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Mass marks farewell to Cutchogue church

People sit one last time inside Sacred Heart

People sit one last time inside Sacred Heart Church in Cutchogue, which will close for good. (Dec. 22, 2012) Credit: Ed Betz

The final Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Cutchogue on Saturday was a time for Peg Kaelin to reminisce.

She was baptized at the church in 1947 and had her wedding there 24 years later. Six of her seven children attended the adjacent parochial school.

As Kaelin sat in the pews of the place where she'd spent so many of life's most momentous occasions -- and many a Sunday morning -- she also grieved for the loss of a 135-year-old community touchstone.

Church officials last month announced that Sacred Heart would have to close. The building had been declared structurally unsound by engineers, and the Diocese of Rockville Centre couldn't afford the estimated $2 million in repairs.

"Unfortunately, it's reality," said Kaelin, 65, of Cutchogue. "We can't have people in an unsafe environment. We know we have to move forward. But you have to have your grieving time, too."

About 120 parishioners attended the service at 9 a.m. Saturday. The Mass was to be held in a heated tent on the front lawn, but powerful winds forced the congregants to gather inside another church building across the street. Sacred Heart parishioners will be permanently shifted to Our Lady of Good Counsel in Mattituck.

Sacred Heart was built in 1878 by Irish immigrants.

"They came here with very little other than their faith," said Virginia McCaffrey, a longtime parishioner and an unofficial church historian. "They centered their life around the church. It's no longer that way."

The church's brown, clapboard facade belies a vaulted ceiling adorned with paintings of angels. In 1974, a new roof was put on and the interior was replastered. But cracks have emerged on one wall -- a reminder of the structure's precarious state.

After Saturday's service, parishioners returned to the old church to gather one last time in the pews. Some talked quietly, others prayed.

Outside, a small group of congregants protested the closure. They held signs proclaiming "Sacred Heart, our church, our home, our history" and "I love the house where you live, oh Lord, Psalm 26."

Lynn Stevens, whose great-great-grandfather, Barney McCaffrey, was one of the church's founders, said she had collected about a dozen signatures on a petition aiming to preserve Sacred Heart as a historic structure.

"It's a landmark," said Stevens, 44, a secretary from Cutchogue. "It shouldn't be destroyed. What's it going to become? A strip mall?"

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