Hallowell, Maine is a very small city in the middle of the state, just south of the capital, Augusta. The mighty Kennebec River serves as the boundary on the eastern edge of the city that is home to about 2500 people, although it often seems bigger than that. There’s a largeness of spirit that exists in Hallowell. Residents call it the “little Easy” or the “New Orleans on the Kennebec.”
A recent local newspaper article carried the very sad news that the Episcopal church in Hallowell is closing. The church’s stately building sits just a block away from Old South. Since Hallowell’s clergy are mostly part-timers, sometimes with more than one church to cover, there is little clergy connection these days. So, the news of the closing of St. Matthew’s came as a surprise to me, and a big one at that.
Central Maine is home to many church closures. The Episcopal church in Augusta closed several years ago. The small congregation that was left at the end merged with the Lutherans. The Congregational church in Gardiner, just a couple of towns south of Hallowell, closed years ago. The remaining congregants did not merge with another church, although a small group came to Old South. And, the Roman Catholic churches in the area have been in the process of consolidating, with some buildings mothballed, others sold, and still others demolished.
The church closures mostly appear to involve what can be described as Protestant “mainline” churches, the old churches that grace many a New England town common—plus Roman Catholics churches. Most of the closures take place without much of a fuss, except for the small group that’s left to make the decision, that the expenses and demands of staffing and maintenance have finally proven too much to bear.
In the case of this most recent closure, of St. Matthew’s Episcopal (along with its yoked companion, St. Barnabas in Augusta), appeared to elicit little response. The article in the paper inspired only two online comments, and one of those was from a parishioner who wanted to clarify a couple of issues that the reporter had got wrong.
It’s no surprise that churches are closing. There are plenty of studies and reports that have documented the decline of church attendance and connection, especially in the Mainline. Still, it’s heartbreaking to get the news that yet another church has closed or is on the brink of closure. And, it’s even more heartbreaking that so few seem to care.
St. Matthew’s will close, with some sort of small ceremony, presumably when the pandemic is at least mostly over and people can gather once again in person. I suspect that only a small number of people in Hallowell will take any notice at all. Some may have believed that the church had already closed. We’ve heard comments along those lines regarding Old South, especially when we ask people not to park in our parking lot without asking. “Oh, you’re still open?” they ask, clearly surprised to learn that we are still an active faith community, though we are mostly online these days.
What happens as church after church falls, and hardly anybody seems to notice, or care? What happens as people turn their back on yet another church building looking to be repurposed, and a small congregation feeling lost and abandoned?
I realize that it’s too much to ask that people consider giving church a try, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask that more attention be paid to those churches that close. Many of these churches have been integral elements of the community, offering a spiritual foundation, a place to observe milestone moments in our lives, and help in times of trouble.
Don’t they deserve something better than the cold shoulder?