Churches weigh options, eye future

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RUMFORD – The future of local Roman Catholic churches was discussed Sunday afternoon when more than 200 people filed into the auditorium at Mountain Valley High School.

“To live is to change, and to be perfect is to change often,” said the Rev. Angelo LaVasseur before the comment session began.

LaVasseur, with the assistance of Deacon Rod Berger, is responsible for pastoring five churches and 1,450 families in the River Valley area stretching from St. Joseph’s Mission in Dixfield to Our Lady of the Snows in Bethel. Other churches in the cluster are St. Athanasius and St. John in Rumford, St. Theresa’s in Mexico, and St. Mary’s in Roxbury.

The area churches are known as Cluster 18. The 19 members of the local cluster listened as nearly 30 people spoke in support of maintaining St. Athanasius and St. John Parochial School and, often, of their respective churches. Parishioners from throughout Maine are holding similar clustering meetings to determine their futures because of shortages of priests and the need to use church properties efficiently. Statewide, there are 27 clusters.

Most on Sunday agreed that of the four options given by Bishop Richard Malone of the Portland Diocese, the one offering merged parishes into one new parish with one staff, one pastoral council and one finance council was the best way to go. However, no agreement was reached regarding which worship sites would stay open and which would close.

A woman who attends St. Athanasius and St. John Church in Rumford said ideally there should be one parish with one building and a new name. But she said that likely couldn’t happen.

“I am concerned about multiple worship sites because it begins to be divisive. We need to have a oneness. With multiple sites, people get locked into that site,” she said.

Although Jan Bordeau, a parishioner at St. Theresa’s Church in Mexico grew up with the church and attended its parochial school before it closed, she said a suggestion to close the church made sense because the Rumford and Mexico churches are only two miles apart.

“If you close St. Theresa’s, please be thoughtful and considerate of the people there,” she said.

Others suggested that St. Theresa’s remain open because of ample parking and the cost to maintain the building is less expensive than maintaining St. Athanasius and St. John, which has little parking.

Bethel parishioners argued that their membership was too far from Rumford for many members to attend and that that area was growing.

Of those who spoke, several advocated for keeping open the Rumford and Bethel churches, while suggesting that a small bus or carpooling could help people from Dixfield or Mexico get to Mass.

Don Fournier, principal of St. Athanasius and St. John School and facilitator for the listening session, said the Clustering Committee will meet at least twice to discuss comments made Sunday, then return at 6 p.m. Sunday, May 21.

At that time, some recommendations may be made, although a finalized package to be presented to the bishop will likely be incomplete. Parishioners will have a chance to speak again at that time, he said. The cluster’s recommendation must be submitted to the bishop by June 30. He’ll make the final decision regarding cluster models.

Fournier said changes in the churches’ organization and worship sites must be in place by 2010.

The primary goal, regardless of which model local churches follow, is to proclaim the Word of God and put it into the daily lives of people, said Fournier.

Submit comments to Fournier, c/o St. Athanasius and St. John School, 115 Maine Ave., Rumford, ME 04276, or by e-mail at school@stastjohn.org.

Other possible models are: separate parishes, one staff and councils; merge parishes and staff and build a larger church; and a combination of the three models.

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