As churches around Maine contemplate how to reopen, one parish in Waterville is continuing to serve parishioners just as it has throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church on the corner of Front and Appleton streets in Waterville on Wednesday, April 15. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

At the onset of the pandemic in early March, when coronavirus was spreading across the country and into the state of Maine, local and federal government officials scrambled to assess the situation and institute measures to combat its incursion. Schools closed, layoffs and furloughs were imminent and everyday tasks such as buying toilet paper or paying rent became monumentally stressful.

People were being told to shelter at home. Reduce contact with others. Stay alone.

One church, however, quietly held its worship services like any other day. With safety precautions such as a limit on the number of people in attendance, reminders to keep socially distant and hand sanitizer available at the door, St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church at the corner of Appleton and Front streets continued to offer in-person worship throughout the pandemic, even as other houses of worship around the state ceased to do so.

“I actually, personally can’t imagine locking it to the people,” said the Rev. James Doran, the church’s pastor. “I’ve told every person to stay at home and be safe, but they know simultaneously that the church is open to them.”

St. Joseph has a small and declining population with regular daily attendance during the pandemic hovering right around 10 people, the maximum allowed for small gatherings under an executive order from the governor that will rise to 50 people Monday. Sunday services could include up to 20 people, most coming from a small handful of families.

“It’s still the 80-somethings in the pews,” said Doran. “We have a lot of people who we’ve told, ‘stay home,’ because of the demographic. They are so elderly. But the fact that they know it’s not locked is such a morale boost to them.”

Marie Fefa Deeb, 94, sings during morning Mass at St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church in Waterville on Thursday, April 16. Deeb was the only parishioner in attendance, but Mass would be celebrated if the church was empty, according to the Rev. James Doran. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

One of the church’s regular parishioners is Marie Fefa Deeb, 94, the daughter of two Lebanese immigrants born and raised exactly 163 steps from the church’s front door. After graduating from high school in Waterville in 1943, Deeb earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Thomas College and the University of Maine, respectively, and returned to Thomas to teach finance.

“I have never, in my 94 years, ever been in a situation where we were not allowed to go to church or banned from going to church,” Deeb said. “This is the first time in my 94 years that we were ordered not to go.”

For a person whose spiritual life has been as much a part of her existence as eating food or drinking water, having no opportunity to be present for Mass and to receive the sacrament of Holy Eucharist would be unbearable.

“If I can go to the grocery store and my church is empty and Mass is being said, I’m going to church,” Deeb said. She added, “I have not been challenged. I’m more afraid of the grocery store.”

“She’s been a whirlwind hurricane cyclone for 50 years as a one-woman show,” Doran said.

Deeb’s faith and her commitment to her parents, Sam and Lottie Deeb, have been mainstays in her life, and both have been critical to decisions she made when she was at a crossroads.

The Rev. James Doran walks Marie Fefa Deeb, 94, home May 7 following morning Mass at St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church in Waterville. Deeb grew up attending the church and has lived in her childhood home her entire life. It is a mere 163 steps away from the church. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“Now, I didn’t have to go anywhere because I worried about my parents. When I graduated from the University of Maine with my first master’s, my adviser called me in and he said, ‘Marie, I’ve got a wonderful job for you in upstate New York.’ He says, they want a director of business education. I can’t do it. I have elderly parents,” Deeb said.

That and her devotion to her faith determined the tenor of her life.

“So you know, you’d go to church, have breakfast and go to class. It was just … just something that I did. It was part of my day. That one hour or half of an hour was just dedicated to the good Lord. Because when you get busy you don’t think of it.”

On a Thursday in mid-April, Deeb was the only person who showed up for church. Doran still celebrated Mass, something he does whether there are zero or 100 people present.

“The Catholic vision … is that what you get together for is because this is a revelation of God in this event, in this ceremony, which is given to us by God in his essence,” Doran said. “And therefore it’s something that you’re either at or not at. And if you’re not (present), you can take pictures or make a video, but it’s never going to be the event. “

Mass for Catholics is more than gathering and praying, he said. It’s an actual offering that a person must be present for. It’s not something that can be done by Zoom or on YouTube. And that April day was especially beautiful, Doran said. “She was receiving communion for all of the church on that day.”

Deeb, who still lives in the home she grew up in on a street named for her family — Deeb Street — said faith has always been a part of her life since childhood.

Her father worked in the woolen mill along with her mother while the family lived with the mother’s sister until Deeb was 5, when they finally moved into their own place — the upstairs apartment.

Eventually Deeb’s father had enough money to purchase a house two homes down from her aunt, about 50 yards from what is now St. Joseph Maronite Church and what was then the epicenter of Waterville’s immigrant community.

In her more than 80 years as a parishioner, Deeb has seen about a dozen priests come and go. Doran, a relative newcomer who arrived at the parish three years ago, said he has taken note of the strength of her faith and others in the small church community.

“The faithful. We should be adult enough that if we want to go to Mass, we should be able to go to Mass. It’s, after all, a choice that they can make. But to say they must be closed and locked down so that no one even has a choice … which is why it’s to the credit to the administration in Augusta that the whole first directive didn’t mention anything about houses of worship. They just left it there. They weren’t going to call it nonessential. They weren’t going to call it essential.”

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