Maine, Catholic Church in
MAINE, CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
Maine is unique among New England states in that it alone can trace its Catholic roots back to the era of the earliest European colonization. It was in 1604 that the French established a settlement on an island near the mouth of the St. Croix River. This settlement, Holy Cross, was the first European colony in New England. Though primarily a business venture headed by the Calvinist Pierre du Guast, Sieur de Monts, and Samuel Champlain, it included a Catholic chaplain, Nicholas Aubry. The colony failed to endure the first harsh winter, but its fate was no deterrent to further exploration. In 1613 the Jesuits Peter Biard and Enemond Masse accompanied a colonizing venture of Pierre La Saussaye bound for the Penobscot River (which they had earlier visited in 1611, offering Mass in the vicinity of present-day Bangor), but dense fog forced the ship to land sooner than planned. At Fernald Point near Southwest Harbor on Mount Desert Island they planted their colony of St. Sauveur. They were welcomed by the indigenous people, and prospects for the young colony seemed good, but within two months it had been destroyed by the Englishman Samuel Argall, Admiral of Virginia, who had been given instructions to frustrate French attempts to colonize the Penobscot region.
The territory known as Acadia would be exchanged nine times by the French and English in subsequent decades. The history of the settlement at the town on Penobscot Bay, now known as Castine, is typical of this instability. The Plymouth Pilgrims had a trading post there by 1629. In 1632 the area reverted to French control, and the Capuchin Franciscans arrived in 1635, establishing the mission of Our Lady of Hope at the site the French called Pentagoet. The cornerstone of a substantial church was laid in 1648, but its existence was fragile. The English would regain control of the territory from 1654 to 1667 and the mission collapsed, though the French were once more in charge from 1667 to 1703. Franciscans returned during these years when the post was in the hands of John Vincent d‘Abbadie, Baron of Saint-Castin. The baron encouraged pastoral work among the natives, and it was by his patronage that a chapel dedicated to St. Ann was erected for their use on an island in the Penobscot river ("Indian Island"), the first of a succession of chapels at a mission that endures to this day.
More enterprising work among the indigenous peoples was carried out by Fr. Gabriel Druillettes, S.J., sent to work among the natives of the Kennebec region in 1646. He established a mission to the Abenakis near present-day Augusta, and lived among them till 1647. Following a diplomatic mission to the English at Plymouth and Boston in 1650, he again carried out missionary work with the tribes along the Kennebec in the winters of 1651 and 1652, establishing the village of Norridgewock as his headquarters.
Druillettes work was continued after a lapse of a few decades by his intrepid brother-Jesuit Sebastian rÂle, who arrived in Norridgewock in 1694. Proficient in native dialects, he worked tirelessly among the Abenakis, catechizing, adjudicating disputes, caring for the sick, and teaching music, all amidst the ongoing political tensions between the English and the French. Norridgewock village was destroyed in a raid by the Massachusetts colony in 1705; another attack followed in 1722 during which the village was again destroyed. Finally, in 1724, an assault was launched during which Râle himself was murdered, and his scalp sent with 26 others back to Boston. Many of the surviving Abenakis fled north towards Canada.
The next century, with its ongoing political tensions and reversals, saw little activity by Catholics. Most of the state had been included in the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Diocese of Boston when it was erected in 1808.
Maine Becomes a State. In 1820 the State of Maine was admitted to the Union. At this time there were three centers of Catholic life in the state, which would serve as the building blocks of the Church in Maine: the surviving native peoples, grouped at Indian Island and Pleasant Point (near Eastport); a group of Acadians at Madawaska by the St. John River; and Irish immigrants living near Damariscotta and Whitefield. It was thanks to the intervention of some prominent citizens of the latter group that the new state constitution contained no anti-Catholic restrictions, unlike those of massachusetts (from which the state was carved) and New Hampshire.
By the 1800s only 750 native peoples remained in Maine. Members of the Penobscot tribe were restricted to Indian Island, while Passamaquody lived near Pleasant Point. Three exiled priests from revolutionary France worked among these tribes from 1792 to 1818. One of the three, Jean cheverus, visited both tribes in 1797 and 1798. He was replaced by James romagnÉ, who built a church at Pleasant Point, and labored among the natives till 1818. A learned, pious, affable man, he introduced farming to his flock, and translated a prayer book into the native dialect.
