St. Patrick Church History

St. Patrick Church History
A little off the beaten path, on the old road from Newcastle to Damariscotta Mills, stands the oldest Catholic Church in continual use in New England. Completed in 1808, the history of St. Patrick Church takes us back to the time in history when the Church was trying to establish itself in America. The seat of the first diocese was Baltimore and the diocese, under Bishop John Carroll, encompassed the eastern seaboard including the cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. The early days of St. Patrick Church are directly tied to the immigration of the Irish to Boston and the outreach by several priests to Native American communities in what was then called “the district of Maine”.

The Beginning Travels
James Kavanagh and Matthew Cottrill emigrated from Ireland to Boston in 1781. At the time of their arrival in Boston, they were both young men with Kavanagh (1755) being older than Cottrill (1764). It is known that both of them came from small towns (Inistioge and Thomastown) southwest of Kilkenny and they departed by ship for Boston from New Ross, a port on the lower River Barrow in County Wexford, Ireland.
At the time of their arrival in Boston, the Catholic Church in Boston was lacking leadership and enduring much in-fighting. Not much is known about these men during their early years there. Legislative documents suggest both men had settled in the Newcastle (New Castle) area by 1790 as they petitioned the legislature that year to build a toll bridge across the Damariscotta River. Their request was approved and the bridge was built. In 1792, Fr. Francis Matignon was sent to Boston from France by the Pope at the request of Bishop Carroll who felt Fr. Matignon would be able to settle differences among the small community of faithful and unify the parishioners. A few years later, Fr. Jean Louis Cheverus, a student of Fr. Matignon in France, arrived in Boston to help Matignon. Given what is known about Kavanagh and Cottrill, they were connected to Boston during this time frame and were obviously part of the social fabric of the Church. Both of them helped build the first cathedral on Franklin St. in Boston; both of them were married by Fr. Matignon: Kavanagh in 1793 and Cottrill in 1794. Following marriage, the wives joined their husbands in Newcastle. Coastal Maine at that time was emerging as a thriving timber/shipbuilding area and Kavanagh and Cottrill established themselves as entrepreneurs in timber, ship-building and trade with the West Indies and Ireland. Along with dreams of success, these men brought their love and deep affection for their faith. So the story of St. Patrick Church begins.

The Early Days
The first Mass in Newcastle was celebrated during the summer of 1798
when Fr. Cheverus paid his first visit to Newcastle after spending time in the northern part of Maine ministering to the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Indian tribes. His travel was by canoe to Belfast, Maine and then by horseback to Newcastle. It is believed that the Mass he said was celebrated in Cottrill’s first home located on the Austin Rd in Damariscotta Mills. At that time, the Kavanagh and Cottrill families lived together in the house. A new chapel, St. Mary’s of the Mills, was completed “on top of the hill overlooking the bay” the following year. It was located “across the street” from the Cottrill home and served the needs of Catholics in the area until 1808 when St. Patrick Church was completed.

“A Good Brick Church”
With an increase of Catholics in the area, plans were initiated with the help of Bishop Carroll in 1803 to build “a good brick church”. The architect, Nicholas Codd, who also emigrated from Ireland to Boston, moved with his wife to the Midcoast area at the invitation of Kavanagh and Cottrill. It has been written that they actually “Shanghaied him” from Ireland. Original cost for the project was estimated to be $3000.00 with Cottrill and Kavanagh each contributing $1000.00. Cottrill also contributed 3 acres of land for the church. In addition to Kavanagh and Cottrill, Fr. Matignon and Fr. Cheverus gave $100.00 each to the project with other parishioners making smaller contributions. The original plans included the church, a consecrated cemetery to the right of the church and a rectory to the left. Later on, the plan was changed when the area designated for a rectory became the “new” cemetery. It was originally opened as unconsecrated ground to permit husband and wife of mixed marriages to be buried together.

As an aside, one of the first parishioners buried in the consecrated cemetery was a younger brother of James Kavanagh’s wife Sarah. Sarah’s family lived in Boston and her mother was reportedly the first convert to the Church in Boston. Sarah was only 18 years of age when she married James Kavanagh. After she left Boston for Maine, her mother passed away (1795) and her father, Andrew, an Irish immigrant, moved to Maine (1797) with Sarah’s younger siblings to be closer to Sarah.

Today, you can find the graves of Sarah’s father and brothers in the “consecrated” cemetery as well as her younger sister Elizabeth who married James Smithwick, a business partner with Kavanagh and Cottrill. Sarah’s mother, however, is buried in the cemetery on the Boston common.

