as well as churches in Winthrop, Hallowell and Gardiner, have held discussions over the past two years looking at membership and what they will look like in the years ahead if membership continues to slide.

“Nobody’s done anything wrong,” Shott said. “It’s just our culture has really changed.”

The Roman Catholic Church has not been immune to shift. The Diocese of Portland claimed 193,392 Catholics in Maine, according to a July Associated Press story. That makes it the largest denomination in Maine, but it represents a decline of about 30 percent over the past 30 years. The Diocese last summer had more than 20 churches, convents, rectories and schools for sale and had already sold dozens of properties since early in 2013.

The diocese has in recent years closed and combined a number of churches, including St. Andrew in Augusta and St. Leo in Litchfield, both of which were part of St. Michael Parish. Kennebec Community Church, a young, growing Protestant church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, has since taken up residency in the former St. Andrew’s Church.

“Mainline churches have seen a decline since the 1970s,” Shott said. “Lives are changing. The post-war generation saw going to church as the cultural norm. At some point since the early ’70s, people have been asking, ‘Am I required to go to church? No.'”

Churches have taken up different strategies to try and coax people back through their doors. At Prince of Peace, for example, there is a new ministry called Mustard Seeds. A joint ministry of the five Southern Kennebec Valley Episcopal churches and Prince of Peace, the program has classes and activities for preschool and middle-school-aged students as well as adults. Families share a meal afterwards. The program, which has run since September, attracts about 70 people each week, Shott said.

“I think a lot of people are finding new expressions of faith,” she said. “It’s not going to look just one way any more.”

Karas said finding new ways to reach into the community will help unite the people of St. Mark’s and Prince of Peace. He has already gone to work trying to ease the transition for both congregations. He recently hosted a lunch at St. Mark’s so that members could get to know him better. He has urged members of both congregations to try and see things from the other point of view.

“It means a lot of change for everybody,” Karas said. “It’s kind of like blending two families. You have people with traditions, rituals and passions. Many of them are very compatible, but some of them aren’t. These two families have the same issues. By coming together we can serve our neighbors better. I think that’s how we’re going to get through this.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

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Twitter: @CraigCrosby4