For the past 81 years, Leo Desjardins has attended St. Louis Church in Auburn. It is why he did not want to miss the final Mass.
“I was kind of hesitant. I knew it would be hard, but they did a terrific job. I still had to wipe my eyes — take my glasses off a couple times,” he says. “I was born here, baptized, received all the sacraments. It’s like my home, the church. It’s not easy to see the end of something you’re part of.”
“I wish it was the opening instead of the closing,” says his wife, Omerline, who attended St. Louis for 61 years. “We raised our family here. Our children came to school here. They received their sacraments here, and most of them got married here.”
The Desjardins were among hundreds who filled the pews for the closing Mass celebrated by Bishop Richard Malone on August 29. They came to celebrate together, to share memories, and to admire, one last time, the neo-gothic church’s soaring ceilings and beautiful stained-glass windows depicting St. Louis, St. Jeanne d’Arc, and scenes from Jesus’ life.
“What I love about the church are the murals, the windows. You follow the windows, and it is your faith,” says Mrs. Desjardins.
“I love this church. It’s a nice, beautiful church,” says Theresa Doyon, who attended St. Louis since the 1950s. “It was like home.”
Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, of which St. Louis is a part, was forced to close the church because of serious structural issues. Large cracks were discovered down the tower wall. The stone crown on the roof was deteriorated. Three spires had to be removed. Estimates to fix the damage were in excess of $1 million, and it was feared that amount would grow even greater.
Father Richard McLaughlin, former pastor, recalls that, during an ice storm last winter, workers from the diocesan construction company, DICON, had to put braces up to ensure the safety of the building.
“When it becomes a safety issue, then there really is no alternative,” he says.
Father McLaughlin says the parish had been keeping an eye on the issues for years and fixing things as it could, but the problems just got so great, they could no longer be addressed. Still, he says it always is difficult to close a church.
“When you’ve been baptized in a church, and you’ve been married in a church, when most of your family has been buried from that church, you assume that it is going to go on forever,” he says. “It really is very, very sad.” Parishioners feel the same way.
“All my kids were baptized here. I have four children, and three of them were married here,” says Marie Rodrigue, who attended since 1954. “It was home, a home away from home.”
“This is my sense of home, my sense of comfort,” says Sue Noddin, who attended the church since she was born in 1963.
“It’s like coming home to me. It’s like an old slipper or an old housecoat, and that’s what I’ll miss when the church closes.”
“I’ve been coming here for 15 years, and I see the same people in the same pews, the same spots. And they all talk to each other, and they all know each other,” says her husband, Bruce.
Those who attended St. Louis for years remember a church that, despite its size, had a wonderful community feel to it. Located on Third Street in the New Auburn section of the city, the church was surrounded by family homes. Many parishioners walked down or up the hill to attend Mass.
“One of the priests, who was here as pastor, once commented that this is not only a community, it’s a village. That’s so beautiful, and it is so beautiful. Everybody knows everybody. I think there is something about the deep faith of the people,” says Sister Elizabeth “Liz” Platt, COC, who has served at the church since 1998. “The people here are very Catholic, very community-minded.”
“I think it took on a different personality with every new pastor we had, but it never lost its deep French roots,” says Sister Irene Platt, COC, who served as director of religious education for 13 years.
Parishioners remember the days when the church was the focal point of the neighborhood and the center of social life.
“We had 18 projects going at a time,” recalls Fred Brodeur, who attended St. Louis for 60 years. “There used to be a winter carnival. Thousands of people would be involved. When I was a kid, we had a baseball team.”
“The skating rink used to be the parking lot down there. My father was one of those who would flood it and chaperone us every night. That was all winter long,” says Sue Noddin.
Noddin remembers the St. Louis Junior Entertainers, a group that visited nursing homes, and she recalls singing in the children’s choir, up in the choir loft, next to the organ pipes.
Her mother, Carmel Bilodeau, sang in the adult choir for 40 years, including at the closing Mass.
“To me, it’s brought my whole life into one big spot,” she says. “The choir, to me, has been my salvation as an adult.”
The roots of St. Louis Church date back to 1891. A chapel and school were built to serve the growing number of French-Canadians arriving in the area to work in the shoe factories and textile mills, especially “The Barker,” a mill that opened in 1874 and housed employees on nearby First Street. The chapel originally was part of St. Peter Parish in Lewiston, and the school was first operated by the Daughters of Our Lady of Sion. In 1902, the chapel was established as its own parish and, with the population continuing to grow, work began on a new, larger church. The upper portion was completed in 1915 and was blessed by the Most Rev. Louis Walsh, fourth bishop of Portland, in 1916.
While noting the sadness of the closing Mass, Bishop Malone and Father Robert D. Lariviere, current pastor, both also said the church’s long history is reason to celebrate. “There is joy and pride in the approximately 100 years of spiritual comfort and service provided by all the people of St. Louis Parish,” said Father Lariviere.
“When you’re feeling loss, it’s hard sometimes to be grateful, but this is what our Church calls us to when we come for Eucharist. And as we do come to celebrate together the Lord’s Supper, we remember, and we celebrate, and we believe. We remember all the graces, all the people, all of the faith, all the good works that have enriched the life of this community for so many decades,” said Bishop Malone. “And we celebrate. We celebrate our faith in Christ, our light — that faith that will sustain us through this difficult passage and into the future. We celebrate… and we believe. We believe the Holy Spirit, who has strengthened and guided this parish these many, many years, will continue to guide and sustain all of us, all of you, as you move forward in faith.”
Even before the final Mass, parishioners had begun attending other area churches because St. Louis was no longer in regular use. Sacred Heart Church is located approximately three and a half miles away. Those who attended St. Louis say they are grateful for the welcome they received from their fellow Immaculate Heart of Mary parishioners.
“We’ve had fantastic support from the other churches. Sacred Heart was here all the way for us. They said they would support us and they did,” says Carmel Bilodeau. “They should be commended for giving us the courage tonight to go through this.” “That’s one thing we should say,” agrees Sue Noddin. “We’re becoming an extended community.”