Closing Maine Churches Auction Their Remnants

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At a yard sale over the weekend, the Good Shepherd Parish in Saco, Maine, sold the remnants from three closed Catholic churches. It was a way for parishioners to say their last goodbyes and carry away keepsakes along with their memories.

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Around the country, Catholic churches are closing due to declining membership. What's left inside can be distributed in many ways. Last weekend in Maine, the remnants of three closed churches were sold at a yard sale. It was a chance for parishioners to say good-bye, savor memories, and walk away with a keepsake.

Maine Public Radio's Patty Wight has the story.

JEAN HAMEL: OK, there's nine, and 11 is 20. Thank you.

PATTY WIGHT, BYLINE: Yard sale cashier, Jean Hamel, is having a busy morning just outside a nearly 100-year-old brick building with granite trim. St. Mary's Church in Biddeford, Maine has been closed for three years. Now, a steady stream of buyers picks their way across the contents of a half-dozen tables. One of the most sought-after items is long gone.

HAMEL: Yeah, we're sold out of the crucifixes.

WIGHT: But yard sale organizer, Mike Bolduc, says there's plenty else to choose from.

MIKE BOLDUC: Name it, we have it - glassware, furniture. There's a little bit of everything that you'd see at any yard sale, OK? But a lot of it is memorabilia.

WIGHT: Bolduc says preparing for the yard sale has been tough, like downsizing a house you've owned for years.

BOLDUC: A church makes it even tougher because it's family, it's community. And consequently, it affects a lot of people. My daughter got married in here. I walked her down the aisle. My wife and I got married in here, and on and on.

WIGHT: Others remember baptisms and funerals. Adeline Belanger holds a glass cruet she thinks was used for holy water or wine. She first came to St. Mary's when she was a little girl.

ADELINE BELANGER: It's very sad to see that's no longer a church. There's only a couple more churches, and how long are they going to be around, we don't know.

WIGHT: The Catholic parish in this area used to have nine churches serving four towns, now there are six. Along with declining membership, high maintenance costs and scarcity of priests have forced them to consolidate. Since the churches represented at this yard sale closed two to three years ago, parishioners have painstakingly distributed their contents - religious items went to other churches, leftover valuables to auction. What remains are less sentimental items like china, vases, books, even a music box. Parishioners pick through it all in hopes of finding a memento.

ELSA DYKE: I love these.

WIGHT: Elsa Dyke looks like she's just uncovered hidden treasure as she holds a wicker collection basket in each hand.

DYKE: Now I'll take them home, make an arrangement, hang them on the wall.

WIGHT: Dyke worshipped at St. Mary's through high school, but hasn't returned in over 30 years after she moved about an hour away. She never joined another congregation. She says they didn't feel like home. So when Dyke heard about the yard sale, she came not only for the keepsakes, but the chance to see old friends.

DYKE: Hi. Oh, my god. Joan, I'm Elsa.

JOAN HURRELL: Oh, hi Elsa. It's been quite awhile. Isn't this disgusting?

DYKE: It's disgusting.

WIGHT: Dyke and her old friend, Joan Hurrell, lament what the future may hold for this building. What was once St. Mary's school at the end of the block was knocked down and replaced with a Dunkin' Donuts. While the yard sale was a melancholy event for some, Robert Labelle, who helped organize it, found the opposite to be true.

ROBERT LABELLE YARD SALE ORGANIZER: A sad day was when they closed the church. This is actually part of the healing process and it's actually brought people together.

WIGHT: So much so, that some St. Mary's parishioners are considering forming a prayer group to meet in the vacant Biddeford, Maine church. It's for sale, but there have been few interested buyers.

For NPR News, I'm Patty Wight.

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