Church Details
The style of the church was Federal and simple in design. The church measured 80 ft. in length, 25 ft. in width and 30 ft. in height. The walls are brick and measure 1.5 ft. in thickness. While it is widely believed that the bricks were “brought over the pond” meaning Damariscotta Lake, there is some evidence that they may have been produced in Bristol under the guidance of the Hanly brothers, Patrick and Roger. The Hanly brothers had immigrated to the Pemaquid peninsula from Ireland years before Kavanagh and Cottrill arrived and were very hospitable to Cottrill and Kavanagh when they arrived from Boston. The bricks were laid in a particular fashion to strengthen the walls, five rows horizontal and the sixth row perpendicular. This pattern can still be observed today. Mortar was made from lime rock brought from Ireland. The church has five windows on each side. The original windows were arched and 15 ft. in height with small clear panes. Shuttered fans on the outside of the windows and shutters on the inside protected the interior of the church from the weather. A semi-circular window graced the balcony at the rear of the church looking out toward the bay. There was no bell tower or steeple in the original design.

The uniqueness of this little chapel included an altar in the form of a crypt and was reportedly brought to this country from France as a gift from Fr. Cheverus. It is one of three such altars known to exist in the United States with the other altars found in the crypt of Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston and in the Chapel at the Mission of Santa Barbara in California. Headboards over doors flanking the altar display the harp, the heraldic symbol of Ireland.

The original Stations of the Cross are small gold crosses on a background of bright blue found at the top of the window frames and over doors. A dove was painted on the ceiling over the sanctuary. Parishioners worshipped on flat hand pegged benches with one such bench remaining today in the choir loft. Originally, the women sat on the right side of the church (Epistle) and the men on the left side (Gospel).
The original color of the interior of the church was light grey-green similar to the current color. A star, unique to buildings designed by Codd, decorated wood mouldings on the outside of the church as well as on the doors of the sacristy.

In addition to the simple yet elegant decoration of the mouldings within the interior of the church, a large painting “Taking the Lord down from the Cross” was placed over the altar. It is said that this painting was given to the church by the mother of Fr. Cheverus.

Construction of St. Patrick Church began in 1807 and was completed in 1808. It was the first church dedicated to St. Patrick in the United States.

“The church is called St. Patrick….”
Following the consecration of the church on July 17, 1808, Fr. Cheverus wrote to Bishop Carroll in Baltimore:
“Fr. Matignon having authorized me in your name to bless the newly constructed church here and the cemetery adjoining it. I performed the ceremony on the Sunday the 17th of this month. The church is called St. Patrick’s...the name seemed to gratify our friends here. I like it myself because it proclaimed that our church here is the work of Irish piety. is on the whole a very neat and elegant chapel.....The whole assembly ...and it was a numerous one...was…hospitably entertained at Mr. Kavanagh’s house. The zeal, the whole generosity of Mr. Kavanagh are above all praise It is he who encouraged us to begin our church in Boston (Franklin St.) and who was the greatest help toward finishing it. Mr. Kavanagh tells me the new clergyman will have board and lodging with his family and also have a horse at his disposal. Clothing will be the only expense a Priest will have in this place. Washing, mending, etc. all be done for him. You know the amiable family here. A priest is perfectly at home here, has a large handsome chamber and is sure to be waited upon with pleasure and have at his orders whatever is in the house. For these ten years past, I have every year spent here a considerable time and have experienced from Mr. and Mrs. Kavanagh the same friendly, respectful and delicate attention.“

A Pastor
Fr. Cheverus was unaware when he wrote this letter that he had been appointed by the Pope as Bishop of the newly established Diocese of Boston. In those days, it took many months, perhaps years for news to travel distances. After his appointment, Fr. Romagne was named “pastor” of the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes and St. Patrick Church in Newcastle. He followed a schedule similar to that of Bishop Cheverus until his replacement by Fr. Dennis Ryan in 1818.

Effect of War
The War of 1812 began on June 18, 1812 and lasted until the spring of 1815. During this war, the United States was engaged in battle, both land and sea, with Great Britain. It directly influenced the livelihoods of Kavanagh and Cottrill who were business partners in shipping and trade. Mr. Kavanagh went bankrupt and became dependent on Cottrill for financial help. He was able to keep his home that overlooks Damariscotta Lake.