By 1820 there were about 108 Catholic families living near Damariscotta and Whitefield. Fr. (later Bishop of Boston, 1808–23) Cheverus first visited the community in 1798, and returned almost every summer from Boston until 1818, using it as a base from which to search the surrounding countryside for isolated Catholics. James Kavanagh and Matthew Cottrill, who had arrived in Newcastle as young Irish immigrants in the early 1790s, and had prospered as merchants and shipbuilders, were the leaders of this prosperous district, which boasted its own church, St. Patrick's. This edifice, built in the year 1808, is the oldest extent Catholic church in New England. Kavanagh's son Edward, though preparing for ordination in 1813, turned his attention to his father's failing businesses, later distinguishing himself as a state legislator, congressman (1831–35), and governor (1843), the first Catholic in New England to hold these latter offices.
Meanwhile, in the far north of Maine, 20 Acadian families, displaced from St. John, New Brunswick, by American Loyalists, had settled near the St. John and Madawaska Rivers. Between 1790 and 1794 they were joined by Acadians from Nova Scotia, and about this time asked the Bishop of Quebec for a priest and church. An influx of new arrivals swelled their numbers to 2,000 by 1831. Most of the Madawaskans were deeply religious Catholics, and could boast of a resident priest after 1808. In 1842 the boundary between the United States and Canada was fixed at the St. John River, leaving the Madawaskans divided. Forty days after the treaty was signed, Rome assigned the care of the Catholics in the region to the Diocese of Fredericton, New Brunswick, including St. Bruno's parish on the southern (U.S.) side of the river, which had been established in 1838. In 1860 the Catholics of Maine Madawaska were given over to the care of the Diocese of St. John, New Brunswick. Not until 1870 and the First Vatican Council was Bishop Bacon of the Diocese of portland given the spiritual care of the Catholics of northern Maine (though the state had been providing education there since 1843).
Maine's earliest Catholic churches were built where the immigrant Irish settled. Fr. Dennis Ryan, ordained by Bishop Cheverus in 1817 (the first ordination in New England), spent 25 years pastoring, first at Damariscotta and later at Whitefield (where he built a brick church in 1838). He ministered to Catholics from the Kennebec to the Penobscot, including the towns of Bath, Augusta, and Bangor. Already in 1836 there were 1,000 Irish in the latter town, drawn by jobs in the lumber industry. St. Michael's church there was dedicated in 1839. In Augusta, Ryan made do with a converted Unitarian church purchased in 1836, which served till St. Mary's was built in 1847.
Another intrepid Maine pastor was Fr. Charles Ffrench. His assignment was to care for the large numbers of Irish emigrating into Maine, and settling along the seacoast. He based his ministry first in Eastport—the immigrant's gateway from New Brunswick—where St. Joseph's was dedicated in 1835. It was from the flock in Eastport that John E. barry, the Portland diocese's first native vocation, would hail. Ffrench later moved the focus of his pastoral activity to Portland, where St. Dominic's church had been dedicated in 1833. The Catholic population of Maine's largest city was growing, bolstered by a large number of converts including Josue Young, the future bishop of Erie, Pennsylvania.
Growth and Trials. Despite the growing Catholic population, not all communities were as fortunate as Bangor, Eastport, or Portland. There was a Catholic presence in Belfast from 1827, but there would be no permanent church until 1894 (a rented hall was used until 1851, and then again from 1870 to 1885). A lack of priests and resources meant that congregations were slow to grow, and loss of faith was common.
The growing numbers of Irish immigrants, and the squalid conditions of the urban slums in which many were forced to live, moved Bishop Benedict fenwick of Boston to propose and promote a Catholic immigrant colony in northern Maine. In 1834 the bishop purchased 11,358 acres in northern Maine, and by 1840 about 65 families had taken up residence there. Though Benedicta (as it was named) boasted a church, sawmill, and orphanage, and was soon a thriving farming town, it never developed sufficiently to support the college and seminary that Fenwick had envisioned.
In 1848 Bishop Fenwick's successor in Boston, John Fitzpatrick, obtained two Jesuits from the Maryland province for work in Maine. Fr. John Bapst, a 35-year-old exiled Swiss, was the first to arrive and the last of his brethren to leave in 1859. Bapst worked for two years at Indian Island north of Bangor. Divisions among the tribe, however, led to his being transferred to Eastport in 1851. By 1852, he had promoted the construction of three new churches (at Oldtown, Waterville, and Ellsworth), and was regularly visiting 33 stations on his mission circuit. In Ellsworth his pastoral work resulted in a number of prominent converts (including a young lady, Mary Agnes Tincker, who would become a prominent novelist of the Victorian age), but also stirred up the ire of local Nativists. Incensed by his vocal support for the rights of Catholic children to withdraw from public schools that promoted the King James Bible, and egged on by Bapst's obvious "foreigness" and success as an evangelist, a local mob assaulted, robbed, tarred, and feathered the Jesuit on a visit to Ellsworth in October of 1854. Public sentiment in Bangor and Portland was outraged, and prominent citizens offered him a gold watch to replace one which had been stolen from him, and a purse of $500 to aid him in his work (nonetheless, not all were repentant—the Catholic Church in Ellsworth was burned in 1856).
