Fate of a rural church in Maine worries neighbors

St Mary’s Church has been located near Ellis Pond in Roxbury since residents built it around 1950. It has not been used for regular religious services for a decade and its fate is uncertain. Steve Collins/SunJournal

ROXBURY – With its flaky white paint, slightly sagging floor and grassy ground, the old church that stands across from the Main Street information booth about Ellis Pond’s conservation efforts has clearly seen better days since summer residents gathered together to build nearly 75 years ago .

For decades it has been providing services in the summer to the Frankish American community that camped along the shores of the pond. It doubles as a meeting room for the Silver Lake Camp Owners Association that monitors the 920-acre pond.

Now, though, the fate of the building and the things it sits on is up in the air.

Residents are concerned that the property’s owner, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, plans to sell it, without restrictions, despite their pleas for a way to ensure it remains the centerpiece of their old community.

“We can’t figure out what’s going on. They won’t meet with us,” said Matt Towell, a long-time resident and active in the association.

For some, saving the building is critical to the community.

“It’s the only place we can gather next to a pond,” said Steve Griffin, an activist with the Camp Owners Association.

The pond, sometimes called Roxbury Pond or Silver Lake, is located in the hills between Andover Earth Station in rural Oxford County and the River Swift.

Steve Griffin, left, and Matt Towell, an Ellis Pond resident, are trying to preserve St Mary’s Church for community use in Roxbury. Steve Collins/SunJournal

It’s the kind of place, said Towell, where a real community can, and has evolved over decades, with many families coming for generations, and some staying year-round.

“You have people who respect your privacy and are there when you need them,” Towell said.

Griffin said people are kind to each other and that someone is more likely to hit a kayak in the water than a speed boat.

“It’s not like the Sebago environment,” Towell said.

building a church

Residents began raising funds during the 1940s to build a chapel and banded together to build it, finishing work around 1950. They expanded what was then called Silver Lake Church a few years later.

A news report from that time stated that “camp and camp owners of all faiths” contributed time and money to the project.

It’s not an elaborate setting, just wooden planks on concrete foundations, with a small bell tower. But it is still large enough to easily accommodate more than a hundred people.

The building’s first owner, the Silver Lake Chapel Association, decided in 1955, by a vote of 23-3, to give the church to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, which it would run through the Archdiocese of Saint Teresa in Mexico.

The local priest, Reverend George Sir, invited Bishop Daniel Finney to come and bless the new church at a grand ceremony held in August 1956. Assuming, the church chose to name St. Mary’s Church.

community center

For many years, the church had been offering summer religious services which attracted large crowds.

Towell said he remembers an older colleague who was sitting on the balcony outside collecting “seat money” to help pay for new seats bought in the 1960s. Most still have a few plaques to honor the benefactor who paid for them.

A decade ago, Reverend Raymond “Moots” Carignan used to hold daily services at the lakeside church where he spent summers for many years. But when Carignan died in 2013, services apparently stopped.

St Mary’s Church in Roxbury, a small Roman Catholic church, has not seen much use in years. Steve Collins/SunJournal

In 2010, the Silver Lake Campground Owners Association wrote to a Portland bishop to ask about building availability.

“The church was built by the work of our grandparents and our parents,” wrote Angie Arsino, president of the association at the time. “Needless to say, we feel deeply connected to the church.”

“We are concerned about any future change in church ownership,” Arsenault wrote.

She suggested retaining it as a non-profit community resource for the pond that “enjoys the support and care of the full-time and seasonal residents of the area.”

“We are certainly opposed to any commercial development or private ownership of the facility,” she said.

Other messages followed.

One of them, James Wendt, the new president of the association, requested that the building and property be returned to the community.

“I think this is the most Christian way of the Church to relinquish ownership of property,” he wrote, requesting at least a right of first refusal if it ended up being sold.

The association aims to use the buildings for its meetings and activities.

Not a word of diossy

Church officials were particularly wary of saying too much to the community. Nor did they respond to requests for comment for this story.

The front door of St Mary’s Church in Roxbury can still be opened to the community on occasion, but the building is rarely used anymore. The Silver Lake Chapel Association voted in 1955 to grant it to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. Steve Collins/SunJournal

In 2014, Romford’s Reverend Greg Dobb said in an email to an assembly member that he didn’t know what the church’s future use would be.

“It’s something that needs to be addressed,” Dube wrote to Sally Arsenault.

Lake Society members said they have heard, however, that the church is paving the way for the sale of the building, including tracking down the descendants of someone who donated part of the land for their permission.

However, it does not appear to be on the market, Towell said on Friday.

Efforts to meet with church real estate officials have led to nothing, he said.

“Our requests are not being heard,” Towell said.

For Griffin, who spent 75 years by the pond after his father built camp in 1941, the chapel is an essential part of community life.

“We are the heirs of the people who built that building,” Griffin said, and we should be the ones to decide its fate.

Ellis Pond in Roxbury, also known as Roxbury Pond and Silver Lake. Steve Collins/SunJournal

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