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Father Cheverus writes a Catholic in Maine

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He hopes to visit Maine in the fall, stating that he would be happy to come soon, but "at present the labours (sic.) of husbandry take up the whole of your time, and you will then be more at leisure."


On April 17, 1801, Father Jean Cheverus of Boston wrote to one of his flock residing in Maine. His letter was in reply to one received dated March 30. It was delivered by a Captain Ewell who was now ready to return to Maine, and so Father Cheverus hastily penned a response to be conveyed by the captain.

He starts by sharing some news concerning the Catholic community of New England. Father Francis Matignon "is hardly ever quite well in health," but still away visiting Catholics as far as Portsmouth and expected to return in about two weeks' time.

There is hope Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore will visit during the summer and that he can be persuaded to visit Father Cheverus' "Eastern flock," Catholics in Maine, but concedes the bishop's age makes him less willing to travel, and so it is unlikely. He also shares that Bishop Carroll has consecrated the "Rt. Rev. Dr. O'Neil" (Leonard Neale) as a bishop, the first bishop to be consecrated in the United States, and he has been named coadjutor and successor to Bishop Carroll in the event of his death.

A large portion of the letter consists of Father Cheverus' reaction to a court case involving James Kavanagh, a Catholic residing in Newcastle, Maine. Kavanagh and another local Catholic, Matthew Cottrill, had provided the funds to erect a small chapel in the town of Newcastle and assumed this relieved him of his obligation to pay taxes intended to support Protestant ministers in his locale. The case was decided against Kavanagh, and it was stated that the Massachusetts Constitution required him to pay for the support of Protestant ministers even if he chose to support a local Catholic priest.

Father Cheverus believes the state constitution was intended to keep Catholics from achieving status equal to that of Protestants. "So in this state every crazy fellow who takes up preaching is a good minister and ought to be supported, but a Catholick (sic.) Priest and his flock ought to be discouraged as much as possible," he exclaims.

He is certain that the law will not remain in effect once Maine becomes its own state. "Till then, let our chearful (sic.) submission to the laws of the state let them be ever so hard upon us, and our exemplary conduct shew (sic.) that we do not deserve to be treated with such severity. Let us bless God in the meantime, that we are all at full liberty to preach and practise (sic.) our holy Religion."

Father Cheverus continues to reflect, stating that "Jesus promised nothing to his disciples in this world but hardships and even persecutions, and he bids them rejoyce (sic.) when they suffer and are reviled for his sake. Far then from being discouraged, our zeal must become more active, our piety more fervent. God will make rich amends for our temporal losses by imparting to our souls a larger portion of the treasures of his grace."

His reaction can be understood when one examines his personal history. Forced to flee persecution in his native France during their revolution, Father Cheverus settled briefly in England and then sailed to the United States, where he, once again, found himself persecuted for his faith.

Furthermore, the Kavanagh decision closely followed Father Cheverus' standing trial for criminal and civil charges the previous year. The state constitution permitted marriage only by a local minister or justice of the peace; in their absence, those from a neighboring county would suffice. Father Cheverus married a Catholic couple on Jan. 1, 1800, and when he returned to Maine in the summer found a warrant had been issued for his arrest, claiming he unlawfully presided over the marriage.

The charges stated he was not the local minister, and it was noted the couple only applied for legal validation of the marriage before a justice of the peace the day after. He was found not guilty of the criminal charges; they recognized that although he did not live locally or in an adjacent county, he was the closest Catholic priest, and the trial for civil charges scheduled for June 1801 never occurred.

Father Cheverus concludes the letter with a personal matter, stating that since he was last in Maine, his family wrote three times, and he includes excerpts of a letter received from his former parishioners in Mayenne, France, pleading for his return.

If based on feeling alone, he would have already departed, he reveals, but when he considers the situation of Catholics in the Boston Mission who depend upon him, he cannot, and will not do so until alternative arrangements are made so they are provided for. It may be that he does not go back to France at all, or that he goes to settle his affairs and then returns; he is uncertain what the future will bring.

Father Cheverus asks his recipients to send his regards to several families in the area. He hopes to visit Maine in the fall, stating that he would be happy to come soon, but "at present the labours (sic.) of husbandry take up the whole of your time, and you will then be more at leisure."

He closes, "I am very well in health and have gone through the laborious season of Lent better than I expected. Pray for me, I do every day for you all."

Although the letter is cataloged as being written to an unidentified correspondent, there are some clues that imply it might, in fact, be directed to the family of Patrick and Agnes Hanly (sometimes Hanley), frequent correspondents of Father Cheverus. Two branches of the Hanly family -- Patrick and his wife, Agnes, and Roger and his wife, Margaret -- were among the earliest Catholic settlers in Maine, along with the Kavanaghs and Cottrills. In this letter, he references the recipient's daughter, Sally, and in his papers is another letter to the Roger Hanly family in 1815 in which he refers to Roger's niece, Sally.

- Father Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Boston.

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