BRUNSWICK — For most of the 20th century, a white, three-story building next to St. John the Baptist Catholic Church on Pleasant Street housed priests, and then nuns who worked at the Catholic school.
But the last Ursuline Sister to work at the school departed 10 years ago, and the parish’s three priests all live elsewhere. With little need for housing, administrators at All Saints Parish are hoping to tear the building down and replace it with handicapped parking.
But the demolition request is much more than just a bid to tear down an empty building. It’s an indication of how much the Catholic Church in Maine is changing, and how church administrators are trying to adapt to the new environment.
The rectory was built around 1900 and served as a residence for priests until the 1980s, when it became a convent for the Ursuline Sisters who worked at the School.
The nuns previously lived in a large, brick convent adjacent to the school. But when their numbers began to decline, the decision was made to swap the priests and the nuns, according to Sister Laurie Ann Michaud, who served as the principal of St. John’s in the early 1980s.
The last year a nun served as principal of the school was 1998, and in 2005 the remaining nuns dispersed to Lewiston, Dedham, Mass., or Waterville, where they run Mt. Merici Academy, the last Ursuline-run Catholic school in Maine.
Sister Angela Krippendorf, the last nun to serve as the principal of St. John’s school, said the number of Ursuline sisters has been declining since the 1970s.
“There are no more people who are willing to give their lives for the religious service,” she said. “It takes a commitment and the culture right now is very challenging to get young people to make that kind of commitment.”
According to Michaud, today there are only 29 Ursuline nuns in the state, down from a high of almost 250.
The lay teachers who took their places at St. John’s school had no need, or interest, in convent-style housing, said Donald Leaver, business coordinator for the parish.
“These teachers are all married, or they want apartments,” he said. “There’s no demand for teachers to live in the convents.”
Since then the building has been empty. It costs the parish about $10,000 a year to maintain – expensive storage space for a collection of wooden crosses, theater props, and the occasional gallon of holy water and shaker of blessed salt.
The amount the parish spends annually on the building isn’t a huge expense by itself, but Leaver said there is less money to go around than there used to be. Donations have been declining 3 percent to 4 percent a year for the past four years, he said.
In addition to being a financial burden, the convent also makes it difficult for elderly parishioners to attend services at St. John’s. The building is positioned exactly where handicapped parking would normally be: next to the only ground-floor entrance to the church that has an elevator.
The Rev. Frank Murray, pastor at All Saints Parish, said parishioners have told him that the walk to the entrance makes it difficult to attend church services.
“We have to face the fact that our population here in Maine and at St. John the Baptist Church is aging, and accessibility is an issue,” Murray said.
But the Village Review Board would like to see the church figure out a way to maintain the building, or at least preserve its facade while demolishing the back half.
Leaver worries that the cost of renovating the convent, plus heating it, would easily add another $50,000 to the parish’s annual expenses, which currently do not include heat or water.
“I don’t know that it’s our job to preserve a historic building” that the parish has no use for, he said. Besides, the parish has higher priorities than maintaining a 100-year-old unused convent.
“If we have limited resources, we’re definitely going to spend them on the church,” he said.
Leaver said he intends to return to the review board with more information about why the parish believes the demolition is necessary.
Krippendorf has fond memories of living in the convent: poking her head out the kitchen window while cooking on Sundays and talking to people as they left church.
But she’s not sentimental when it comes to the proposed demolition.
“It was a lovely building,” she said. “But you know what? It’s the people in the building that makes it.”
Don Leaver, the business coordinator for All Saints Parish, walks through St. John the Baptist Catholic Church on Monday afternoon. Parish administrators would rather spend money maintaining the 84-year-old church than the former rectory and convent next door, which they hope to tear down.
The sanctuary at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Brunswick.
All Saints Parish is hoping to demolish the convent on the corner of Pleasant and Union streets and replace it with handicapped parking.
The long pathway from the handicapped parking lot to the ground floor entrance to St. John’s. Parish administrators say the location of the convent, on the right, makes it difficult for disabled or handicapped parishioners to attend services.