What is now the Maine Irish Heritage Center was for 170 years the site of St. Dominic Catholic Church. The church building we now see was dedicated in 1893, replacing an older church on this site which had been dedicated sixty years earlier.
In the spring of 1822, when a famine was ravaging western Ireland, the Catholics of Portland, said to number 43, made a request to Bishop Jean Cheverus of Boston to visit them. He answered their plea and said Mass for the first time in southern Maine in the home of Nicholas and Barbara Connolly Shea, on the corner of Fore and Cross Streets. Cheverus spent several days with the small congregation before appointing Father Dennis Ryan of Whitefield and Newcastle, Maine as a temporary pastor.
The second bishop of the Boston Diocese, Benedict Joseph Fenwick, spent almost a week with the small Catholic population of Portland in August 1827. Before he left he recommended they find a site to build a church on and promised the congregation he would send them a permanent pastor. Fenwick kept his promise by sending Father Charles Daniel French, a Dominican priest originally from County Galway, Ireland.
After pleas to the local community and four money drives, Father French and the “Catholic Committee” were eventually able to purchase a lot on State Street from John Fox, a prominent Protestant who sold them the land when no one else would. On June 13, 1828, the foundation stone of what would become the first St. Dominic Church was laid.
Enough work had been completed on the church by November 1830 that Mass was celebrated in St. Dominic’s on the Feast of All Saints (November 1st). The church was not dedicated, however, until August 11, 1833, by Bishop Fenwick. It was named in honor of the founder of Father French’s order.
Father French, after running a short-lived school for boys and girls, returned to Ireland in 1838. He was succeeded by Father Patrick Flood and in 1842 by Father Patrick H. O’Beirne (1809-1883). Although his tenure here was brief, he created a Catholic Total Abstinence Society, helped form a local chapter of the Irish Repeal Society, and was chaplain to the Hibernian Benevolent Society, the first known Irish organization in Maine (1832).
During the tenure of Father James Maguire, the Catholic population of Portland had swelled to over a thousand. The number of communicants of St. Dominic’s continued to rise as Irish immigrants escaping famine, disease, callous landlords, and oppression found solace and security within St. Dominic’s Parish. In 1847 alone, “Black ’47,” one of the worse years of the Great Hunger or Irish Potato Famine, some 500 immigrants joined the church. The following year the church itself was lengthened by thirty feet.
During the pastorate of Father John O’Donnell, the church was enlarged twice. It was during O’Donnell’s time that an ugly spot in our nation’s history occurred. A secret political party known informally as the Know-Nothings antagonized foreigners, Catholics, and especially Irish people everywhere. They burned down several churches in Maine and even tarred and feathered a Catholic priest (Fr. John Bapst). They also attacked St. Dominic’s by staving in and spreading horse manure on the doors. One night, as Father O’Donnell was retiring for bed, a rock was thrown through his window, just missing him. After that, he requested a night watchman, paid by the city, to guard the church. He got it. In a number of much publicized newspaper articles, O’Donnell, using his native Irish wit and sarcasm, went head to head with the anti-Irish elements.
By 1853, the Catholic population of Maine and New Hampshire had become so great that the Portland Diocese was established on July 29th of that year by Pope Pius IX. The Holy See later appointed David William Bacon, of Brooklyn, as the first bishop of Portland. He was installed as such in St. Dominic’s Church May 31, 1855 by Bishop John Fitzpatrick of Boston.
Under the direction of Bacon and Father Eugene Muller, a girl’s school was opened at St. Dominic’s in 1865. Bacon invited the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame (of Montreal) to Portland to teach them. These nuns were later replaced by the Sisters of Mercy (1872).
In 1886 Father John Wigmore Murphy, a native of County Cork, became the pastor of St. Dominic’s. Soon after he put plans into action to tear down the old church and begin construction on a new, far larger St. Dominic’s. The last Mass was said in the old church May 6, 1888. Soon after it was taken down.
The cornerstone of the new church was laid August 19, 1888 and blessed by Bishop James Augustine Healy. In 1889, the basement of the new church was ready for occupancy, where Mass was then celebrated. By 1892, $60,000 had been spent on the new church and paid off. Unfortunately, Father Murphy, who had put so much time and energy into the project, did not live to see the new church dedicated. After a year of ill health brought on by a stroke, he was dragged to his ultimate death by a spooked horse carrying his carriage on July 29, 1892. Later it was said that the church should forever after be called “Father John’s Church.”
The new St. Dominic’s was dedicated August 6, 1893 by Bishop Dennis M. Bradley of Manchester, NH, as Bishop Healy was detained at home by ill health. The new church was striking in appearance, within and without. On the right and left sides of the main altars were altars dedicated to St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin. A window directly in the rear of the main altar was in memory of Father Murphy, and other windows nearby were gifts of Charles McCarthy, Jr., and Cornelius Connolly and family. Other stained glass windows were gifts or memorials of local prominent Irish families, including the McGlinchys, Tobins, Leonards, Keatings, Duffys, Deehans, Walls, Wards, and Whites.
