May 20, 2013

Gratitude, sadness at last rites for Portland's St. Patrick Church

At a final Mass, parishioners say goodbye to a place central to their lives over many decades.

By Scott Dolan sdolan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — At the end of the final hymn at Sunday afternoon’s special Mass at St. Patrick Church, parishioners standing in the pews and in the aisles broke into a sudden, long round of applause.

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People enter the St. Patrick Church Sunday afternoon in Portland.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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Austin Taylor of Portland photographs his daughter Rachel Taylor, 16, left, and Meghan Connolly, 15, next to the statue of Saint Patrick before the final service at St. Patrick Church. The girls were St. Patrick School classmates before it closed in 2007.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

It was an unusual ending for a somber Sunday service, but the 1 p.m. Mass was the last one ever to be held at the Congress Street church.

St. Patrick Church was scheduled to close its doors for good Sunday night, with its sale to the owner of the adjacent Westgate Shopping Center expected to close by the end of summer.

Mary Doyle, who grew up on Lassell Street, one street away, came to the final Mass to bid farewell to the Roman Catholic church that served as the “moral compass” for her entire family.

“It’s the end of an era. It’s really sad for me,” Doyle said outside before the Mass began. “All of the children were baptized here. My sister’s wedding was here. We did my mother’s funeral here about 10 years ago. So this is like the heart of our family.”

She attended the former St. Patrick School, as did her siblings. And her family has photos from the time just before the current church was completed in 1964, when it was just a concrete platform. The parish was founded in 1922.

“It’s really about saying goodbye and paying homage to the gifts it gave us, growing up,” Doyle said as she went inside for the last time.

Two girls who were classmates at the former St. Patrick School before it closed in 2007 – Rachel Taylor, 16, and Meghan Connolly, 15 – came together to the final Mass for “closure” and to “say goodbye.”

“It’s part of my childhood. It’s what I grew up with. It’s why I converted to Catholicism,” Taylor said. “It’s sad to see it go.”

Taylor said she wasn’t raised Catholic, but had come to the church during her years at St. Patrick School and decided by fifth grade she wanted to convert.

“This is the place where I decided this is the faith I want to take on,” she said. “I still remember the first time I walked in here. The sun was coming in through the stained-glass windows.”

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, the light made the stained-glass colors vibrant – shades of blue, red, yellow, and in one scene, the green of a three-leaf clover held aloft in an image of St. Patrick himself.

The Rev. James Lafontaine, pastor of St. Patrick, led the final Mass, joined by many fellow priests and Jesuits.

“Here we are gathered in this holy place, this church with all its history. This will be the final Eucharist,” Lafontaine said. “That sorrow, that grief, that deep emotion we feel, that is a sign of love, and we have loved well. If we had not loved well, we would not feel the sorrow we now do.”

The church pews were about three-quarters full, with rows of folding metal chairs left empty. Some of those who attended said they heard from relatives that the 10:30 a.m. Mass drew a much larger gathering. And many wiped tears from their eyes as the service drew to an end.

As she left the Mass, Kathy O’Connell said she had been a parishioner at St. Patrick for 24 years.
“I was married here. All three of my children made their sacraments here. We buried my mother here,” O’Connell said. “It’s just very sad. I’m just thankful that we had Father Lafontaine to take us through this.”

The decision to sell St. Patrick Church came after it was combined with two other churches to form a new parish three years ago. With rising costs and decreasing membership, the parish was operating at a deficit and began considering closing one of the three churches.

Several parishioners gathered signatures recently in a last-ditch effort to save the church from being sold. But Lafontaine has said the closing is expected to take place in August.

Lafontaine said the buyer, Charter Realty Co., which owns the Westgate Shopping Center, has indicated it intends to demolish the church.

Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at sdolan@mainetoday.com

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