Bangor and Eastport were now the centers of the Jesuits' mission. Bangor was growing rapidly (Catholics alone numbered 6,000), and in 1856 a new church, St. John's, was dedicated. Though the site chosen for the church was deliberately inconspicuous (given the recent wave of anti-Catholicism), the building itself was in the grandest Gothic style, and was acclaimed one of the most beautiful churches in New England. Ironically, the very success of the Jesuits in Bangor and down east Maine led to the first bishop of Portland's desire to reclaim St. John's as a diocesan parish. Fr. Bapst and his fellow Jesuits departed the diocese in 1859, and would not return for almost a century. They had, however, overseen the construction of seven churches: Waterville, Oldtown, Ellsworth, Winterport, Rockland, Trescott, and Bangor. Churches in Machias and Calais, though started prior to their ministry in Maine, were completed during their watch.
A Diocese for Maine. The Diocese of portland was established on July 29, 1853 (the same day as Brooklyn and Burlington, Vermont), encompassing the states of Maine and new hampshire. The first candidate named to fill the see, Henry Coskery of Baltimore, declined the appointment, and so there was delay before David William bacon's (1813–74) name was announced. A priest of the New York archdiocese, he was an energetic pastor and builder in his native Brooklyn before being appointed to Maine. He was consecrated at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on April 22, 1855, and installed at St. Dominic's in Portland on May 31. As there were only six priests working in Maine, the bishop's first task was to find clergy; nine new arrivals from Europe and America would swell the rolls by year's end. Bacon was a talented administrator, and worked to remedy a number of deficiencies. Land was purchased in Portland for a cathedral in 1856, and a small chapel constructed. Tragically, work begun on the main structure in 1866 was destroyed in the great fire that struck the city on July 4 of that year. Spurred on by Bacon, funds for construction were sought once more, and work was resumed in 1868. When dedicated on September 9, 1869, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was declared one of the finest in the country.
No parochial schools greeted Bacon upon his arrival in the diocese, but by the year of his death they numbered 20, in addition to six private academies. The bishop was aided in his work by the Sisters of Notre Dame, who came to Portland to run St. Aloysius school in 1864. Mother M. Xavier Warde and four sisters of mercy arrived in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1858, and soon opened three houses in Maine, at Bangor (1865), White-field (1871) and Portland (1873—replacing the Notre Dame Sisters).
After almost 20 years of vigorous labor, the bishop died on November 5, 1874, while in transit to Rome for his ad limina visit, his life ended by a painful bladder ailment that had plagued him throughout his tenure in Portland.
New Arrivals in Maine. On February 12, 1875, James A. healy, pastor of St. James Church in Boston, the largest parish in New England, was appointed to the see of Portland. A native of Georgia, Healy and his brothers had been sent north to attend Holy Cross by their father, who realized that their status as sons of a mulatto slave mother was an insurmountable obstacle to their advancement. The Healy sons prospered: James and Sherwood studying for the diocesan priesthood, Patrick joining the Jesuits. Healy's 25 years as bishop of Portland were years of growth: in population, churches, priests, schools and religious. Besides a heavy indebtedness of $110,000, another challenge to the diocese during Healy's tenure was the massive influx of French-Canadians who arrived during the last quarter of the 19th century. Facing continual economic distress in Quebec, tens of thousands of these deeply religious migrants came to New England in search of work, bringing with them their strong attachment to "la foi, la langue, et les moeurs" (faith, language and customs). A few towns in Maine were completely transformed; Biddeford, for example, was 80 percent French-Canadian by the 1880s. Healy was zealous in his efforts to obtain compatriot clergy and religious to serve the newcomers. Ten new communities of religious women entered the diocese at Healy's invitation, as well as the Dominican and Marist priests and Brothers, all of them French-speaking. Lewiston was an outstanding Franco-American center, where the Dominican priests staffed the parish, Marist Brothers taught the boys, Daughters of Sion instructed the girls, and Sisters of Charity ran the orphanage and hospital. Healy's undertakings did not blind him to the contentious nature of some of the new arrivals, who he found to be quite forceful in their demands.
