A Maine Event
It's not every day you get a chance to pray in what's considered the first church in the United States dedicated to St. Patrick and the oldest continuously used Catholic church in New England.
But when my wife, Mary, and I arrived at St. Patrick's in Newcastle, Maine, spiritual and temporal history came alive for us in a very gratifying way.
Only a few minutes away from the center of the quaint New England town, the picturesque church on a hillock close to the Damariscotta River isn't just a page frozen in a history book. It's still a vibrant parish, as alive as when the sanctuary was completed in 1808. Even then it was only the second Catholic church in New England. (Boston's Franklin Street Church, long gone now, was the first.)
The Irish-born architect Nicholas Codd made sure St. Patrick's would withstand the test of time: The walls are solid local brick, a foot and a half thick. And, for rural Maine, Codd gave the church an up-to-date (for the time) federal design.
French-born Father John Lefevre de Cheverus, the traveling pastor, dedicated the church on July 17, 1808, on behalf of Bishop John Carroll in Maryland. He wrote the bishop that he liked the name because it “proclaimed that our church here is the work of Irish piety.” In fact, he referred to James Kavanaugh and Matthew Cottrill, two successful area businessmen who initiated the building of St. Patrick's.
These founders had emigrated from Ireland and had their own homes designed by Codd. That helps explain Ireland's heraldic symbol, the harp, on the carved doorways to the sacristy either side of the altar.
But what to make of the stars over the doorways and outside on the frieze? The puzzle was solved when we learned that this was the way Codd “signed” his buildings.
Inside, the nave is small enough to give a good view of the sanctuary from even the last pew. We never forget we're in a church built during the early period of our country, when federal-style architecture was very popular. The doorways to the sacristy on either side of the altar, for example, are decorated with dentil crown molding and leaf-bough designs.
St. Patrick's also has a gently curved barrel ceiling similar to ones in other churches from the colonial and federal era. The simple wooden floors beneath the barrel ceiling have supported the footsteps of who knows how many worshippers over the decades. And now those of visitors, too, although the church seems more of a hidden treasure. On the day we arrived, only one other person was present. We wondered how many Catholic tourists in this state that bills itself as “Vacationland” don't realize what a spiritual treasure exists just off the beaten path.
Since we were visiting on a weekday, we didn't get to hear the peal of the Paul Revere bell. The master patriot and silversmith cast the 345-pound bell himself in 1818, the last year of his lifetime. Although he and his sons cast about 400 bells, Revere completed only 37 alone. This one's known as the only Revere bell in a Catholic church in New England. Although we couldn't climb up to see the bell in the front brick tower added in 1866, we learned it's inscribed “1818” and “The gift of Matthew Cottrill to St. Patrick's Church, Newcastle.”
But we can see so much that connects us to the church's wonderful history. Across the front of the sanctuary, the wooden Communion rail remains intact. The sanctuary's walls were painted in their original beige tones in a recent renovation. It's these kinds of careful renovations and restorations that respect the church's historic importance, too.
The eye-catching original old altar remains behind the newer, portable altar. How could this altar not stir our thoughts to the early parishioners and the founders as they worshipped at Masses said on this altar for them by Father Cheverus, who they didn't realize would become the first bishop of Boston in a few years?
White and gracefully curved, with lovely borders aglow with leaf-like scrollwork, the unusual altar is shaped like some tombs of the century before. In fact, its early 18th-century French style means it may have been imported from France. The middle of the altar holds a medallion picturing the victorious Lamb of God.
The tabernacle in the center of the old altar is topped with a crucifix. The painting above it is remarkable. More than 200 years old, it most likely came from France because before Father Cheverus gave it to the church, the painting belonged to his mother. The scene depicts Jesus being taken down from the cross — a bold reminder of Our Lord's sacrifice as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is being celebrated before it.
To either side of this central painting, two other paintings form medallions of the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart. Below them, statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus and St. Joseph stand on either side of the altar. Mary wears a golden crown. St. Joseph's brown robes blend with the color of the walls.
Because this is such an early church and European stained-glass scenes like those in the great Gothic cathedrals would be out of place, the earliest windows were plain. Today's stained glass dates to the late 19th century and forms simple colored patterns, mostly of stylized leaves.
The original Stations of the Cross remain as the gilded wooden crosses over the “newer” Stations dating from 1876. These look like old lithographs and are reminiscent of the style of Currier and Ives.
Another centuries-old painting takes its place under the choir loft. The identification is a bit hazy, but it's thought to portray a saint obscure to us — St. Peter Nolasco — kneeling before our Blessed Mother.
Father Cheverus brought the Nativity scene displayed in a glass-fronted case from France. The antique wax figures of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and hand-carved wooden angels, shepherds and animals in the stable are in remarkably fine condition.
The tireless priest probably didn't exit France with much. In 1790, he was the last priest to be publicly ordained before the French Revolution and shortly after he had to flee his native land in disguise.
In April 1973, the church was named to the National Register of Historic Places. But its centuries of history continues on. Father Cheverus, who described St. Patrick's as “on the whole a very neat and elegant chapel,” is surely happy in heaven to note that it still is.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.