Closed Maine church becomes housing, community center for immigrants

By Egan Millard
Posted Feb 2, 2023

The International Kids Festival was held in July 2022 at the new Hallowell Multicultural Center, formerly the Episcopal Church of Saints Matthew and Barnabas, in Hallowell, Maine. Photo: Capital Area New Mainers Project

[Episcopal News Service – Hallowell, Maine] When the Episcopal Church of Saints Matthew and Barnabas closed in 2021, a 161-year-old worshiping community came to an end. The sanctuary was deconsecrated and the sacred items used in countless baptisms, weddings, funerals and Sunday services were removed, some given to other parishes.

But the building on Union Street in Hallowell, a small central Maine town just outside the state capital of Augusta, was just beginning its new life.

When the congregation disbanded, the Diocese of Maine transferred ownership of the property to the Capital Area New Mainers Project, a nonprofit that helps new immigrants resettle in the Augusta area. A year and a half later, it houses two large families and a multicultural event center for immigrants to share their culture with each other and the wider community.

Chris Myers Asch, executive director of the Capital Area New Mainers Project, stands in front of the new Hallowell Multicultural Center. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

“God is still at work in this place,” Maine Bishop Thomas Brown said. “We are delighted for this space to be used for a mission deeply aligned with our baptismal covenants of loving your neighbor as yourself, striving for justice and peace and respecting the dignity of all people.”

End of an era

The small church perched on a hill overlooking the town next to an abandoned railroad track may not look like much, but it can be seen as a microcosm of the sweeping demographic changes in the United States and The Episcopal Church over the last few decades.

The parish’s average Sunday attendance declined steadily through the 2010s before plummeting with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, according to parochial report data. In 2012, an average Sunday service drew 62 people in the town of about 2,500, and there were 212 recorded members. St. Matthew’s, as it was then known, merged with the Augusta parish of St. Barnabas when that church closed in 2017.

But attendance – and pledges – kept falling. By the time parish and diocesan leaders decided to close the parish in the fall of 2020, the parochial report listed 35 members and an average Sunday attendance of 13. The pandemic was the last straw for the struggling congregation, the Rev. Jack Fles – one of the last priests to serve the church – said at the time.

Those numbers, while more severe than the churchwide declines in membership and attendance, do echo the downward trends The Episcopal Church has seen since the 1960s, which showed gradual attrition until they plummeted with the pandemic. The most recent churchwide report shows that active membership in the U.S. fell by 20%, and average Sunday attendance by 54%, from 2011 to 2021. 

Saints Matthew and Barnabas had several further demographic factors working against it. Small parishes in small towns are more likely to see declines as Americans migrate from rural areas to bigger cities. Maine is consistently rated one of the least religious states; in a 2016 Pew Research survey, Maine ranked 47th in belief in God and was tied for 49th in weekly worship attendance. And Maine has the highest average age in the country, magnifying the churchwide trend of aging congregants. 

New neighbors, new needs

But Maine’s demographics are starting to change due to a recent surge in immigration, bringing youth and diversity to a demographically older and overwhelmingly white state. Maine, which has some of the most supportive policies for asylum-seekers and refugees, has seen waves of immigrants over the past decade, many from Africa and the Middle East. 

Flags from different nations are stored at the new Hallowell Multicultural Center. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

But although they are helping to ease the state’s labor shortage, they struggle to find housing in an increasingly unaffordable market. That’s especially true in Portland, the first stop for many refugees coming to Maine, where increased arrivals have stretched shelters beyond their normal capacity. The diocese partners with Greater Portland Family Promise to help find shelter – and ultimately permanent homes – for these families, including housing them in Episcopal churches.

Farther north, the Capital Area New Mainers Project began about six years ago amid an influx of refugees, primarily from Iraq, to Augusta.

“Many of us … felt like we needed to do more as a community to be welcoming, to help these folks get their feet on the ground and thrive here,” said Chris Myers Asch, co-founder and executive director.

The nonprofit provides many of the services immigrants most often need to get oriented to their new surroundings, focusing on language, jobs and housing. The third is usually the most important, Myers Asch told Episcopal News Service.

“Refugees come here with a lot of needs,” Myers Asch said. “Housing is primary among them. If you don’t have housing, you really can’t do much of anything.”

