AUBURN — Maine’s Catholic diocese has sold the century-old St. Louis Church to a group of investors aiming to fix up and reuse the New Auburn landmark rather than allow it to be demolished.
A group of five investors led by Lewiston architect Noel Smith bought the church from the diocese for $75, diocese spokesman Dave Guthro said Tuesday
Far more will be spent to repair and renovate the neo-Gothic church, Smith said.
“We’ve been tracking St. Louis for a while,” he said. “Our initial involvement was to make sure it didn’t leave the landscape.”
Smith and his partners — Daniel Dube, Donna LeBrun and Christine Holden of Lewiston and Mary Callahan of Auburn — plan to disclose some plans for the former church building in the coming weeks but declined Tuesday to release details.
“Our intent is to make it a center point that will lead to the revitalization of that neighborhood and the New Auburn village,” Smith said.
The news comes just as the church at 80 Third St. was entering its second year of vacancy.
In August 2013, the church held its final Mass, drawing more than 400 people to hear a goodbye from former Maine Bishop Richard Malone. That ceremony followed almost a year of angst over repair costs.
In the fall of 2012, a parish analysis found severe structural problems in the church. Issues included large cracks down a tower, cracks in a concrete overhang and a deteriorating stone crown on the roof. That winter, the church took down one of the bell towers.
The church ended regular services in April 2013.
Repair costs were estimated to surpass $1 million.
“It needs maintenance,” Smith said. “There are water leaks that have gone on for some time, so there is some damage inside. There is damage to exterior masonry. I would be reluctant to say it’s structurally unstable, but it does need some maintenance, he said.
Smith’s group has formed a limited liability company, Pilotage. The company will operate both as a business and a nonprofit organization, he said.
“We are not deep-pocket developers,” he said. “We are all local people.”
None had personal ties to the church, which once served 1,000 to 1,200 families.
St. Louis parish was created in 1902 and served the mostly French Canadian neighborhood in New Auburn. Parishioners first gathered in the new church’s basement. When they raised enough money, they set to work on the tall, two-spired upper church, designed by architect Timothy G. O’Connell. O’Connell designed St. Mary’s Church in Lewiston’s Little Canada neighborhood and would later design the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston.
Workers placed the St. Louis cornerstone in May 1915.
“It is hoped that the sale will allow a church building that served as a spiritual home for generations of area Catholics to flourish in a new form,” said the Rev. Robert D. Lariviere, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Auburn. “It will remind us of the impact and the closeness derived and felt by those who made St. Louis Church a part of their lives.”
The sale was limited to the church building and its immediate property.
On Nov. 18, the Auburn Planning Board approved a division of the diocese’s property, separating the church from the former convent next door. Catholic Charities plans to continue operating a rehab facility, the St. Francis Recovery Center, in that space, Guthro said.
Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said Tuesday he was happy to learn that the church would not fall to a wrecking ball. He hoped for a public process that would follow the redevelopment and enhance the city’s economy.
“The community really needs to stay focused on the prize,” LaBonte said. “Our heritage and these architectural masterpieces are part of that formula.”
Since the church’s closure, its bells were removed and are stored at Cote Crane in Auburn while the city raises money to buy them.
Other items from inside the church have been distributed to nearby churches and Catholic sites. A pair of Christ statues are at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Lewiston. Many pews, the Stations of the Cross, and vestment chests were given to the new St. Faustina Church in Jackman.
Other pews are in use at Our Lady of Ransom Church in Mechanic Falls. The altar, baptismal font, ambo and tabernacle were moved to St. Philip’s Church in Auburn. Other small liturgical items were distributed between St. Philip’s Church and Sacred Heart Church, also in Auburn.