The appeal for a pastor in Augusta, Maine
On April 18, 1838, James D. Fisher wrote Bishop Benedict Fenwick of Boston from the Kennebec Arsenal in Augusta, Maine. He begins: "I have lately heard with deep regret that our Catholic fellow citizens in this parish are about to be deprived altogether of the services of a pastor." In response, a committee was formed to approach the bishop and request a permanent pastor be assigned.
Maine, originally part of Massachusetts, became a separate state in 1820. Augusta was named the state capital in 1831 prompting an explosion of public building projects that, in turn, attracted workers seeking employment. As Fisher's letter states, projects such as the Kennebec Dam, U.S. Arsenal, and an "insane hospital" attracted large numbers of working men. By his estimate, there were 400 working on those three projects alone, 90 percent of whom were Catholic.
As the Catholic population in Augusta grew, it first became a mission of Whitefield, Maine, and was attended by the pastor assigned there, Father Dennis Ryan. In May 1836, with Bishop Fenwick's permission, Father Ryan purchased Bethlehem Church from the Unitarian Society for $2,000 and Augusta was elevated to an independent parish under Father John J. Curtin, a reputable priest from the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston.
Everything seemed to be on an upward trajectory when Father Curtin, who did not wish to leave the Cathedral Parish, resigned after three months and departed the diocese. He was succeeded by Father Patrick Flood. But soon the financial Panic of 1837 rendered the local Catholic population unable to support their own pastor, and Augusta reverted to a mission of Whitefield.
This is about the time when Fisher wrote to Bishop Fenwick pleading for a new pastor to be assigned. Before there was a Catholic church in Augusta, he states, "it is known, not only to you and me, but to every inhabitant of Augusta, that the streets of that town exhibited scenes of riot, tumult, and inebriation, as regularly as the sabbath arrived." Constables would scour the streets every Sunday trying to suppress these scenes, looking for offenders who "were almost exclusively of the laboring class, and very generally Irish."
Since then, however, "the quiet and peace prevailing has been remarkable, that that class of our population is now as distinguished for their orderly deportment as they were formerly for their turbulence." He calls upon the examples of the previous Fourth of July and St. Patrick's Day, occasions which lend themselves to public disturbances, but instead earned Catholics the "approbation of every respectable Protestant inhabitant of the village."
The reason, Fisher claims, is that on Sundays Irish Catholics were now attending church when, previously, they would spend their day off in public establishments simply because there was nowhere else to go. Concluding his plea for a priest, Fisher assures Bishop Fenwick that the Irish Catholics of Augusta are large in number and will contribute regularly within their means to support a pastor.
While other letters requesting a priest exist, they are commonly from Catholics. This one is interesting as it seems to have been written by a non-Catholic representing a committee of concerned citizens. It should also be acknowledged that prejudices based on ethnicity, religion, and social class that existed at the time may have influenced Fisher's motivation and description of the Irish Catholics living in Augusta. Further study would warrant reviewing additional sources to determine if the situations he describes pre- and post-Catholic church are indeed accurate.
Unfortunately for the citizens of Augusta, despite the appeal to Bishop Fenwick, Augusta continued to be a mission of Whitefield until the arrival of Father Richard A. Wilson in 1845. By that time, it appears the church purchased in 1836 was no longer in use, perhaps sold to ease some burden during the financial crisis, as Father Wilson proceeded to purchase land on State Street for the purpose of building a new church. St. Mary Church was completed and in use by July 1847; six years later, Augusta would fall within the newly erected Diocese of Portland which comprised Maine and New Hampshire.
- Thomas Lester is the archivist of the Archdiocese of Boston.