St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church is the fourth oldest in Portland and the parish originated as a chapel on the nearby grounds of the Sisters of Mercy in the mid-1880s. The Rt. Rev. Monsignor John W. Houlihan (1871-1945) was appointed the first pastor of St. Joseph’s parish in May 1909 and celebrated Masses in the chapel of St. Joseph’s Convent. His brother Timothy H. Houlihan was the first pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in Portland.
A combination church-school was erected nearby in 1915 under the supervision of Father Houlihan, known as the founder of St. Joseph’s Church. The school was taught by the Sisters of Mercy who resided at the nearby Motherhouse. The first principal was Sister Dolores Mutty.
Father Houlihan, a native of Bangor, was an 1891 graduate of Holy Cross College and completed his religious studies in St. Sulpice Seminary, Paris, where he was ordained by the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Richard, in May 1894. He was assigned to St. Joseph’s Church, Old Town, and spent the next fifteen years in northern Maine before coming to this parish.
Under his tenure, a new St. Joseph’s Church was built between 1929-1931 and dedicated by Bishop John G. Murray September 6, 1931. The church which we see today is a beautiful example of 14th Century English Gothic style and within its walls are beautiful altars, statues, and stained-glass windows. The edifice is completely constructed of Indiana limestone. When Msgr. Houlihan celebrated his Golden Jubilee in March 1944, Msgr. Daniel Honan described in minute detail the church (see “For Love of Mercy,” Sr. Mary Raymond Higgins, 1995, pp. 320-21).
Msgr. John Houlihan was pastor of St. Joseph’s Church until his death on October 20, 1945 at Mercy Hospital. He had wished to be buried in a garden outside the church he had loved so dearly and worked so hard for, but he was quietly interred in Calvary Cemetery. The Right Rev. Msgr. George P. Johnson was pastor for the next eighteen years until his own death. In 1964, Monsignor William G. Cunneen, a longtime teacher at Cheverus High School and rector of the Cathedral for nine years, became pastor and remained here until his retirement in 1975.
Under Johnson, a new $140,000 rectory was built and opened in the spring of 1958. It was designed by A. A. Kirby Associates, Inc., architectural and engineering consultants of South Portland, and built under the contractor Paul B. McLellan. The old, 18-room rectory, which was built in 1845 by Rufus Dunham, became the convent of the Sisters of Mercy who taught at St. Joseph’s School. For many years this new, 25-room rectory was home to newly ordained diocesan priests.
In the fall of 1960 the parishioners of St. Joseph’s Church celebrated its 50th Anniversary. A new statute of St. Joseph the Worker was blessed and dedicated at the time by Msgr. Johnson. Among the well-wishers at the ceremony was the church’s oldest communicant, 96-year old John B. Flaherty, who was employed by the Sisters of Mercy at St. Joseph’s Convent for sixty years. He worked on a part-time basis in the early years and then was employed by the nuns full time, sometimes putting in thirteen hour days. “Dear John,” as they called him, often arrived at 4 a.m. to stoke the furnaces at St. Joseph’s Home and Church.
In January 1969 ground was broken for a new parish center, but two months before it was completed in 1970, associate pastor Rev. Patrick J. Hayes died of a result of a skiing accident. A native of Presque Isle, he had offered his first Mass in his hometown in February 1956. The new center was christened the Father Hayes Center.
In 1977, due to the ever increasing shortage of diocesan priests, Bishop Edward O’Leary invited the Capuchin-Franciscan Friars of New York-New England Province to administer to the needs of the parish, where they remain today. Father Bernard Smith was the first superior and present in October of that year when the Blessing of the Animals was first held at St. Joseph’s Church. This rite is held annually in honor of the Franciscans’ founder, St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals.
In 2007, St. Patrick’s School on Congress Street was closed and merged with St. Joseph’s parochial school. A new school was formed, St. Brigid’s, named after the second of the triumvirate of patron saints of Ireland. It is located at 695 Stevens Avenue.