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“Leap of Faith” Breathes New Life into Former St. Bridget Church in Vassalboro

VASSALBORO---Twice a month, volunteers sewing, cutting, ironing, and sorting can be observed at tables in an eye-catching building at 864 Main Street in Vassalboro, a small town of around 4,000 people northeast of Augusta.

“Sew for a Cause” is held every other Thursday (February 14 and 28 this month) from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at which time between 15 and 25 volunteers work on a variety of items for people in need. During November and December, the group made baby quilts for newborns; lap and full quilts, pillowcases, and throw pillows for Maine VA Healthcare System’s Cabins in the Woods program; and pajama bottoms, neck warmers, and hats for the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville.

This month, pillowcases for the Veterans’ Home and women’s shelter in Augusta and fleece shawls for those with disabilities take center stage. The initiative, and the difference it is making, is inspiring.

But what warms the heart further is where these volunteers are performing their laudable service: the new St. Bridget Center, which is housed in the restored home of the former St. Bridget Church. The last Mass at the church was celebrated in 2011.

Rachel Kilbride and her husband, James, purchased the St. Bridget Church building in 2015, a leap of faith that began with a drive to visit her parents at Webber Pond in Vassalboro.

“As I was driving down Route 32 headed to Waterville, I was mentally going over the list of things I needed to take care of when I was interrupted with the thought ‘Buy me,’” said Rachel, who retired from teaching in 2014. “I looked around and saw an open field on my right and a closed church on my left. Oddly, I had never noticed that the church and my granddaughter shared the same name, Bridget, and Kilbride means followers of St. Bridget.’”

A Winslow native, she wasn’t planning to retire in Vassalboro, but months later, at Rachel’s request, James took a closer look at the former church.

“He reported that the roof leaks, the ceiling has water damage, the finished basement is covered in mold, there is asbestos on the pipes, and the list continued,” said Rachel.

She needed a sign that they were supposed to spend all of their savings and take on the massive project. The sign, literally, came less than a mile away from the building.

“My husband said, ‘There's your sign!’ The sign said, ‘Penguin Crossing,’ and had three large penguins. Our granddaughter Bridget wants to be a penguinologist when she grows up. My first thought is you have got to be kidding. What is this sign doing on this farm road? As Bridget would say, ‘Penguins can't live here, Meme!’” 

Soon after, the Kilbrides sold their home in Wells and bought the St. Bridget Church building, four years after its closing, believing that this former spiritual home for generations of local Catholics could still be an important piece of town life.

“It was the biggest leap of faith of my life,” said Rachel.

Since 2015, they have cleaned, repainted, repaired, and even removed mold from the building and the former rectory, where they now live.

“Both the rectory, or as my father called it ‘Wrecktory,’ and church needed repairs from the basement to the roof, inside and out,” said Rachel. “Each and every day, new hurdles and challenges had to be addressed.”

And address them they did. From restoring the old to installing the new, like siding, memories of the St. Brigid Church community still waft from the cathedral ceilings to the shiny wood floors as former parishioners attest. Pieces of the church’s history are also visible inside and out as the stained-glass windows have been restored and the St. Bridget statue stands in front of the church’s original doors.

The doors opened at the St. Bridget Center for an open house last summer and “Sewing for a Cause” got underway in November. The Kilbrides hope to rent the building for banquets, weddings, and other community and charity events to offset maintenance costs. They have added a kitchen and installed new wiring, an entrance ramp, and a handicap-accessible bathroom.

The true feelings of accomplishment and gratification come not when they look around, but when former parishioners stop by to visit a place that meant so much to them.

“Some of the former priests and congregants have tears in their eyes. The look and reaction from visitors and former parishioners as they step into the sun-drenched hall say, ‘Yes, this is what you were meant to do!’” said Rachel.

Last week marked four years since the restoration began, and as letters continue to arrive thanking the Kilbrides for their effort and vision, Rachel knows their “leap of faith” was well worth taking.

“Throughout my life, I have heard that God has a plan for each of us. I knew I did the right thing. St. Bridget’s was a vibrant part of this community, and it can do that again.”

For more information about renting the St. Bridget Center or how to assist “Sew for a Cause” with a contribution or idea for a charity in need, call (207) 616-3148, send an email to stbridgetcenter@gmail.com, or visit the center’s Facebook page.