But many landlords don’t rent to immigrants since they don’t want to deal with language barriers and other obstacles, like tenants not having bank accounts and paying in cash, Myers Asch said. So for its housing program, the nonprofit manages five units around Augusta on behalf of landlords in exchange for reduced rent, which it rents to immigrant families. It “takes some of the headaches out of the landlord process, particularly with refugees,” he said.

The former parsonage on the church property is now an immigrant family’s home. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

In 2019, when Saints Matthew and Barnabas was still active, parish leaders approached Myers Asch about renting out the unused parsonage house on the church property. The Capital Area New Mainers Project renovated the home and began renting it to an Iraqi family of nine.

But rental income was not enough to save the dwindling parish, which reported $39,692 in pledge and plate income in 2020. Senior Warden Patricia Buck-Welton announced the closure in October 2020, with one final service the following June, when pandemic conditions improved.

“We did not come to this decision lightly,” Buck-Welton said. “The church no longer had the finances and resources to remain open.”

“I am deeply inspired by the members and leaders of the Episcopal Church of Saints Matthew and Barnabas who have faithfully discerned this path for their church, and this evolution for their church building. Closing a church is a hard journey that they have walked together,” Brown said.

Making a house of worship into a home

The diocese offered to donate the entire property – the parsonage, sanctuary and parish hall – to the Capital Area New Mainers Project, which accepted and began renovating and adapting the latter two for new uses. The two-story parish hall became another housing unit with five bedrooms, designed for large immigrant families who would otherwise find it nearly impossible to find an affordable unit that could comfortably house all of them. That is now being rented to a Syrian family of nine.

The sanctuary, meanwhile, is being turned into a community event space. First, the wooden pews, carpet and stained-glass windows needed to be removed to brighten up the dark space, said Myers Asch. New paint, new windows and a new floor transformed the sanctuary into a bright, open, flexible-use area.

The renovation work in the sanctuary and parish hall was done by a Mexican immigrant who started his own contracting business. He took the oldest son of the Iraqi family in the parsonage as an apprentice for the project, which “worked out perfectly,” Myers Asch said.

“The young man is now off working for other contractors in construction. He was able to build skills in a safe place,” Myers Asch told ENS. “And then through that project, he met the plumber who came in and built the bathroom. They work together now. So now he’s got his own work going, and that’s exactly what we want.”

The new multicultural event center now hosts events that celebrate the various cultures of the area’s new residents – sometimes all at once. The first major event that the Capital Area New Mainers Project hosted in the space was the International Kids Festival last summer. The room was lined with tables representing different national cultures, with food, music and crafts. Kids were given passports that they could get stamped with each new country they learned about.

The events are geared toward both the recent immigrants and native Mainers, Myers Asch said.
One of the main goals is “giving immigrants an opportunity to share their culture with native Mainers, because Mainers have a lot to learn; immigrants have a lot to share and give and teach.”

Other events so far have included a celebration of Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, as well as a Thanksgiving celebration and an LGBTQ+ movie night hosted by the Hallowell Pride Alliance. Myers Asch is planning for a celebration of the Middle Eastern holiday of Nowruz in the spring.

“We’re helping people understand that that we benefit a lot from what immigrants bring, and they’re not, like, taking our jobs or taking things from the community. They’re actually bringing rich traditions … and ideas that can help infuse this area with some much-needed energy,” he told ENS.

The space is also rented out for private events, such as a recent bat mitzvah that was catered by the father of the resident Syrian family, who cooks falafel, Myers Asch said.

The Capital Area New Mainers Project received a grant from the town to repair the deteriorating façade – as did the owner of the closed Baptist church across the street, who is converting the building into apartments, Myers Asch said. The Episcopal church’s historic architecture will be preserved, and even though it is no longer used by a congregation, it is still serving a holy purpose, Brown said.

“God is most certainly at work in Hallowell, in the faithfulness of the Episcopal Church of Saints Matthew and Barnabas and in the new Mainers who are supported by the Capital Area New Mainers Project,” the bishop said when the building was transferred. “This is both an ending and a beginning, and so we celebrate even as we grieve. We … follow Jesus Christ from a tomb to pathways of resurrection.”

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at