P LYMOUTH - Catholic church closures have become commonplace as the numbers of active parishioners and available clergy steadily dwindle, but a congregation in Plymouth is bucking the trend, readying itself to break ground on a $7.5 million project that will yield a new church, and renovation of its current quarters into a parish hall.
“This is the first time in a long time a new church has been built because of the great growth in parishioners,’’ said Terrence Donilon, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, calling St. Bonaventure parish’s building plan “a testament to the commitment of the parishioners and the tremendous pastoral leadership’’ of the Rev. Kenneth Overbeck.
Donilon noted that 67 parishes in the archdiocese have closed their churches since 2004. “I am not aware of any other churches being built from the bottom up,’’ he said. The only other church built was Weymouth’s Sacred Heart, rebuilt after a 2007 fire.
The parish of St. Bonaventure was the first Catholic parish in south Plymouth, established by decree of Richard Cardinal Cushing in 1950. Located in the seaside village of Manomet, its wood-framed church was built in 1951 with seating for up to 550 people shoulder-to-shoulder. In its early days, the entire congregation, consisting of 200 people, could fit into the chapel, the only part of the building that was heated. During the summer, seasonal residents arrived and filled the pews of the main church.
Prior to the church’s construction, Catholics living in Manomet during the summer could attend Mass at a small satellite chapel of St. Peter’s parish, called St. Catherine’s and located on White Horse Beach. During other seasons, residents had to travel eight or more miles to St. Peter’s, in Plymouth center.
The character of Manomet has gradually changed from a predominantly summer community to one of year-round residents, raising attendance numbers at the church. In 1951, St. Bonaventure performed one marriage and two baptisms. Last year, it performed 21 weddings and 98 baptisms, according to church records. St. Bonaventure’s growth is also a result of the building explosion in south Plymouth over the last 20 years, which included large developments such as The Pinehills, where 1,500 homes have been built and another 1,500 are in the pipeline.
St. Bonaventure today has more than 12,000 registered parishioners, and church leaders anticipate more growth in the near future, as River Run, an A.D. Makepeace project slated for about 1,100 homes in south Plymouth, gets underway.
“This church is right on the threshold of being overcrowded,’’ said Overbeck, who said that most Masses are packed. “We want people who come to church to feel welcomed and comfortable, and not be left standing outside.’’
The building project calls for a 10,500-square-foot church capable of seating nearly 1,000. Its façade will reflect the New England flavor of the church’s setting, a 48-acre former cornfield, known in the 19th and early 20th centuries as the Porter Harlow Farm, along State Road, Manomet’s chief thoroughfare. The building will be crowned by a 70-foot bell tower.
“The beauty of the property is its size,’’ Overbeck said. “If ever there is talk of a school, we’ve got the land, and if ever we want to open an assisted-living center, we’ve got the land.’’ The parish, he said, is a good mix of young families and older members.
Lawyer Paul Roche, who summered in Manomet as a child, lives here permanently now and serves on St. Bonaventure’s building committee.
“The problem with the church is it’s the same one I came to when I was 3 years old,’’ Roche said. “This project is good for the parish, good for Manomet, and good for Plymouth. It’s a legacy that will be here for years to come.’’
Once the new church is completed, the current church will be turned into a parish hall. Both buildings will be surrounded by a “village green,’’ typical of New England centers. Roche said special permits for the height of the roof peak and bell tower must still be secured from the town. Construction should begin by summer and completion is expected in June 2013.
Overbeck says Manomet means “carrying place’’ in Wampanoag, and he hopes to place a statue in front of the church depicting Christ as the Good Shepherd, carrying a lamb on his shoulders.
Church leaders are expecting little trouble pushing the permitting process through Town Hall. The Manomet Steering Committee looks forward to the new church going up, and committee chairman Randy Parker called the proposal “a very exciting and a significant improvement to the fabric of the village.’’
“I heard concern expressed at the Planning Board regarding the height request; however, the steering committee voted unanimously to support both special permit requests,’’ Parker said. “I guess, as far as I can figure, the closer a church can get to God these days, the better.’’
Parish leaders have spent years designing the project.
“Instead of starting with a cost figure, the building committee started with what we wanted, which came up to $10 million,’’ Roche said. “Obviously, that was too high, so we went through deciding what we really needed.’’
A capital campaign, with a goal of $4 million, has so far raised $2 million in pledges. The parish savings account can provide $1 million, and the sale of a closed chapel on White Horse Beach and an undeveloped tract in Bourne should bring in about $1 million together. The balance will be borrowed from the Boston Archdiocese.
“The archdiocese has been very supportive,’’ Overbeck said. “They will have oversight of the project, but this is a locally grown idea.’’ According to the pastor, the project has generated a great deal of excitement and hope among parishioners.
“To see good news coming to fruition is important for everybody,’’ he said.
Roche called the project a labor of love. “When we’re done, I want to just drive by the church and say, we did it.’’