PORTLAND — Sixty years ago, Woodfords Congregational Church had the largest Sunday school in the country and a congregation of more than 2,000 people.
It needed space and expanded into the buildings at 202 Woodford St. that most Portland residents are familiar with today.
But the era when everyone attended church on Sunday, when stores were closed and no one could buy alcohol anywhere, has ended. For Woodfords Church, where the congregation has shrunk to fewer than 500 members, that means difficult choices have to be made.
“It’s more and more difficult every year to balance the budget,” the Rev. Carolyn Lambert, minister at Woodfords. “We’ve practically cut the staff to the bone. There are still so many capital projects we can’t fund.”
Beginning in 2008, the church leased part of its building to the Portland Conservatory, which has utilized the space for music lessons and performances. Lambert said this helps cover some of the vital repair work, but not as much as the building needs.
So earlier this year the church went looking for groups interested in leasing or purchasing its more than 21,000-square-foot parish house building.
It received two bids, from Avesta Housing and Community Housing of Maine, to convert all of the parish hall into more than two dozen units of elderly housing and add an addition to the back of the building. While a price was never established, the two proposals both estimated paying the church around $750,000 to buy the building.
The congregation voted against both proposals.
“In large part, it was the finality of the decision,” said Moderator Jeff Jordan, who worked on the proposals and leads a representative council of the congregation.
The Portland School Department then offered to lease part of the building for the West School, a small school for children with behavioral and emotional disorders. Under the proposal, the School Department would have paid $90,000 rent for the first year, with a 3 percent increase each year for 10 years.
Woodfords would have moved parish operations into its chapel, putting an end to smaller services, weddings and funerals now held there, and spent an estimated $600,000 to renovate offices under the sanctuary.
The congregation rejected the proposal in June, 75-25.
“The time-line was so tight. We hadn’t gathered all the information – there were a lot of unknowns,” said Lambert, who was on sabbatical when the votes were cast. She expressed regret that one of the three plans to partner with affordable elderly housing or the Portland Public Schools was not accepted.
In the meantime, the building remains in need of costly repairs.
Jordan said an oil furnace, installed when the parish house was built in 1929, will have to be replaced soon.
“The steeple also needs to be replaced in the next five to seven years,” he said. “The base is starting to show dry rot.”
He said the church would like to install doors with electric locks so it would not have to worry about community groups leaving late at night and forgetting to lock the building.
The church has replaced all the windows in the parish hall, which Jordan said cut the heating bill by a third. The front porticoes were also replaced recently.
“We’re attempting to take good care of the church,” Jordan said. “I have some concern about the perception in the community that Woodfords is folding — we’re not anywhere close to that — but we’ve seen other congregational churches in similar communities closed.”
Jordan said the church leaders are trying to be proactive to prevent that from happening.
In the meantime, the church’s leaders are attempting to regroup.
Lambert said the church is focusing on supporting spiritual growth within the congregation and the community; mission work, primarily feeding the area’s hungry and food-insecure families; and figuring out what to do with the building.
“I’m not sure some kind of senior housing wouldn’t be a good fit for us,” Lambert said. “I’m not sure a school wouldn’t be a good fit for us.”
She suggested the recently passed law that allows charter schools in Maine may open another possible avenue for the church.
“We’ve had some new proposals that have come in, and also had discussions with Portland Conservatory about possibly expanding,” Jordan said.
Whatever happens, the congregation plans to maintain the spaces utilized by many local organizations, including support groups, community groups, church groups and Project FEED, a collective effort by area churches to gather food for needy people. Wayside Soup Kitchen also utilizes some of the space twice a week for free community meals.
“We feel we shouldn’t utilize these spaces just on Sunday morning,” Lambert said. “Space is made sacred by what happens within it.”
The Rev. Carolyn Lambert, who has been the minister at Woodford’s Congregational Church for six years, in the sanctuary at 202 Woodfords St. in Portland. With declining attendance and an aging congregation, the church is seeking ways to dispense of some or all of its parish hall.
The parish house of Woodfords Congregational Church, 202 Woodford St., Portland, which houses the church’s administrative offices. The building, which has become a liability for the shrinking congregation, also provides space for Portland Conservatory, the interfaith food program Project FEED, several weekly Wayside Soup Kitchen meals and meeting space utilized by many community groups.
The iconic sanctuary at Woodfords Congregational Church, 202 Woodford St., Portland. Church officials say the steeple will have to be replaced in the near future, one of several costly upgrades that have forced the congregation to consider leasing or selling part of its building.