NORWAY — This will be the de Silvas' first Easter as Catholics.
Melissa and Alan de Silva and their daughter, Alyssa, 15, were among a handful of people who became Catholics during an Easter Vigil service Saturday at St. Catherine's.
In a time when many are leaving the faith, prompting churches to consolidate and close, 308 Catholics were welcomed during Easter services across Maine this weekend, adding to the existing 185,000 Maine Catholics.
It was "the highest number in five years” of new members, said Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland spokeswoman Sue Bernard.
According to the diocese' website, a recent national poll found that 33 percent of Catholics in the United States — 42 million — don't attend weekly Masses. And the number of Americans identifying themselves as non-religious increased 110 percent from 1990 to 2000.
The church responded to the poll's findings by reaching out to non-church-going Catholics.
At the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Monsignor Marc Caron welcomed the not-so-faithful at Easter services.
He wrote in the program that “if it had been some time since you were last with us, know that we value your presence and participation. This is your spiritual home."
New Catholics join for many reasons, some because they hunger for a stronger relationship with God that the Catholic sacraments allow, Monsignor Andrew Dubois said.
Melissa de Silva agreed. Sitting in a pew at St. Catherine's on Saturday, she said she was first drawn to the church at age 16.
“I went to a Catholic church midnight Mass," she said. "I realized there was something special occurring. I found a deeper connection with God. That impression sat stayed with me.”
Four years ago, her family was attending services in another denomination. A life-changing event — she declined to share what it was — had happened.
“It got me thinking, 'What's it all about?'” Melissa said. They began searching for more, spiritually. “We didn't have the resources when we hit that big wall,” she said.
“You want fulfillment out of a religion,” Alan de Silva said.
They enrolled in Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Because of the intense program, they know more about Catholicism than many who were born into the religion, they said.
“Each service is all planned,” Alan said. “It takes three years to do this full cycle, to hear all the gospels. That's very interesting.”
When they attended Holy Thursday and Good Friday services this year, “We understood it,” Melissa said. Each act during a Mass has a meaning, a reason, she said.
Other religions teach God's message well, she said, “but there's something pretty special here.” Like the sacrament of confession. “Being able to let it go and move on is important.”
The couple credit the church with its pageantry and deep meanings as helping bond their family and encouraging them to be selfless. “Today is a very individualistic society,” Melissa said.
Vanessa Fereshetian of Turner is another new Catholic. The science teacher joined the church two years ago at the age of 24. “I grew up Protestant,” she said. Her faith has always been important to her, she said, adding that she studied religion at a Protestant college.
In her senior year she started looking for a faith “that would supply me with a lot of growth.” She attended a Catholic service.
“It was so beautiful,” Fereshetian said. “The way they stand up and honor the Bible when the gospel is being read.” The sacrament of the Eucharist, in which Catholics believe bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, is deep, Fereshetian said. “It's another way to experience Jesus.”
For many religions, Easter is the most important holy day. The new Catholics said the holiday is more than candy and eggs.
“It's the most profound joy of the whole year,” Fereshetian said. “It gives us hope that when we die, we can rise with Christ.”