Media Archive

Northern Maine Catholic churches merge

Article from Bangor Daily News, Monday, November 17, 2003
Brownville Junction parish closes

BROWNVILLE - Like many small communities in northern and eastern Maine, Brownville Junction has become a town without a school, a cafe or a Catholic church.

Once a thriving crossroads where the Canadian Pacific and Bangor and Aroostook railroads intersected, Brownville Junction is part of a parish with nine other towns, most of which have been losing population since the 1960s.

Dwindling dollars and aging demographics forced parishioners to close St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church and its rectory last month. Worshippers now must travel to nearby Milo to worship at the former St. Paul the Apostle, the smaller mission church of St. Francis.

The decision makes St. Francis Xavier the first Catholic church to shut down in northern Maine in almost two years.

Parishioners at St. Francis made the tough decision in August that they could no longer support the church and the rectory financially. Projections showed that the church would be broke by March 2004.

"We fought it as long as we could," Betty Willett of Brownville Junction, secretary of the parish council, said after Mass on Saturday evening.

Parishioners began seriously discussing the finances of the two churches that make up the parish in 2000, but the trend has been leading church members toward closing for at least 12 years, according to the Rev. James Robichaud.

For the past three years, he has served as pastor of St. Francis and St. Paul's as well as St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Dover-Foxcroft and Holy Family Mission in Sangerville. Robichaud, ordained in the order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1979, lives at the rectory in Dover-Foxcroft.

"The people in this parish made this decision," he said Saturday. "They were very courageous in making that decision in spite of the loss to the people of Brownville Junction and Brownville. They were willing to sacrifice those buildings in order to strengthen their faith community and ready to make that sacrifice for the good of the larger community."

Short of a miracle, the numbers forecast a bleak future for the church built to serve the families that worked for the railroads.

Heating oil for St. Francis cost $1,200 last year, compared with $840 for St. Paul's. Utility costs for the Brownville Junction church totaled $1,575 in 2002 compared with $1,300 in Milo. Heat and other utility costs for the Brownville Junction rectory, vacant since 1999, totaled $4,500 last year.

Finances weren't the only numbers parishioners studied before making the decision to close St. Francis.

Population in the Brownville area fell more than 23 percent from 1960 to 2000, according to census data. As recently as 1996, 60 people were confirmed in the parish. That number fell to 21 last year. In the past few years, deaths have far outnumbered baptisms, according to Robichaud.

In the end, the stark reality of those numbers was undeniable, parish council members said.

Emotionally, however, those who attended St. Francis are mourning.

"It's like losing a part of the family," Willett said. "The last service [on Oct. 30] was very emotional. There were a lot of tears."

Willett, a longtime member of the SAD 41 board, converted to Catholicism after she married Joseph Leo "Sam" Willett, who worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway for 42 years. He was the first infant baptized at the church after it became a parish in 1929. His funeral Mass was celebrated there two years ago.

Most who attended St. Francis, like Willett, aren't quite ready to move on. Others, however, are focusing on what the future might hold for the Milo church, now called St. Francis Xavier-St. Paul the Apostle Church.

Mary Livingstone of Brownville was the fourth generation of her family to attend St. Francis. She continues to be a lector and religious education teacher at the recently combined congregations.

"For me, that church had a very Marian spirituality," she said Saturday. "There was a great devotion to Our Lady. ... [Closing St. Francis] is sad, but it's also an exciting time as we see what we can do as we bind together. We were whimpering along for some time. Now we are together. I'm joyful and hopeful about the possibilities."

Both churches seat about 200, but St. Francis is a bigger facility than St. Paul's. The vestibule and sacristy at the Brownville Junction church are larger. From the late 1800s until the rectory was built in 1929, a visiting priest would stay in rooms at St. Francis that are now part of the sacristy. The larger church also has a steeple and bigger choir loft.

A convent that housed the nuns who taught religious education at St. Francis closed in the early 1970s.

The church and rectory now are the responsibility of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. The plan is to put the buildings up for sale once appraisals have been completed, Robichaud said.

NOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.