PORTLAND, Maine (AP) -- Maine’s Catholic churches are selling off properties as the Diocese of Portland grapples with declining church attendance and a surplus of under-utilized buildings.
Parishes in the diocese have more than 20 churches, convents, rectories and schools on the market. Church leaders said a dozen properties in the diocese have sold for a total of more than $2.4 million since the beginning of 2013.
The sales come at a time when Catholic church attendance in the state is falling. The diocese counts 193,392 Catholics in Maine, a decline of nearly 30 percent from 30 years ago, but still the largest religious denomination in the state.
Some of the sold churches are nearly as old as the diocese itself, which began in 1853. Father James Lafontaine, pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Portland, said the need to sell churches is hard for parishioners, who associate the buildings with generations of baptisms, weddings, and funerals.
Lafontaine hopes to sell St. Patrick Church in Portland, a 50-year-old church that closed in 2013. A school associated with the church sold five years ago and is now condominiums.
"It’s very hard to close a church. And, you know, it should be. People have a lot of their lives caught up in that space," Lafontaine said. "It comes down to dollars at some point. To have a healthy future, you have to make decisions."
The push to sell properties underscores a larger trend happening in states around the country.
The Archdiocese of Boston sold most of its headquarters in 2004 to raise money for legal costs associated with sexual abuse scandals involving its priests. Europe also is not immune, as many German Catholic churches have gone up for sale.
In Maine, sold churches include St. Joseph’s Church in Lewiston, where the cornerstone was placed in 1864. Central Maine Healthcare bought the building for $125,000 last year with the intent of turning it into a parking lot, though it is currently still standing. Elsewhere in town, 1887-built St. Patrick’s Church sold for $120,000.
Church sales benefit the individual parishes, which make recommendations to the bishop if they want to sell a church, said diocese spokesman Dave Guthro. The denomination has 55 parishes in Maine, with some having only one church and some having as many as five, he said. Guthro said some of the churches are in disrepair; others suffer from lagging attendance, but the decision to close and sell a church is always a difficult one.
"Folks were married there, funerals for their loved ones were held there," he said. "It’s a really sacred space."