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Dwindling Maine Congregation Pins Hopes on New Church

The newly elected pope hails from South America, where the Catholic population has exploded, containing more than a quarter of all Catholics on earth. It's a stark contrast to North America, where the pews in many communities are emptying. Here in Maine, mass attendance has dropped by 30 percent over the same number of years. Jake Ryan of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland has the story a congregation in the rural western Maine border town of Jackman that is fighting to survive.

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It's Sunday, and mass is about to start in Jackman, Maine. About 80 people are spread out among the metal folding chairs, chatting with each other under the fluorescent lights. There's no stained glass here, no stations of the cross. There's no choir or pews. That's because the St. Anthony's parish is meeting at the local American Legion Hall.

It wasn't always like this. A hundred years ago, Jackman was booming, and the locals built a church that reflected that. The stone structure, with its two spires and large stained glass windows, stood on the edge of town like a beacon. Isabelle Haggan attended mass there for the past 70 years, and it's the setting for many of her memories.

"All my family and all my husbands family all got married there, and baptisms, we had a lot of gatherings there too, so it's hard to pinpoint one thing," she says. "And it's hard to probably believe how much you can love a building, but it was part of us."

In 2009, the altar and statues were removed. The pews were put into storage, and the demolition crews began to tear the building down. Isabelle showed me a photograph of an excavator punching its metal bucket through a stained glass window. "And oh my god, when I saw the windows out of it - I've got pictures of it. It was just so heartbreaking, see?"

The building had stood for 81 years, and was in dire need of repair. The mold alone was so bad Isabelle had to spend a week Febreezing the walls so they could have a last meal there.

It would have cost over a million dollars to repair the building, but the congregation couldn't even afford to heat it. This was because the congregation had been dwindling for quite some time. No parishioners, no revenue. Father Bill Labbe is the Vicar Forane, a sort of bishop's representative, to the area.

"The Catholic church in Maine is probably struggling more than we care to admit," he says. "It's not a whole lot different than a whole lot of other institutions in the state. We're an older state, we're a secular state, there's not a whole lot of young people coming to the state. We're doing more funerals than baptisms, so the church is not expanding."

Young people are leaving. There just aren't as many jobs in Jackman, especially if you want to put a degree to work. Almost half of the people living in Jackman are over the age of 50.

But a smaller, aging population isn't the sole reason that St. Anthony's is struggling. Shannon Laurachelle is a newer resident to Maine, but she shares a sentiment that is quite common.

"I was raised Catholic, yes, but I don't practice," she says. "I know God exists and I know he's watching over me, and I have a Bible and I look at it, and I figure I don't have to go to church in order to believe in God."

In 2010, a study found that Maine is the least religious state in the union. And the church can seem stuck in the past. Late last year, Maine legalized same-sex marriage, a change the Catholic church opposed. Father Labbe insists they won't transform into a more liberal church.

"I honestly believe that the Catholic church is striving to remain the one extraordinary organization that exists that will not bow to the whims of popular culture," Labbe says. "And that's probably why we're under attack on a regular basis. We have as much appeal because of that as we do resentment."

But they are being forced to change, nonetheless. In Jackman, that means accepting a downsized church. At its peak, St. Anthony Church was filled with 800 of the faithful. Back at the Legion Hall, Isabelle waves towards the metal chairs.

"We have about 120 chairs set up, for services. We once had about 140, but we've taken some of the chairs out, and we might do it again, 'cause we find a lot of time there just aren't enough people to fill the 120 chairs that we do have," she says.

But Isabelle and the rest of the congregation are determined to keep St. Anthony's alive. They've been saving money and holding some charity fundraisers to try to build a new church. This new church will have seating for 150, which is still bold considering their current numbers.

"I pray that we'll have so many come back that we'll have to build on," Isabelle says, with a laugh. "That's my dream."

They're not hoping to rebuild the former glory of the St. Anthony Church, though. They're just looking for a home.

Jake Ryan produced this story for the Salt Institute For Documentary Studies in Portland, which holds an opening reception for an exhibition of recent student works this evening from 5 to 8.


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