From a secular perspective, Lewiston’s Catholic churches are part of its soul, their towering spires and ornate facades comprising one part of the city’s holy architectural trinity, along with massive mills and bunched-up triple-deckers.

Their greater value, though, is in their social and community significance. Churches are centers of Lewiston life; if they disappear, the loss will be more than missing bricks and mortar. A fundamental connection to the past will be broken.

This is our fear from news that two Catholic churches could be shuttered and sold, including the city’s oldest, St. Joseph’s. Shrinking congregations, higher costs and the economy are putting pressure on parishes to cut costs and find efficiencies, wherever possible.

Selling a church, though, is difficult, even without the real estate doldrum. These buildings were constructed to serve an express, higher purpose, and are unsuitable for most re-uses. Now, in some places, former churches have been converted into condominiums or nightclubs.

Somehow, we’re unsure that would be appropriate here – as long as those buildings stand in Lewiston, they will be churches. Maybe, then, they should stay that way.

If not active parishes, these churches could be sites for historic preservation, in the spirit of the “quality of place” movement now sweeping Maine. There are nonprofit organizations, grant funds, bond funds and tax incentives ready for projects to preserve such structures.

Often, examples bandied about for such programs are secular, like former manufacturing or meetinghouses. Yet in many Maine and New England communities – this one especially – there are few more important buildings than a church, regardless of the denomination it serves.

Imagine, too, a Lewiston landscape without Catholic churches. The city would feel naked without the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, for example, dominating the landscape.

We’ve been here before, too, nine years ago, when the diocese announced that St. Mary’s Church would close. Facing the prospect of its loss, the community coalesced around plans to transform the striking church into a cultural center honoring its Franco-American heritage.

St. Mary’s was saved and the Franco-American Heritage Center was born. A secular sensation of preserving important community landmarks intervened to prevent a religious institution from disappearing. Few, today, should disagree this was the right thing to do.

It might be the right thing again, especially since Maine’s popular and political sentiments are aligning to create new opportunities to make such preservation projects possible.

Changing demographics and social mores are eroding the bedrock on which the foundation of the church was built; this shouldn’t, however, mean the crumbling of its buildings, which takes with them connections to an important, formative chapter in our history.

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