Maine Irish Heritage Trail

South Portland Site Number 4
by Matthew Jude Barker

Holy Cross Church
Corner of Broadway and Cottage Road
South Portland, Maine

Holy Cross ChurchAs was noted previously, the Catholics who resided in this area of South Portland often attended services at St. Dominic's Church across the bridge in Portland. The Catholics, mostly Irish, who resided in the Ligonia-Thornton Heights area of South Portland, of course, attended Mass at Mount Calvary Chapel in Calvary Cemetery.

But the Rt. Rev. Monsignor Edward F. Hurley, pastor of St. Dominic's, eventually decided to establish a mission church in the area. As early as July 1905, Anna Maud McCusker had organized a Sunday school in the home of Nils P. Madson on Broadway, which became known as St. Edward's Sunday School in honor of Hurley. Madson (later changed to Madison) was a Danish laborer who had married Irish-American Laura Bennett. Anna herself was the daughter of Irish-Canadian Thomas McCusker and his wife Mattie who resided on Front Street in Ferry Village. She later became Sister Mary Thomas of the Sisters of Mercy.

Between 1905-1911, Mass had been celebrated at the East High Street School, at Fort Williams, and at Fort Preble. Between 1911-1913, under Father John B. Sekenger, Mass was held each Sunday at Union Hall in Ferry Village and at Oasis Hall for Catholics residing in Knightville, Turner's Island and Pleasantdale.

On May 3, 1913, the Feast of the Finding of the True Cross, Bishop Louis S. Walsh turned over the first shovel of soil to begin construction on a church on Cottage Road, near Broadway. Work on the new church (a red brick edifice) was finished by late summer and on September 14, 1913, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Mass was first celebrated in the Church of the Holy Cross as it was first called. Rev. Frederick A. Karpe, who grew up in Eastport, became the first permanent pastor of Holy Cross in August 1914, when the population of the parish was said to be about eight hundred. He was ordained in the Cathedral of St. James, Montreal, in 1904, and said his first Mass in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Portland. Karpe was appointed curate at St. John's, Bangor, for his first assignment.

Father Karpe's tenure at Holy Cross was remarkable; by the time he died in June 1952, he had been pastor for almost thirty-eight years, a longer tenure than any other priest in the Diocese. Under his care, Holy Cross School was opened in the fall of 1937, and the parish population exceeded 3000 by 1952 (see obituary, Portland Press Herald, 23 June 1952). Father Thomas F. Coyne was a popular curate at the church from 1942-1954 and acted as administrator of the parish when Karpe was ill. He was transferred to Pleasant Point Reservation.

For many years Holy Cross Church held annual reunions and lawn parties during the summer. One such event was held for two days in July 1921 when "entertainment" was held both evenings, along with "Men's Department, Sewing Circle, Ice Cream, Refreshment, and Candy and Doll" tables. A list of the people who conducted the affair, published in a local newspaper, included a plethora of well-known local Irish surnames, including Flaherty, Foley, McCusker, Hartnett, Hinds, Lynch, Ryan, McCarthy, Harrigan, Mulkern, Kelley, McLaughlin, McCaffrey, Connors, Duddy, Roach, Sloan, Lacey, O'Donovan, Costello, Gallagher, Lydon, Conley, Farrell, Brennan, Gannon, Concannon, Dennison, Harrington, Murray, Maloney, Burke, McKinnon, Sullivan, Callan, Tierney, Maguire, and Murphy (see Portland Evening Express & Advertiser, 12 July 1921, p. 16).

Rev. John J. Barrett was the pastor of Holy Cross from September 1952 until his sudden death in October 1968. He was a native of Portland, a son of Patrick J. Barrett, a leader in the local Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Longshoremen's Benevolent Society; his siblings included Sr. Mary Mark, R. S. M., and Rev. Patrick J., another diocesan priest and AOH chaplain. It was Barrett who made it his overall priority to build a new, far larger church, a building that could seat 1100, as the parish population was exploding in the 1950s as Catholics, in classic upward mobility, left the old parishes of Portland and moved to the suburbs. By 1957, $150,000 had been raised in hard cash and pledges. The old church was demolished (many were quite sad to see it ago), $350,000 was eventually raised, and the new church was ready for Mass on June 1, 1958.

Although many missed the neat, old red brick church, the new Holy Cross was a wonder to behold, with the life of Jesus portrayed on a 94-feet high tower whose face was comprised of Venetian glass. It was said at the time that the mosaic was the only one of its kind in the world. Unfortunately by the 1980s the mosaic had all but fallen apart, with pieces coming off at a slow, but sure pace. It was replaced in 1981 with the current images of Jesus that continue to receive anything but positive remarks. The new church had tripled the size of the old one and included, among many other innovations, two rooms on opposite sides of the church where mothers could listen to the Mass with their young children and not disturb others.

In September 1968, a new parish in Cape Elizabeth, St. Bartholomew's, was set off from Holy Cross; Rev. Richard M. McGarrigle (1924-2010) was its first pastor. Rev. Roland C. Reny, ordained in 1935 and a retired Air Force colonel, was appointed Holy Cross pastor in March 1969 and was very popular with the communicants and school children alike. For many years Olive Doherty was the secretary at the rectory and Harold McGarry was the church accountant. Father Reny retired in 1981 and was replaced by Rev. James E. Knox.

Father Knox faithfully served the parish until the 1990s, when he also retired. During his tenure many changes were enacted, including removing the church choir from the loft to the ground floor. At this time the organ was also removed and replaced by a pipe organ donated by Rev. Edward F. Lynch (1900-1986), who retired to his home in Knightville in 1967 and assisted at the church until 1985. The organ was dedicated in December 1985 in memory of Lynch's Irish immigrant parents James and Sarah Coyne Lynch. Father James Knox can still be seen celebrating at local baptisms, marriages, and funerals. The Holy Cross Church rectory was demolished in the early 2000s and the parish was "twinned" with St. John the Evangelist Church in Thornton Heights, where the current pastor resides.

RELATED SITES: Holy Crtoss School, St. John the Evangelist Church, Ligonia, Calvary Cemetery

Acknowledgements by Matthew Jude Barker

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