WATERVILLE — The Sacred Heart Soup Kitchen on Pleasant Street in Waterville has closed permanently after 40 years, a decision driven in part by the coronavirus pandemic.

Soup kitchen officials said the decision to close was also influenced by the fact the church building is being sold and the soup kitchen’s volunteers are all elderly.

“We’re sorry we had to close,” said Mary Morin, a longtime member of the soup kitchen’s board of directors. “All the people that volunteered there really valued their work and valued the people. Everyone considered it an honor to serve these people — a lot of whom fell through the cracks and don’t feel valued.”

Morin, 84, cooked at the kitchen and had been there 15 years. She said when the soup kitchen — at Sacred Heart Church at 72 Pleasant St. — closed temporarily in March because of the coronavirus, board members planned to reopen, when possible. At a recent board meeting, however, they decided it was time to close.

The Sacred Heart Soup Kitchen at 72 Pleasant St. in Waterville has closed after 40 years. The entrance to the former soup kitchen is shown lower left. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

The soup kitchen, which served hot meals five days a week, operated separately from the church and paid it $200 a month for rent. The church was founded in 1908, but has not held weekend Masses since 2006.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland announced in March that Corpus Christi Parish planned to put the church building, parsonage and rectory on the market. Morin said the soup kitchen was unable to find a suitable alternative site, which contributed to its closure.

The soup kitchen relied on private donations, federal government support and donations from area supermarkets. Some people who donated money regularly to the soup kitchen have stopped giving, according to officials.

“The soup kitchen has been struggling,” Morin said. “If we were to reopen, we would need to make changes, including shields, spacing — there’s not room to sit people 6 feet apart — sanitizing bathrooms, etcetera.

“It was decided that this would be a good time to close. The volunteers are all elderly, no younger people have stepped up to help and there’s only so long we can go on.”

Morin said younger volunteers have been recruited, but many would come, spend a day and not return.

The soup kitchen was founded in 1980 by the Rev. George Goudreau, with help from others, including Dick Willette Sr., who volunteered there 36 years, 20 as director, until he died in 2016, just before he planned to retire.

At its peak, the kitchen served between 80 and 140 people each day, Willette said four years ago. Morin said that when it closed in March because of coronavirus, only 40 to 45 people eating their regularly.

Joan Phillips-Sandy of Waterville volunteered at the soup kitchen for many years, bringing students weekly from Mount Merici Academy to help.

“I’m so sorry that the Sacred Heart Soup Kitchen is closing,” Phillips-Sandy said Monday. “In 1986, Donna Russo, then sixth-grade teacher and now dean of students and Upper Wing lead teacher at Mount Merici Academy, and I started bringing our sixth-graders to volunteer at the soup kitchen every week of the school year. This later expanded to include seventh-graders and continued until last spring.

“This gave our students the opportunity to put into practice the Ursuline school’s ‘Serviam’ motto (I will serve). Feeding the hungry is a core Gospel command. The need in this community is great, and I saw it grow over the years. I hope some group steps up to start another soup kitchen.”

It is unclear where those who utilized the soup kitchen are eating now. Morin said they would eat at the Alfond Youth & Community Center when it opened for meals shortly after the soup kitchen closed because of COVID-19. The Alfond Center, however, has now returned to feeding only youths, according to Ken Walsh, its chief executive officer.

Contacted on Monday, others who help the needy said they did not know where people are eating meals, but Katie Spencer White, director of the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, offered possible answers.

She said that while the courts are closed and people are not being evicted from their homes, they may be using rent money for food and other essentials.

Some people are also receiving a temporary cash infusion of $600 a month in unemployment funds, which makes a big difference if feeding a family, according to Spencer White. She added that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits have also been increased.

“I think that’s probably where we’re seeing some of the difference right now,” she said, “and, of course, people got stimulus checks.”

Spencer White said when people talk about social welfare programs, a concern among taxpayers is the money is used for recreational drugs and other nonessential items, but data shows the exact opposite — the great majority of people use the money for food, utilities and rent.

Maili Bailey, director of the Evening Sandwich Program and the Universalist-Unitarian Church at 69 Silver St. in Waterville, said she was saddened to learn of the soup kitchen’s closure.

“We were in a partnership with them,” Bailey said Monday. “They used to pick up bread for us from Hannaford and Shaw’s, and they also had produce which I could count on. We did share supplies, at times. They’re going to be missed. Totally, totally understand, though.”

The Evening Sandwich Program, which has been operating for 30 years and offers take-out food, closed temporarily in March because of the pandemic. It eventually reopened but then closed again because few people were using it, according to Bailey.

“We reduced the number of days and then it became more difficult to get volunteers because we’re all old,” she said, adding volunteers are in their 70s and 80s and were nervous about the highly contagious virus.

“There were so few people coming,” she said, “and we just didn’t think it was worth the risk.”

Bailey, who started the sandwich program in 1990, is confident the program will continue.

“I fully expect that we will go again,” she said.

Meanwhile, an effort is afoot, unrelated to the Sacred Heart Soup Kitchen, to open a similar facility, although plans are in their infancy.

Aline Poulin of Waterville said she was asked to help explore the possibility of opening a soup kitchen.

She and others are looking for space and substantial donations to buy freezers, a microwave oven, tables, chairs and other equipment.

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