AUBURN — When retired Bowdoin College professor William Watterson moved to Auburn from Brunswick, he was surprised — but pleased — to find a thriving arts community in the Twin Cities.

On Saturday afternoon, as he sat in the front pew of the St. Louis Church in Auburn and listened to local fiddlers play for open house visitors, he hoped the 100-year-old former Catholic church would soon officially join that arts scene. 

“This could potentially be a really good thing,” he said.

The church’s owners certainly hope so.

On Saturday, they opened the church to the public, inviting people to tour the building, listen to music and check out their tentative redesign plans. Their long-term goal: Turn the former St. Louis Church into an arts center.

For now, they’re just trying to drum up support.

“Right now, our timeline has been keeping the heat on,” said owner Noel Smith. “What we’re trying to do is plant the seeds for something that we hope will grow.”

In 2014, Smith and a few other local people formed the investment group Pilotage and bought the former St. Louis Church from the Catholic diocese for $75. No one else wanted it, and the building had been set for demolition.   

“We realized if we didn’t step up to take it over, it would be torn down,” Smith said. “We felt if it disappeared, basically the heart of this community would be gone.”

The investors have since started work on the building, including knocking down walls and tearing out a suspended ceiling to reveal the first floor’s old tin ceiling. Although they’ve gotten some donated labor and materials, funding has primarily come from one place.

“Out of our pockets,” Smith said.  

They’ve held other open houses since buying the building a little more than a year ago. The church always draws attention.

“A lot of people will come through and they’re like, ‘Oh, we were married here, I grew up here, I went to school in one of the buildings next door,'” said Donna LeBrun, one of the owners. “It brings back (to) folks a lot of memories, a lot of good feelings.”

Saturday’s open house was part of the fifth annual Salute to Dinny Sullivan, a small-business appreciation day in Auburn.

Smith’s tentative plans for the building — he’s an architect — stood on a front hall table, the first thing visitors saw. The plans call for a stage in place of the altar, with performance and office spaces on the floor below. 

Investors are getting ready to put together focus groups to get feedback on their ideas. 

“Our purpose is to again make this the heart of the community,” LeBrun said.

Leroy Walker, Auburn city councilor for Ward 5, was among the people who visited the church Saturday afternoon. He’s glad the old building is getting a second chance at life.

“Something would have died inside the people who have been part of this church forever,” he said. “It would have been a piece of history gone.”

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