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Sacred Heart Church

Sacred Heart Church
Jul 19, 2017

This beautiful Italian Renaissance Catholic Church was designed by the eminent local architectural firm of Francis H. and Edward F. Fassett and completed in 1913. It was modeled on a prominent church in Marseilles, France (Notre Dame de la Garde). It boasts of supporting columns of Indiana limestone and shrines and altars of Carrara marble. The Boston sculptor Hugh Cairns made the Stations of the Cross for the church. F. H. Fassett had previously designed many local Catholic schools and died in 1908.

Sacred Heart Church Parish was established by Bishop James A. Healy in 1896 under the guidance of its first pastor, the Reverend John O’Dowd, a native of Ireland, who gathered the first communicants together.

John O’Dowd came to Boston with his family when a young boy and attended Boston Latin School. After ordination in Paris, he was assigned to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and then spent fourteen years with the Passamaquoddy Indians in Maine. Soon after beginning Sacred Heart Parish, he initiated the Portland Total Abstinence Society. O’Dowd spent many fruitful years in the parish and constantly endeavored to have the present church built, “a memorial to his wonderful zeal and piety.” By the time he passed away in 1919, after twenty-three years as pastor, the Church of the Sacred Heart property was valued at $200,000 and 2500 called it home (see obituary, 23 November 1919, Portland Sunday Telegram).

The Rev. James Augustine Carey, recently returned from chaplain duty in France during the Great War, was appointed the administrator of Sacred Heart Church in 1919 and pastor in 1923. He was born in Portland in 1874, the son of Dennis Carey and Catherine Clifford, natives of Cahirciveen, County Kerry. His father and brother Pat were prosperous blacksmiths. Carey was a graduate of Portland High School, St. Mary’s, Van Buren, and the Grand Seminary of Montreal. He was ordained in Boston in 1901.

James A. Carey became one of the most celebrated priests in the Diocese of Maine. He was sincerely devoted to children and founded Camp Gregory for boys in Gray, Our Lady of the Lake camp for underprivileged children in New Gloucester (Sabbathday Lake), and Camp Pesquassawassis (Camp Pesky) for girls in Poland, Maine. These camps served several successive generations of families.

Fluent in several languages, “Father” Carey, designated a monsignor in 1939, often served the Italians in Portland before St. Peter’s Church was built. He wrote many popular religious plays about the early growth of Catholicism in Maine and was state chaplain of the American Legion for many years. The Rt. Rev. Msgr. Carey died in June 1953, three years after retiring as pastor of Sacred Heart.

After the Easter Uprising of 1916 and the Irish War of Independence, many Irish-Americans joined the American Association for Recognition of the Irish Republic. Maine’s branch had almost 5000 members by May 1921, including Sacred Heart Church’s Holy Name Society. In early May 1921, at a meeting of the latter group, J. T. Boland, Maine agent for the Equitable Life Assurance Society, spoke about business opportunities in a new Ireland, and John H. Dooley briefed the audience on “the coming campaign for the relief of sufferers in Ireland” (see 5 May 1921, Portland Evening Express). Within a week, the society had been joined by the Elks, Knights of Columbus, St. Brendan Council, and B’nai B’rith of Portland. In the first three days of a drive “for the needy women and children of Ireland,” locals had collected $4993 (see 19 May 1921, EE). Since the days of the Repeal Society of Portland (1843), local Irish and non-Irish alike had continued to aid the poor of Ireland.

Under the tenure of Father Carey, a Sacred Heart Parish School was constructed by John H. Simonds, general contractor. It was dedicated and blessed by Bishop John Gregory Murray on November 6, 1927, assisted by Fathers Nicholas J. Horan and John J. Houlihan. Eighteen priests had joined in the procession from the church to the school. The new school was put in charge of the Sisters of Mercy, who had actually been teaching in the church basement since 1915. Sister Mary Dolores Mutty was the principal for many years.

In 1953, a local reporter and church editor, Calvin E. Eells, wrote an interesting piece on Sacred Heart Church and its congregation. He noted that among the prominent members of the church were Dr. Francis M. Dooley, Prof. Timothy J. O’Connor of Our Lady of Mercy College (St. Joe’s), Miss Ethel M. Cash, Clarence Meehan, Judge Edmund Mahoney, Herbert Smaha, John Crain, the city’s Recreation director, and Charles E. Dawson, a local reporter. Clarence Meehan was a longtime funeral director in Portland (see 13 Apr 1953, Portland Press Herald). Eells also remarked on the church’s organ, a gift of Governor Percival Baxter in memory of his sister Emily Proctor Baxter (1874-1921), a Catholic convert who was the church organist for many years.

The Rev. Msgr. Michael P. Davis (1904-1979), a native of Lewiston, was pastor of Sacred Heart from 1950 until 1968. A graduate of St. Mary’s Seminary, Baltimore (1928), he was an assistant pastor at Sacred Heart in 1928 and principal of Cheverus High School from 1932-1942. Davis was also director of the aforementioned Camp Pesky for twenty years and helped form the Clergy Benefit Plan. He retired as pastor of St. Joseph’s, Lewiston, in 1974.

Sacred Heart Church was “twinned” with its “southern” neighbor, St. Dominic Church, in July 1991. The pastor would now serve both parishes and reside in the Sacred Heart rectory. In 1996, Bishop Joseph Gerry announced that one of the churches would have to close, citing dwindling membership, a shortage of priests, and the monumental costs of operating these giant churches of the past (see Site No. 7). Sacred Heart was saved, but St. Dom’s closed, the last Mass being celebrated there in May 1998. The “new” parish became known as Sacred Heart/St. Dominic Catholic Church.

Father Frank Morin, longtime pastor of St. Dom’s and Sacred Heart, was one of the few fluent Spanish-speaking priests in Maine when he was transferred to another parish in July 1998. Many Spanish-speaking emigrants had attended Spanish Masses at the church for some time and feared these would cease to exist. But they were preserved and for some time Rev. Vincent McCann, a missionary priest, tended to their needs. A Spanish Mass on Sundays is still held at the church (see 18 Mar 1999, Portland Press Herald).

Sacred Heart Church launched a capital campaign to restore the church and had raised $793,000 by the spring of 1999. The first phase of this restoration, including roof repairs, brick and stone work, painting of exterior woodwork, and bell repairs, was finished by February 2001. Later restorative work was completed in early 2005.

Related sites: St. Dominic Catholic Church

Author Matt Barker
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