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Portland, Diocese of (Maine)


The Diocese of Portland (Portlandensis ) comprising the entire state of Maine is a suffragan of the metropolitan see of Boston. At the time it was established by Pope Pius IX (July 29, 1853), it included Maine and New Hampshire, formerly parts of the Diocese of Boston. After Henry B. Coskery (180872), Vicar General of Baltimore, refused, Rome appointed David William bacon (181574), a priest of the Diocese of New York, as Portland's first bishop (Jan. 23, 1855).

During Bacon's tenure, the diocese expanded to include the Madawaska territory which the United States had acquired under the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 but which had remained under the administration of Canadian bishops until the First Vatican Council. As a participant at Vatican I Bacon joined 18 other American bishops in stating, before its pronouncement as a dogma, that it was inopportune to proclaim the doctrine of papal infallibility. An energetic builder of churches and schools as well as an effective speaker, Bacon set the foundations of his new diocese firmly in place before his untimely death at the age of 59.

Bacon's successor, James Augustine healy (18301900), the first black American Catholic bishop, was named Feb. 12, 1875. He led the diocese for the next quarter-century during which time New Hampshire was separated from the Diocese of Portland with the creation of the Diocese of Manchester in 1884. The influx of a large French-speaking population from Quebec had helped to expand the Catholic population in cities like Biddeford, Lewiston, and Waterville so that it became necessary to provide even more schools and parishes for an ethnic group that constituted the majority of the state's Catholic population, almost 100,000 at the time of the bishop's death. Healey's work had been enhanced by the charitable and educational works of the Sisters of Mercy among the Irish and French as well as among the Native Americans on the reservations.

William Henry o'connell (18591944), a native of Lowell, Massachusetts succeeded Healy, February 8. O'Connell remained in office until he was named Boston's coadjutor on Feb. 21, 1906. While his tenure in Portland was short, it was distinguished by his attempts to improve relations with peoples of different faiths and of different ethnic backgrounds within the state. By encouraging Catholics to become part of the social mainstream, O'Connell brought prestige to the church just as he did when he was appointed, Aug. 31, 1905, papal envoy to the Emperor of Japan in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War.

When O'Connell moved on Boston in 1906, Louis Sebastian Walsh (18581924), a native of Salem, Massachusetts, was named bishop of Portland. While Walsh provided national parishes for immigrants from Italy and Poland, his emphasis on education, including the founding in 1917 of what became Cheverus High School, and his advocacy of public funds to support the Catholic school system proved very controversial in an era when his coreligionists were defending their right to send their children to parochial schools.

The next two bishops were natives of Waterbury, Connecticut. On May 25, 1925, Rome named John Gregory Murray (18771936), who had been auxiliary Bishop of Hartford, to succeed Walsh. His facility in languages helped him to strengthen the faith among the state's immigrant groups. However, the financial stress induced by the worldwide Depression towards the end of his tenure severely handicapped the subsequent development of his diocese. After Murray was appointed Archbishop of St. Paul, Minnesota, Oct. 29, 1931, Joseph Edward McCarthy (18761955) became the bishop of Portland, on May 13, 1932. A heavy diocesan debt severely limited McCarthy in what he able to do by way of developing the parishes, schools, and other services of his geographically extensive jurisdiction. To his credit, McCarthy was able to lighten that burden and to become for his flock a good shepherd who was regarded with deep respect to his last days.

Portland's next bishop, Daniel Joseph Feeney (19841969) took office Sept. 8, 1955. As a native son who for ten years had served as auxiliary bishop and coadjutor to Bishop McCarthy, he was well prepared for the tasks that lay ahead. Once he effectively freed the diocese of its financial constraints, Feeney was able to undertake the construction of a number of new schools and churches. Feeney, who had attended the Second Vatican Council, moved forward to implement conciliar reforms even when the changes were controversial.

Peter Leo Gerety (b. 1912), who succeeded McCarthy on Sept. 15, 1969, served the diocese of Portland until March, 25, 1974 when he was appointed to the archiepiscopal see of Newark. Although Gerety's tenure in Portland was of short duration, it was distinguished for his innovations in revamping the Church's social services so that it reflected more comprehensively the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

When Gerety moved on to Newark, Edward Cornelius O'Leary (b. 1920), who had served as Auxiliary Bishop of Portland since 1971, became the ordinary on Oct. 22, 1974, Bishop O'Leary resigned on Sept. 27, 1988, but in the 14 years he served as Portland's bishop, he brought the leadership of the church closer to the people. This was reflected, for example, in the appointment of Armadee Wilfrid Proulx (19321993), a Franco-American, as auxiliary bishop. Franco-Americans constitute the largest ethnic group among Maine's Roman Catholics.

With O'Leary's resignation on Dec. 21, 1988, Rome appointed the former abbot of St Anselm's Abbey and auxiliary bishop of Manchester, N.H., Joseph John Gerry O.S.B., (b. 1928), as the Tenth Bishop of Portland. Gerry brought with him his monastic love of the Holy Scriptures which emerged in his homilies, but at the administrative level Gerry had to face the consolidation of parishes and schools because of the shortage of priests, religious and laity necessary to staff them. With Bishop Michael Richard Cote as his auxiliary, Gerry's task of leading a flock of over 200,000 Roman Catholics is made easier by presence in the diocese of men religious like the Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, and Brothers of Christian Instruction, women religious like the Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of St. Joseph, the Ursulines, and a host of others to help the diocese in its charitable, educational, and pastoral ministries.

Bibliography: j. p. allen, Catholics in Maine (1970). w. l. lucey, The Catholic Church in Maine (1957). Newspaper Catalog, Portland Room, Portland Public Library.

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