Catholic worshipers turn to St. Mary’s after closure of Shoreham church

By Maya Heikkinen

Public Domain
St. Genevieve Church in Shoreham was in operation for 143 years before being shut down last spring.

Shoreham’s St. Genevieve Church closed its doors during the spring of 2020 due to a decreased number of worshippers and the need for structural improvements to the building. The effects of St. Genevieve Church’s closure rippled outward and — a year later — are being felt in Middlebury. 

St. Genevieve, as well as St. Bernadette Church in Bridport, are considered mission parishes of St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption in Middlebury, the church situated at the corner of College Street and Shannon Street, near Sunderland and across the road from Warner Hall. 

“[Mission churches are] in a more rural setting, and usually it means that the pastor is the same for both of them and that the mission church is kind of dependent on the mother church, the main church,” Friar Luke Austin said.

This relationship results in lots of cross over in attendance between the parishes. Many people from St. Bernadette and St. Genevieve attend St. Mary’s — and vice versa. The fact that Shoreham and Bridport are part of the Addison County School District is one factor that contributes to this shared attendance, among others.

The parishes consist of largely older populations, characteristic of Vermont and New England Roman Catholic communities. The area also has a large proportion of mass attendees who work in agriculture. To accommodate this population, mass is held at 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays. 

“That’s very late in terms of a mass time for people, but it helps those who have ties to agriculture,” Austin said. “That’s certainly a demographic trait of Vermont in general, as well.”

A sense of emotional attachment that some Middlebury Catholics feel toward the St. Genevieve Church in Shoreham makes the church’s closure even more significant.

“There are certainly a number of people who grew up in Bridport and Shoreham, who may now live in Middlebury or somewhere else,” Austin said. “There’s family connections, there’s people who do business together, so there’s a lot of natural connections that already exist … Certainly [for] people at St Mary’s who attended St. Genevieve it is an emotionally challenging thing, especially if they grew up in that church.” 

Led by Kathleen and Randall Brisson, the St. Genevieve Preservation is working to negotiate with the Burlington diocese for a lease that would allow them to take responsibility for the church’s care. 

“My initial proposal was to keep the church from being torn down and take care of it through fundraising, while running a non-profit thrift store and food shelf out of the back annex,” Brisson said. 

Even if St. Genevieve reopens, there is a strong possibility that the two parishes might one day permanently merge into one, considering their connections. An impending issue of organizing churches and parishes is the decline of parishioners and priests, which contributed to the closure of St. Genevieve. The church was also concerned about the building itself and whether it was worth investing funds to repair. 

“The Holy See released a document within the past year about how to kind of organize parishes so they can better serve the needs of mission and evangelization,” Austin said. “As our bishop and our diocese thinks about how to better organize ourselves, [a merge] could be something that comes up. There’s a sense that we need to be more efficient, or thinking towards the future, especially with our number of priests and our number of parishioners, about how to best organize ourselves.”

If a merge were to occur, the impact would more strongly impact Bridport and Shoreham but Middlebury as well.

 “There could be a tendency to focus more on Middlebury, so the challenge is, how do we continue to reach out to families and people of the towns that are farther out?” Austin said. 

Most likely, mass attendance would not be affected much. “I don’t know if there would be a big numbers shift, I think it would stay the same,” Austin said. “For us, it would be a matter of organizational change.”

These trends across New England parishes are linked to changing demographics and may continue to influence Middlebury’s parish, as well as others. 

“At the time they were all booming because there was a high number of people. Now, with the declining numbers of parishioners and priests, you don’t necessarily need all of those churches anymore.”