CARIBOU – There was a time, not too many years ago, when there were 16 Roman Catholic priests tending to the needs of parishioners in 18 parishes, from St. Paul’s Mission in Allagash to St. Joseph’s Parish in Hamlin.
Now there are seven, and the number of priests and parishes keeps tumbling.
Within three years, the number of priests and parishes in Aroostook County will be about half the number in the St. John Valley in the early 1970s.
The entire county will have four clusters, with one parish in Benedicta part of a Penobscot County cluster with Millinocket and East Millinocket. The four Aroostook County clusters will have eight, maybe nine priests.
“Clustering is a response to changes on the ground,” said the Rev. Jean Paul Labrie, pastor of Holy Rosary Church at Caribou and dean of priests in northern Maine.
In an interview Friday, Labrie said it would be easy to say the changes are occurring simply because there are fewer priests.
“There are also less people in Aroostook County than there were 20 years ago,” he said.
Leaders hope the realignment will enable the church to continue its work, but limits on money and people could make that more difficult to do in specific parishes.
It’s nothing new in northern Maine. It’s been happening for years. Parishes have closed, moving parishioners to other nearby parishes; other parishes have been “twinned”; and still other areas have seen three parishes become one.
In the mid-St. John Valley, the parishes of St. Luce at Frenchville, St. Agatha at St. Agatha, and St. Joseph at Sinclair have come together under one priest, and one name. The three parishes since July have had the name Our Lady of the Valley Parish.
Throughout the process, Labrie explained, there will be a pooling of resources with the hope of doing more.
“It means that lay people will be even more involved than in the past,” he said. “Lay people will have to assume more responsibility for their own immediate community, which will be larger.
“Lay people have been involved, and that needs to continue and expand,” he said. “The decisions for this process are coming from the bottom, where people have talked and planned what is and what will be happening.”
Labrie said the eight or nine priests who will be in Aroostook County will be assisted by retired priests who decide to remain in Aroostook County. He said several of them have remained and they have been “very helpful and generous.”
Labrie said the process should be completed by 2010. Some places will see adjustments come more quickly, sometimes as priests retire.