The church had been completed by a host of local and out-of-state contractors. The locals included the Mannix Brothers, who did the stone work, John W. Fox, who wired the church, and James Cunningham, who laid the stone steps. The brick work was done by Driscoll & O’Brien of Lawrence, MA. John A. Sullivan of Medford, MA completed the carpentry work. The noted church architect Patrick W. Ford of Boston designed the church.
Throughout the 19th century the communicants of the church were predominantly made up of Irish immigrants and their descendants. There was a sprinkling of French, German, Portuguese, Scottish, and English Catholics, but even these often intermarried with the Irish. At the turn of the 20th Century, other Catholics, including Polish, Italian, and Syrian, joined the church. The Polish had their own chapel in the basement until St. Louis Church was built in the 1920s.
In 1923, during Father James J. Mullen’s tenure, a school building for boys was finally added to St. Dominic’s Parish. This building, on the corner of Danforth and State Streets, is now occupied by Amistad Inc. and Catholic Charities.
In 1946, Father Daniel J. Feeney, one of St. Dom’s own, became the first auxiliary bishop of the Portland Diocese. He succeeded Bishop Joseph McCarthy as bishop of Portland in 1955, the first Maine diocesan priest to be raised to the episcopacy. It was at this time that St. Dom’s Parish was at its numerical height, with over 4000 communicants. After World War II, as families followed the trend of upward mobility, moving to the suburbs, the population continued to decline drastically. By 1980, the parishioners had dwindled to 1358.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, St. Dominic’s Church began to fall into disrepair, the steeple was struck by lightning, and the copper sheathing on the steeple was ripped in a storm. As the congregation continued to shrink, the inevitable happened. The Diocese began to seriously consider closing the church. They had already shut down the boys and girls schools. In July 1991, St. Dom’s was “twinned” with Sacred Heart Church. Masses would continue to be said at the church, but the pastor, Father Gerald Levesque, would now serve both parishes and reside in the Sacred Heart Church rectory.
On December 1, 1996, Bishop Joseph J. Gerry met with parishioners of St. Dominic’s to discuss the future of their church. Basically, there were two choices: either St. Dominic’s or Sacred Heart Church must close in the next year. After a few months of studying the situation, it was decided St. Dom’s would close July 1, 1997. They reasoned its congregation was overwhelmingly elderly, except for a small Hispanic contingent, and that the parish’s remaining 240 households could not financially support the church. The Diocese also declared the building needed $1.5 million to be restored.
Shortly after the official announcement, a Friends of St. Dominic’s was formed to try and save their beloved church; old St. Dom’s, loved by countless generations, would not go quietly into the night. They raised money, collected hundreds of signatures, held weekly meetings, and even printed up bumper stickers, all to try and persuade the bishop to change his mind. They even contracted a canon lawyer who brought the case all the way to the Vatican. Extensive coverage in the press, countless letters by concerned individuals, historical and architectural analysis, and support from many organizations, in the end did not help.
On September 29, 1997, the last Mass was said in the lower church of St. Dominic’s. A booklet was published at the time, which gave a brief history of the church and included beautiful photos throughout. (“Saint Dominic’s, 175 Years of Memories, 1822-1997,” editors, Mike and Marilyn Melody, Smart Marketing, Inc., Portland, ME; a copy can be purchased at various locations, including the Maine Irish Heritage Center.)
In May 1998, while a thunder storm erupted over head and people picketed outside, Bishop Gerry said the final Mass in St. Dom’s in front of hundreds of people. It appeared that the final chapter of St. Dominic’s had been written.
But the “Final Chapter” had not been written. In 2000 the City of Portland purchased the whole St. Dom’s complex. Hopes were renewed, more controversy erupted, and various groups vied for occupancy of the buildings. Finally, in October 2001, it was announced the city would sell it to a group of non-profit groups that included The Foundation for the Preservation of St. Dominic’s Church, PROP, and Portland West.
In March 2002, plans were agreed upon to turn the Gothic Revival landmark into an Irish Heritage Center, the first north of Boston. The sale of the property was completed June 3, 2002. The girl’s school was converted into 12 units of affordable housing and the actual church itself became the MAINE IRISH HERITAGE CENTER, who took possession officially in January 2003.
Since the opening of the MIHC, St. Patrick’s Day events, lectures, ceilis, book clubs, social events, Irish Masses, live music sessions, and even weddings have been held in the old St. Dominic’s Church. A John Ford Center has been established at the center in memory of the great Hollywood director John Ford, baptized at St. Dominic’s in 1894. An Irish genealogy and history library is slated to open in the fall of 2006. One final, unfortunate note must be added: the 4100 pound, 114 year-old bell at St. Dominic’s fell one night in May 2006, doing internal structural damage. The MIHC is looking for support to help restore the bell and fix the damages.
Note: The above history of St. Dominic’s focused on the early history, which was felt to be more important at this time and tells some of the earliest Irish history in Portland. There are several 20th Century anniversary booklets on St. Dominic’s that can be consulted at the MIHC.
RELATED SITES: James McGlinchy House, Mercy Hospital, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Gorham’s Corner, John Ford Monument.