Bricks, mortar bind new Portland Jewish campus, former Catholic church

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PORTLAND — The walls came tumbling down Nov. 23 at St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church.

But parishioners’ memories are intact and vivid, along with pieces of the church foundation.

“I had my first communion here,” Marianne Leavitt, 30, of Scarborough, said as the 51-year-old church at 1342 Congress St. was demolished.

Her three older siblings attended the parish school that closed in 2007, and her family lived two blocks away on Mitton Street. 

“Once, when I was about 10, when we were walking home from Christmas Mass, it started snowing, and we began singing Christmas carols,” she said.

Deconsecrated in 2013, the church was razed to make way for the Morris A. and Bertha Levine Portland Jewish Community Center, which will be on the new Alfred Osher Jewish Community Alliance campus.

The 2.2-acre property was bought for $1.1 million in August from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland by the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine. Demolition of the church was part of the sales agreement.

“It is really important to us that as we go forward it is something for everyone,” JCA Executive Director Ellie Miller said Nov. 25. “We have tried to approach the building itself with respect and have respect for the members of the church.”

Parishioners now worship at St. Pius Church at 492 Ocean Ave. The JCA will move from its cramped building at 57 Ashmont St., where is has been since 1982.

Miller said the Alliance has raised almost $5.5 million in cash and commitments. The initial capital came from the estate of Sidney Levine, a Portland native and tailor who died Jan. 15, 2011, at age 88. 

Morris A. and Bertha Levine were Levine’s parents, and it was his wish the community center be named for them, Miller said.

In February, the Alfred and Dorothy Suzi Osher Foundation donated $2.5 million to the building campaign. The project was approved by the city Planning Board in July, after JCA members and staff reached out to the community to discuss details of their plans.

The community center will be home to Jewish Family Services, before-and after-school programs, and summer camps. The JCA, formed in 1998 with the merger of the JCC and former Jewish Federation, has been looking for a new home since 2009. Miller said the new center is expected to be open by September 2017.

Site plans call for a 19,000-square-foot building, but how large it will actually be depends on how much money is raised, Miller said.

In 2013, the diocese reached an agreement to sell the church and grounds to the Charter Realty & Development Corp., the owners of nearby Westgate Shopping Center. That deal was never completed.

The St. Patrick Church parish served the Libbytown and Rosemont neighborhoods and beyond, and its demise brought some anguish to Rockland Avenue resident Bill Green.

“It was one big happy family,” Green said Nov. 25.  “No matter what Mass you went to, there was always somebody there who knew you.”

During the demolition, Green was given the church cornerstone, which he delivered to John Hawkes, whose family donated the money to pay for the marker.

Buried behind the stone was a time capsule sealed in a copper box. Green said it is expected to be opened on St. Patrick’s Day in 2016.

“What better day is there?” he asked.

A parishioner for 35 years with his family, Green said he believes it was a “mistake” to close St. Patrick, but he is pleased about what will replace it.

“I am glad it will not sit idle, I am glad it is going to be re-purposed,” he said. “I am very happy the Jewish Community Alliance has the opportunity to come out of their small building on Ashmont Street.”

Miller said the JCA is also working on a way to provide souvenir bricks and stones from the church to its former parishioners.

Leavitt’s two older brothers will be interested.

“They asked me to steal some bricks,” she joked.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

St. Patrick Church, 1342 Congress St. in Portland, is razed Nov. 23. The site will be the new home of the Jewish Community Alliance and Jewish Community Center.

A preliminary sketch of the 19,000-square-foot Jewish Community Center at 1342 Congress St., Portland.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.