The year 1884 saw the state of New Hampshire removed from the territory of the Diocese of Portland and formed into the Diocese of Manchester. It was the same year that the Sisters of Mercy in Maine achieved their independence, with Sr. Mary Teresa Pickersgill as superior. Two years later the Marist Fathers opened St. Mary's College in Van Buren, the first Catholic college in Maine, enrolling a large number of French-Canadians among its students.
Healy celebrated his 70th birthday in 1900, his silver jubilee as bishop of Portland. Sadly, his labors for the church in Maine had sapped his strength, and he died on August 5, after feeling unwell for a few days. The Boston Pilot eulogized him as "humble, considerate [and] generous." He left behind 86 churches, 76 diocesan priests, and a Catholic population of approximately 96,400.
Healy was followed in the see of Portland by a rising star, William o'connell, rector of the North American College in Rome, and a native of Lowell, Massachusetts (born 1859). His appointment did not come till 1901, as deliberations at the Vatican were complicated when Franco-American priests and laity wrote opposing the terna of names forwarded by the consultors and advocating the nomination of a French-speaker. O'Connell was installed on July 4, and brought a flamboyant touch to the diocese (he employed an Italian valet and coachman). As bishop he was highly visible, and used public appearances to enhance the self-esteem of Maine Catholics. He was lionized by the Protestant community and Portland society; chosen to deliver a public oration on the death of President McKinley, he was accepted for membership in the exclusive Cumberland Club. Insisting on an intensely personal management style, he scrutinized parish reports, exercising minute oversight of liturgy and devotions. In 1903 he issued a pastoral on the new wave of immigrants arriving from Eastern Europe and Italy, asking that they be made welcome by the Church in Maine.
An avid traveler (e.g. the winter of 1904 to 1905 was spent in Rome), O'Connell was away on a diplomatic mission to Japan on behalf of the Vatican when word arrived that he had been appointed as coadjutor to Archbishop Williams in Boston. He bid farewell to the Portland diocese on September 9, 1906 and became archbishop of Boston on August 30, 1907, and was made a cardinal in 1911.
Love of the Past and Work for the Future. Rome lost no time in appointing a new bishop for the diocese of Portland. Louis Walsh (1858–1924) was a priest from Boston, known for his work at the Seminary of St. John and as an administrator of the archdiocesan schools. A dignified, scholarly, affable man, he was a builder for the future who had a love of Maine's rich history. He restored a monument Bishop Fenwick had erected for Fr. Râle, celebrated the centenary of St. Patrick's church in Damariscotta in 1908, and honored the 300th anniversary of the Mt. Desert mission with commemorations in 1913 (August 6 in Bar Harbor, October 12 in Portland). He founded the Maine Catholic Historical Society in 1908, and promoted the Maine Catholic Historical Magazine (1913–28).
During Walsh's 18-year tenure, 36 new parishes were founded (four in Portland, three in Lewiston). To deal with the vast number of immigrants, the bishop encouraged pastors to schedule visits of compatriot priests at least a few times a year to assist the foreign-born among their flocks. Such consideration did not prevent him from stirring up dissension in Biddeford over his reorganization of a French parish and measures to curb the activities of ethnic societies.
Walsh was no stranger to political action. He watched the state legislature closely, always a vocal advocate for state aid to what he referred to as his "Catholic Public Schools." His efforts to obtain a portion of the "State Public Fund" for schools, however, were rejected in 1915. The bishop was also a prominent figure on the national stage, serving as chairman of the Press and Publicity Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC), successfully working to reverse that organization's suppression by the Holy See in 1922. The energy devoted to that cause, and his energetic defense of the Church against the attacks of the Ku Klux Klan in 1922 and 1923 led to the bishop's increasing exhaustion. Walsh died on May 12, 1924, four days after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.
Connecticut Natives for Maine. Maine's fifth and sixth bishops were both natives of Waterbury, Connecticut, and boyhood friends, attending Crosby High School and Holy Cross College. John Gregory Murray (born 1877), ordained after studies in Louvain, was a brilliant administrator of the diocese of Hartford, and served as its chancellor and auxiliary bishop. On October 11, 1925 he was installed as Bishop of Portland. A friendly and informal man, he continued Walsh's tradition of involvement on the national stage, serving on administrative committees of the NCWC. In Maine he faced a growing number of Catholics in a state whose population growth was modest overall. In 1930, 60 percent of Maine residents lived in rural areas, yet the number of non-Catholic churches was declining rapidly outside the cities. The bishop worried about his flock's vulnerability to the rising tide of indifferentism, and spoke out against mixed marriages and birth control.
