'Homework' needed, but parishioners favor closing South Portland church
SOUTH PORTLAND — A professional assessment of the market value of St. John the Evangelist Church is planned after a parish meeting last Sunday revealed overwhelming support for a recommendation that the 70-year-old church be closed.
Monsignor Michael Henchal said the Jan. 27 meeting of parishioners produced a need for more more details about the value of the 611 Main St. church, a former rectory now used as a convent, and a closed pastoral center once used as a parish school.
"We need to do some homework," Henchal said this week.
Sunday's meeting came after a finance committee recommended closing the church by June 30. Henchal estimated the meeting was attended by about 70 people; he said two-thirds of them expressed support for closing the church.
“There's significant support for the (finance committee) recommendation,” he said.
St. John the Evangelist is part of a parish cluster of Roman Catholic churches in the city, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough. It includes buildings along Main Street and Aspen Avenue, sharing a common parking lot.
Among the unanswered questions, Henchal said, is "Is it marketable as a whole?”
The finance committee recommendation cited reduced church revenue, aging buildings, and the need for real and potential costly repairs. The parish has $5,000 in savings, needs $60,000 to $70,000 for roof repairs, and its boilers and sound system are deteriorating, Henchal said.
Saturday evening Mass draws an average of 150 parishioners, Henchal estimated. While the average appears to have been constant over the last five years, he said offertory contributions from parishioners have decreased from $218,000 in fiscal year 2009 to $182,000 last year.
Without any repairs, he said, the parish is operating at a $20,000 deficit.
“If you went back over the last 10 years, I think you'd find the same pattern,” Henchal said.
There are about 600 households registered as parishioners, Henchal said, but a household varies from a single person to families, and people who have left the parish do not usually call and asked to be removed from listings.
"There are a whole lot of Catholics on our books who might not be going to church," he said.
Twenty-five years ago, Henchal said, "the church was growing by leaps and bounds," fueled largely by population growth in northern Scarborough that actually straining the parish facilities. That led to the decision to add a parish at St. Maximilian Kolbe on Black Point Road in Scarborough.
The new parish siphoned away families and “left (St. John's) a little island,” Henchal said.
Because parishes are expected to be self-sustaining, Henchal said finding funding for repairs and upkeep for St. John's is a challenge. After consulting with real estate professionals to get a better idea of the market values of parish properties, Henchal said the parishioners will meet again.
The fate of St. John the Evangelist also affects the future of the South Portland Food Cupboard, which operates in 4,000 square feet under the church. Cupboard Director Sybil Riemensnider has alerted staff and clients that the pantry must move by June 30.
Riemensnider said keeping a location in South Portland is essential, but had no new details this week on the search for a new site.