For Catholics in Sanford and Springvale, the end of an era is approaching and the dawn of a new one is in the works.
Notre Dame Church in Springvale will celebrate its final Mass on Saturday, Feb. 11, and from there the members of St. Therese of Lisieux Parish – myself among them – will turn their focus to expanding and reinventing the Holy Family Church campus along North Avenue in Sanford.
More on that in a moment. First, the farewell.
With its distinct, angular design and tri-colored windows, Notre Dame Church has been a familiar site at the corner of Payne and Pleasant streets in Springvale for 60 years. In recent times, St. Therese Parish has only offered Mass there during the summertime but also has made the church available for weddings and other important ceremonies.
Intended as a celebration of legacy and gratitude, the Mass on Feb. 11 coincides on the Catholic calendar with the Feast Day of the Lady of Lourdes – which is appropriate, since the full name of the church is Notre Dame de Lourdes, after the Virgin Mary.
The Mass will begin at 4 p.m. and will be followed by a reception at Bishop Cote Hall next door. Bishop Robert Deeley is scheduled to attend.
Earlier this week, I met with fellow Catholics Adele and Patrick Demers, Glenn Dowey and Ashley Buxton, the director of mission for St. Therese Parish, at Notre Dame Church. We chatted about the past, reflected on the present, and shared excitement for the future.
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The birthplace of Catholicism in Sanford
While Notre Dame Church has been a fixture in Springvale for decades, its original parish harks back well over a century.
“This is the parish that brought Catholicism to Sanford,” said Glenn, whose command of local history I’ve long appreciated as his former neighbor.
Thanks to Glenn, Adele and Patrick, as well as to a history compiled for the Notre Dame Parish’s centennial celebration in 1987, we have a background of how everything came to be for local Catholics.
In 1887, Bishop James Healey, of Portland, sent Rev. Moise Denoncourt to Springvale to organize a parish for the small number of Catholic families living there, namely those who remained in town despite an economic crisis that swept the community.
In time, the number of Catholic families began to swell in step with the increased productivity of the local mills. To accommodate that growth, the Grange Hall on Oak Street – now the Springvale Fire Station – was converted into the Roman Catholic Chapel.
In 1889, Rev. Alexandre Dugree succeeded Denoncourt and immediately set out to build a new church. After raising funds, the parish bought a parcel on Pleasant Street in Springvale and builder D.J. Butler and his crew constructed and completed the new church by the end of that year. This church was officially dedicated to Notre Dame de Lourdes on Memorial Day in 1890.
Membership in the parish surged in the early 1900s, with as many as 89 families comprising nearly 500 members – doing some quick math, you’ll see that most parents had way more children back then than households do today.
The pastor during this time, Rev. Joseph Casavant, recognized the need to expand the parish yet again. The parish sold the church on Pleasant Street to the local Farmers Union. The church was demolished in 1934 ... but the small building that served as a rectory nearby still stands today.
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Casavant designed a new building that would place all of the parish’s needs – a chapel, a parochial school, and a gathering space – under one roof. That new brick building opened on Payne Street in 1916 and is recognizable today as the aforementioned Bishop Cote Hall. Notre Dame School served children in grades 1 through 8 for decades, until 1954.
The Notre Dame Church we know today was built across the parking lot from Bishop Cote Hall in the early '60s, and parishioners celebrated their first Mass there on June 30, 1963.
And the rest, as they say, is history – an expression that will have even more resonance, come next Saturday, when local Catholics gather to bid the church farewell.
A look to the future
For decades, Notre Dame Church belonged to one of three, separate Catholic parishes in Sanford-Springvale. In 2006, the Catholic Diocese of Portland consolidated Notre Dame Parish, St. Ignatius Parish and Holy Family Parish into one entity, St. Therese of Lisieux Parish.
In 2010, St. Ignatius Church, which I attended while growing up in downtown Sanford in the '70s and '80s, officially closed. Nowadays, the building remains – in fact has been expanded – and offers apartments for the over-55 crowd.
While Notre Dame Church will have its final Mass next weekend, its actual closure will occur later, as the Diocese works through the process of decommissioning the property, paving the way for its future, non-religious use. The parish is selling the property – which includes the church, parking areas, Bishop Cote Hall and the rectory – and is currently working with an interested buyer.
Once Notre Dame Church is decommissioned, Holy Family Church will be the only Catholic Church in Sanford-Springvale.
The closure of Notre Dame will be bittersweet for some and difficult for others. As a parishioner who went through the closure of St. Ignatius Church – where I was baptized, confirmed and married, but will not be eulogized – I can assure such individuals that it is possible to accept such developments and continue in one’s Catholicism.
Which brings me to the future. Expect both reinvention and revitalization.
Father Bill Labbe, who leads St. Therese Parish, has a vision that he, his pastoral council, of which I am a member, his finance council, and church members are pursuing. Plans include tearing down the white, two-story main office at the corner of North Avenue and Cottage Street and replacing it with a new parish center that connects to Holy Family Church next door. Plans also include building a new rectory at the far end of the field that abuts St. Thomas School and its playground, which are located diagonally across the street from the church.
Fundraising for this project already is underway. According to Ashley Buxton, the parish’s director of mission, these plans for the Holy Family Church campus sends a clear message.
“One of the biggest struggles our parish has been facing is that we don’t have the space to do things,” Ashley said. “Now that we’re allowed again to shake hands and hug and be with each other, we want to encourage and foster the fellowship in our parish again.”
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For the parish, it’s an important message, as indeed statistics show that the United States is moving in a more secular direction and church attendance – among Catholics and other denominations and religions – has been declining during the last two decades. The COVID-19 pandemic is just the most recent reason, as many people fell out of the habit of attending church during the shutdown or came to prefer the conveniences of watching Mass online or on TV. This is the case across the land, and here in Sanford and Springvale too.
But here in St. Therese of Lisieux Parish, Father Bill’s energy, enthusiasm, optimism and commitment are driving a vision in step with the adaptability and growth mindset that have seen Catholics through numerous changes and challenges, both here at home during the past 100-plus years and across the world during the past two thousand. Here at home, the final Mass at Notre Dame Church and its eventual decommissioning and sale are painful for many but strategic in the parish's efforts to grow and engage the local Catholic community, so that it may strengthen its commitment to celebrating and honoring the life, teachings and sacrifice of Jesus.
“We hope these changes will bring parishioners back to the church, both socially and spiritually,” Ashley said. “This new chapter in our parish history will show Sanford and Springvale that our community is alive and thriving.”
Shawn P. Sullivan is an award-winning columnist and a reporter for the York County Coast Star. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Notre Dame Church in Springvale, Maine, to hold final Mass