‘Final, painful, relieving’: 140-year-old church closes in Harpswell

  • Mail this page!
  • Delicious
  • 0

HARPSWELL — The 10 remaining members of Faith United Methodist Church on Orr’s Island gathered to forever close their church the morning of Sunday, Nov. 1.

The church, founded in 1878, was almost 140 years old. Its open, one-room sanctuary can fit about 100 people, but it had not seen numbers like that in years, according to Joanne Rogers, Faith UMC’s only remaining trustee.

On Sunday, the 10 worshippers sat in half of the church, the other side of the aisle holding only stacks of hymnals on empty pews. The Rev. Beverly Stenmark, the district superintendent of the United Methodist Church, led the congregation in a brief worship service.

The church had been without a pastor since June, when the Rev. Karen Pierce, who was kept on quarter-time pay, left for another job. In her place, Stenmark had also come to Harpswell to hold the church’s final regular service July 20.

On Sunday, pianist Wendy Love sat at the grand piano, and the congregants opened their hymnals to Song 57: “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” Faith UMC used to have a choir, but it disbanded about five years ago.

After the hymn, Stenmark explained how the building would be transferred back to the Methodist Conference and its documents sent to a historical archive at Boston University. She reiterated that this decision was made by the congregants; that she, on behalf of the conference, was only there to formally facilitate it.

This is a “final, painful, and maybe yet relieving decision,” Stenmark said. Church Treasurer Janet Coombs, acting as secretary, prepared paper and pen to record the vote, and Stenmark put the motion to the floor.

All 10 members voted by a show of hands to close the church.

‘We’re not the only ones’

Sitting in the Orr’s Island Library last month, Joanne Rogers reflected on her 48 years of membership at Faith UMC.

Rogers remembered the church being full of young families and their children during summers when she was growing up, especially at weddings, funerals and baptisms. Her son was married there, she said, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren were baptized.

Margaret Sammons, another longtime member of the church, joked that before a child was baptized, friends and neighbors would say the baby “hadn’t been ‘done’ yet.”

But, Rogers said, membership had been dropping off “for quite some time.” Her grandchildren never went to the Sunday school at Faith UMC, because it was discontinued more than 15 years ago.

Rogers and Sammons said young families, so vital to sustaining a congregation, don’t really come to church any more. Part of the reason members decided to consider closing Faith UMC was because no new families were attending.

And Harpswell itself is aging. In 2000, the town’s median age was 45, according to the U.S. Census. In 2010, it was 52.9. Both numbers are higher than the statewide median age from the 2010 census, 42.7, which is the highest in the nation.

Faith UMC’s closing “(is) a sign of the times,” Sammons said. “An awful lot of communities are experiencing church closures … we’re not the only ones.”

Faith UMC’s story is mirrored nationally. Between 2007 and 2014, studies by the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of the U.S. population identifying as Christian fell from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent.

That drop, the authors say, “is driven mainly by the decline among mainline Protestants and Catholics,” and is “particularly pronounced in young adults.”

When asked Nov. 1 if the United Methodist Church, which Pew defines as “mainline” Protestant, is growing or shrinking in Maine, Stenmark replied, “both.”

She said in her eight years as superintendent of the Mid-Maine District, which has 69 churches, she has had three churches close.

But other churches are growing and changing, she said.

The HopeGateWay church in Portland, for example, is “thriving,” she said. “And they came out of a church that closed.”

Another church, Deering Memorial, in South Paris, has chosen to move to a smaller building and focus on community outreach, she said, rather than repair its aging sanctuary.

“We can’t keep doing church the way we did in the ’50s and ’60s,” Stenmark said. The 21st century church, she argued, has to focus on working in small groups, and connecting its message to daily life. HopeGateWay, she mentioned, has a housing program for asylum seekers.

But the issue of declining membership that Faith UMC in Harpswell faced is not unique, she admitted.

“It’s happening in other places,” she said. “(But) every new beginning involves a death.”

Proceeds from the sale of the Harpswell church will go into a fund the conference uses to develop new congregations, she added.

‘Spirits all around us’

Faith UMC closed on All Saint’s Day, the morning after Halloween. And spirits did rise and walk the aisles again that day, in the words and stories of the church’s last members.

Jim Word, who served as the church’s pastor for six years in the late 1970s, said he always thought of the congregation as his family.

He recalled a Sunday morning, many years ago, when he was going through a rough patch with his son.

“So instead of preaching, I said I want to talk to you about my son,” he said. There was no sermon that day; just advice from his congregants on how to mend his relationship.

Word’s wife, Barbara, remembered how a former pastor, Rose Spicer, had welcomed her and Jim into the church. At the time, they did not yet know they’d go on to be married there, and that Jim would someday become its pastor.

According to Barbara Word, when Spicer died, her funeral was held at Faith UMC and, at her request, Spicer’s ashes were placed in a cookie jar.

In a pew near the back sat Eleanor Marcie, 97, and her two adult daughters, Marjorie Birkinbine and Francis Welch. Marcie, who lives in Brunswick, had brought her five children to summer on Orr’s Island every year, and they’ve always called the church home.

“It’s a part of me,” Marcie said. “It meant as much as any kind of home could.”

Her daughter Marjorie said their family went back five generations on Orr’s Island, and that “all of them probably went to the church.”

Others remembered how another former pastor, Bob Sammons, would end all of his services singing, marching down the aisle toward the church’s great, red doors with his robes billowing behind. Margaret Sammons, one of the last 10 members, is his widow.

“There are spirits all around us,” Francis Welch said. “You can feel them.”

The last song

Stenmark ended the service in a declaration of purpose, and a litany.

“The time has come … to disband and take leave of this building,” she said. “It has been a refuge and comfort for God’s people. … (We lift) our hearts in Thanksgiving for this common store of memories.”

She choked back tears as she finished her charge: “We declare it is no longer a place of meeting for this United Methodist Church congregation … it was God’s gift for a season.”

Wendy Love’s piano erupted in a postlude, and the congregation sat, in smiles and in tears, as she played Vince Guaraldi’s “Charlie Brown Theme.”

Stenmark turned off the lights in the sanctuary, and the 10 now ex-members of Faith United Methodist Church filed downstairs for coffee and baked goods.

And then, the church closed. People folded up chairs, and wrapped up plates of cookies and muffins to bring home.

As the tide swept in to the little cove behind Faith United Methodist Church, Joanne Rogers closed the doors and made sure they were locked. For the last congregation, they will not open again in life, only in memory.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter in Twitter: @wwuthmann.

One of Faith United Methodist Church’s last members walks to her car after the church on Orr’s Island, Harpswell, closed its doors for good on Sunday, Nov. 1.

Francis Welch ties a friendship bracelet on the wrist of her mother, Eleanor Marcie. Their family attended Faith United Methodist Church on Orr’s Island for five generations.

Congregants of Faith UMC on Orr’s Island sing a hymn at their final service Nov. 1.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.