LEWISTON — For 100 years, wide open doors greeted congregations every Sunday at St. Joseph’s and St. Patrick’s churches. No more.

On Tuesday, St. Joseph’s will close. Two weeks later, on Oct. 27, St. Patrick’s will celebrate its final Mass.

Hours after each closes, janitor Jerry Tanguay will drain the pipes, shut off the appliances and extinguish the burners that heat the grand buildings.

The fate of each is uncertain.

Maine’s Roman Catholic Diocese will likely try selling the churches in a market that’s rough on big, beloved buildings. Few churches thrive as other uses once their doors close. Many sit vacant for years as they await buyers. Some transform into businesses or homes, distinct for their unexpected architecture. A lucky few are reborn as performance halls or cultural centers, more comfortably filling the often grand space.

Selling a church building has never been tougher.

“Commercial real estate values are dropping,” Auburn Realtor Kevin Fletcher said. “You just look around New England and I can tell you that the redevelopment cost for any church is very high.”

Statewide, it’s uncertain how many churches are now on the market. The Maine Association of Realtors doesn’t track the sale of
churches.

Locally, the two Catholic churches will join a market that already has several. The Good News Chapel on Lisbon Street in Lewiston, the former East Auburn Baptist Church on Center Street in Auburn and the United Baptist Church on Lewiston’s Main Street — directly across the street from St. Joseph Church — have all awaited sale for more than a year.

David Twomey, the finance officer for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, figures the sale of Lewiston’s massive brick churches will be difficult.

“The bigger the church, the bigger the challenge it is to sell it,” said Twomey, who spends about half of his time on real estate issues. The diocese currently has three churches on the market, in Waterville, Berwick and Orono.

More are coming. Besides Lewiston’s two, the Notre Dame de Lourdes Church in Saco and St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Biddeford are closing and likely be put up for sale. Next year, the same is expected for St. Andre Church in Biddeford.

“It’s going to be very hard,” real estate agent Fletcher predicted.

From stained glass to art glass

Jim Nutting and Nel Bernard know all about redeveloping a church.

In 2003, the business partners bought Saints Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church in Lisbon. The brick, former Slovak church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was filled with murals and iconography.

The pair managed to buy the place “at a very favorable price” and transform it into a workshop, gallery and retail space as the Maine Art Glass Studio.

“It was a real leap of faith,” Bernard said. The men examined several locations around Lewiston-Auburn, including space in the Bates Mill complex, before settling at the Lisbon church.

“We have survived for six years here,” he said.

The artists renovated almost the entire structure. Outside, they tore up part of a garden to make room for parking on Lisbon’s Main Street. Inside, the work was more intense.

After removing the stained-glass windows for another parish church, they transformed the wide-open nave into a gallery. They white-washed the walls and refinished the hardwood floors. Then, they installed a mezzanine in the center, building a bridge from the raised platform to the former choir loft.

In the former church hall — where the congregation once gathered for bean suppers and beano — the pair installed three kilns, storage racks and work tables. Here, they created the artwork that would cover the walls upstairs.

The outside still looks like a church, though the pair replaced the stained glass over the doors with some of their own artwork. One panel has the image of a spider, a nod to Nutting’s work with dead and living spiders and bugs. The other has a “Drink Moxie” sign.

Several former parishioners have visited since the transformation, Nutting said.

“Everybody’s been pleased with what we’ve done,” he said.

Porn peddlers need not apply

The business is one of Twomey’s success stories for the diocese. There are others. A former Catholic church on Pine Point in Scarborough recently finished its renovation into a wedding facility and banquet hall.

In the last decade, churches have also been made into antique shops and cultural centers. St. Dominic Church in Portland’s West End became the Irish Heritage Center, and the early Gothic Revival-style Chestnut Street United Methodist Church in Portland was transformed to open earlier this year as the high-end restaurant Grace, while Lewiston’s last Catholic church to enter the market, Little Canada’s grand St. Mary’s Church, was transformed into the Franco-American Heritage Center.

Other area church buildings include the Chocolate Church Arts Center, once a Congregational church in downtown Bath. On Route 196 in Lisbon and Route 26 in Oxford, churches were remade into antique shops.

The former United Methodist Church in downtown Brunswick has housed a variety of businesses: On the ground floor, where the church hall once existed, a canvas porch swing company now operates; the same space hosted a restaurant for several years; and for two decades, until only recently, the former sanctuary housed a pool hall.

Such uses were allowed when that church was sold. However, some church sales may come with strings attached. When a Catholic church sells, covenants on the deed prevent the new owners from selling pornography, hosting erotic dancing or engaging in activity that supports abortion, Twomey said.

Fighting costs

Making any venture work in a church building will be tough, Fletcher warned.

“The difficulty behind this is going to be the cost of redevelopment into anything different,” he said. The United Baptist Church on Main Street may be unsavable, Fletcher said.

The Rev. Bill Stevenson, the church’s last pastor, also worries that it might never be used again. The congregation left the building more than a year ago after the maintenance become too costly.

Analyses found that a needed renovation of the stone building on Main Street would cost about $1 million, more than the small congregation could afford. (They have since merged with the New Hope Bible Church on College Street in Lewiston to create the Unity Bible Church, where Stevenson serves as pastor.)

“It’s hard because these buildings wear out,” Stevenson said. The church had once been a grand place with a balcony and room for 800 people. His small congregation couldn’t keep up as water wrecked havoc on the stone building. More than a year ago, they put the structure on the market for about $600,000.

The cost to make repairs to the stone may make it impossible to sell, Fletcher said.

“Even if you gave it to somebody — donated it — what do you do with it, because the cost of redeveloping it is going to be incredible,” he said.

One of the only ways around such problems is the path taken by the Franco American Heritage Center, he said.

To date, the center has spent just under $6 million on the building, purchased from the diocese for $1. Several million has been spent to repair the exterior of the building. Money was also spent to convert the upstairs pews and nave with sloped theatrical seating. There was also new lighting and sound equipment added and a stage expansion.

Most of the money came in the form of government grants, something not usually available to church renovators.

A similar effort at Portland’s Irish Heritage Center stalled for more than a year after the 5,000-pound bell busted loose from the bell tower and crashed through two floors. It took more than a year of fund raising and construction to reopen the doors.

Twomey figures there are few big-ticket problems with either St. Joseph’s or St. Patrick’s to overwhelm a future buyer, depending on what they have in mind for the buildings.

It’s unknown what price the Catholic diocese will ask for the buildings. Such talk awaits a final decision by Bishop Richard Malone.

“Historically, the sale prices vary a great deal,” said Monsignor Marc Caron, who leads Lewiston’s Prince of Peace Parish. “We have not had any discussions with anyone about any price.”

For now, his attention is focused on the people who have attended the churches, helping them with their sadness and grief on the closures.

It’s a situation that Stevenson knows well.

“In the end, it’s just a building,” he said. “What’s important is our relationship with God.”

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The former Saints Cyil and Methodius Catholic Church at 51 Main Street in Lisbon Falls was purchased by business partners Nel Bernard and Jim Nutting in 2003 and transformed into the Maine Art Glass Studio and Sanctuary Gallery.


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