The number of vacationers in Maine was increasing, however, and these visitors "from away" brought not only a financial windfall for struggling parishes but also edified natives by their faith and devotion. Thirty new parishes were established by Murray, the number of churches rose from 168 to 183, and the number of priests from 172 to 216. Sadly, St. Mary's College in Van Buren closed its doors in 1927, but a Catholic collegiate presence was maintained by St. Joseph's College (for women), opened in Maine in 1915 by the Sisters of Mercy (by century's end it would become co-ed and move to a suburban site in Standish). Catholics in the diocese were kept informed on Church news more effectively after the appearance of the Church World, a diocesan paper that debuted in July of 1930.
Murray responded aggressively to the dislocation occasioned by the Great Depression by committing the diocese to the needs of the poor. He borrowed heavily to maintain the Church's charitable foundations, and ordered that relief committees be established in every parish to oversee fundraising for the assistance of the homeless, destitute and unemployed. His work in Maine was brought to an abrupt conclusion in November of 1931 when he was transferred to the Archdiocese of st. paul, Minnesota. He was hailed by all as a man of compassion who had worked to ease religious prejudice.
His friend Joseph McCarthy (born in 1876) was consecrated on August 24 of 1932, the first such ceremony to be carried on radio. A kind and courteous man, he had served both as a seminary teacher and administrator, as well as a parish priest (with many French-Canadians in his congregations). His primary task upon becoming bishop was to deal with a diocesan debt, which had mushroomed during the Depression to dangerous levels, totaling nearly $5 million. He devised a funding plan, approved by Rome in 1935, which authorized a bond issue and scheduled annual payments on the debt. Though construction was curtailed, 12 new churches were built by 1948, and a Catholic hospital erected in Portland in 1940. Even with the restricted finances, the diocese was able to respond to ruinous fires in Ellsworth and Auburn in 1933 with state-wide collections.
The bishop was heartened by the arrival in the diocese of two contemplative communities of nuns, the Adorers of the Precious Blood in Portland, and the Sisters of the blessed sacrament in Waterville. The Jesuits returned to the diocese after an absence of 83 years to staff Cheverus High in Portland in 1942, and a group of exiled Lithuanian Franciscans were welcomed in 1944, ultimately settling on a beautiful property in Kennebunkport. McCarthy's declining health necessitated the appointment of an auxiliary, Daniel Feeney (a Portland native), on June 22, 1946, the first native-son to be elevated to the episcopacy. In July of 1948 Feeney was given administrative control of the diocese, and appointed coadjutor in 1952. Bishop McCarthy died in the fall of 1955, the centenary of Bishop Bacon's consecration.
The Second Vatican Council and Beyond. Bishop Feeney labored to eradicate the Diocese's indebtedness, and sought to implement the pastoral provisions of the Second Vatican Council. His successor, Peter Gerety, though bishop for only five years (1969–74), was responsible for a progressive interpretation of the conciliar decrees that reshaped the diocese before his departure for the see of Newark, New Jersey. Bishop Gerety was succeeded by the second native-son, Edward O'Leary (1974–88), who, assisted by his auxiliary Amedee Proulx (1975–93) sought to guide the church in Maine through an era of declining numbers of clergy and religious. Bishop Joseph Gerry, the former abbot of the Benedictine community of St. Anselm's in Manchester, New Hampshire, the third Maine native to shepherd the Portland diocese has, since 1988, sought to revitalize and renew his flock of some 140 parishes through a varied and active ministry, aided by auxiliary bishop Michael Cote, appointed in 1995, and about 150 active priests and around 400 women religious. This task has had to take account of a shrinking population in Maine's northern and eastern counties, and growing suburban communities in the central and southern counties. At the beginning of the new millennium, Catholics comprise some 18 percent of the total state population.
The Catholic Church in Maine has a rich heritage and has been a vibrant force for evangelization amidst ever-present challenges. Besides those mentioned above, other Maine Catholic notables include Donald Pelotte, S.S.S., bishop of Gallup, New Mexico (the first native American to be ordained a bishop), and politicians such as Emery San Souci, elected governor of Rhode Island in 1920 (the first Franco-American to be elected a governor in New England), Joseph Brennan (governor of Maine, 1979–87), and Margaret Chase Smith (the first woman to serve in both houses of the U.S. Congress).
Bibliography: d. liptak, r.s.m., "French-Canadians Plead for Survivance," in Immigrants and Their Church (New York 1989), 160–170. r. h. lord, j. e. sexton, and e. t. harrington, The History of the Archdiocese of Boston in the Various Stages of Its Development, 3 v. (New York 1944). w. l. lucey, s.j., The Catholic Church in Maine (Francestown, N.H. 1957).
[j. c. linck]
"Maine, Catholic Church in." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 25, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/maine-catholic-church
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