The Legacy of Matthew Cottrill
In 1818 Matthew Cottrill donated a Paul Revere bell to the church. The bell is inscribed “The gift of Matthew Cottrill to St. Patrick’s Church, Newcastle, 1818”. From among the 400 bells cast by Paul Revere and Son, Joseph, from 1792-1828, St. Patrick’s is one of 93 still in existence and is one of the last bells cast by Paul Sr. who died in November of 1818. The original cost of the bell was $350 with a shipping cost of about $165.00. Originally, the bell hung outside from a wood structure over the front door to the church. A brick bell tower with a hip roof was added to the church in 1866 during the pastorate of Fr. James Peterson. The present spire topped with a wooden cross was added to the brick tower during the pastorate of Fr. John M. Harrington (1890-96). As far as can be determined, St. Patrick Church is the only Catholic Church in New England to possess a Revere Bell (Revere Bells: Stickney, Bedford, MA 1956).

St. Patrick as a Mission Church
Fr. Dennis Ryan immigrated to Boston in 1817 from Ireland and was the first priest ordained in the Diocese of Boston. In 1818, he was sent first to Newcastle; he quickly moved on to North Whitefield to minister to the newly arrived Irish. After he was named pastor of St. Denis Church in North Whitefield, Maine, other churches in the area including St. Patrick Church became mission churches under the pastorate of St. Denis. By 1828, the number of parishioners attending St. Patrick Church is said to have dwindled to less than 30 parishioners. Mass was said once a month by a priest from St. Denis. Not much is known regarding St. Patrick’s during the period of time (1818-1932) that it was a mission church of St. Denis.

Maine attained statehood in 1820. It was no longer “the district of Maine”. Bishop Cheverus was called back to France in 1823 and was eventually appointed Cardinal of Bordeaux. He died in 1836. Matthew Cottrill; and James Kavanagh both died in 1828 and are buried in the ‘consecrated” cemetery at St. Patrick Church.

The Children of Kavanagh and Cottrill
In addition to the little brick church, beautiful homes and business ventures, Kavanagh and Cottrill valued education. Some of their children, particularly their sons, received a more classic education through Catholic institutions such as Georgetown and St. Mary’s University in Maryland. Edward Kavanagh, the oldest child of James Kavanagh, was the first Catholic governor of the state of Maine (1843) and Winefred Kavanagh, the youngest child of James Kavanagh, was the primary benefactor of Kavanagh School for Girls (McAuley) in Portland. Both are buried in the “consecrated” side of the cemetery.

To the rear of the church, there is an elegant painting, now nearing almost 400 years in age that possibly depicts St. Peter Nolasco. It is believed that Winefred Kavanagh was instrumental in the acquisition of this painting. It was brought to Maine from Mexico by Captain Scott of Wiscasset following the Mexican War (1846-1848) and is rumored to have been taken from a convent in Mexico City during the war.

Historic Changes during the 19th Century
The Diocese of Maine was established in 1853 under the leadership of Bishop David Bacon and included both Maine and New Hampshire. Times were difficult for Catholics at this time. In the mid 1800’s, the Know-Nothing party emerged as a national political party. The platform of this party was based on a theory of nativism and hence they were against immigration and in particular, Irish immigration and Catholics. In midcoast Maine, party members schemed to burn St. Patrick Church. When a non-Catholic member of Mr. James Mulligan’s crew, Sam Hoffman, heard about the plans, he intervened and told Mr. Mulligan who in turn contacted the Henry Cotton, High Sheriff of Lincoln County. Sheriff Cotton posted guards at the church and as a precautionary move, had all valuables removed to Kavanagh House. The sheriff then called upon members of the community to “ring” the church while he went to Sheepscot to intervene with those planning on burning it down. Mr. Hoffman’s daughter, Florence, shared this story later in life with family members who continue as parishioners of St. Patrick Church.

Bishop Healy
In 1875, Fr. James Healy was appointed Bishop of Portland. Bishop Healy is regarded as the first Black Catholic priest and bishop in the US. His father was an Irish farmer and his mother was a mulatto slave. In an effort to protect his family, Bishop Healy’s father sent the children north from Georgia first to New York and later to Worcester, Massachusetts. Bishop Healy was in the first graduating class of Holy Cross College in 1849 and later pursued the priesthood. During his time as Bishop of Portland, Bishop Healy had a special fondness for rural Maine. He was regarded as the bishop of the children and the poor. He visited St. Patrick’s often by train where he was met by one of the parishioners who walked with him from the train stop up the hill to the little church. Bishop Healy gave St. Patrick Church a series of French prints depicting the Stations of the Cross”. These prints hang on the walls of the Church today.

The First Restoration
The first restoration of the church was completed in 1896 under Fr. John Harrington. The original clear windows were upgraded with stained glass windows purchased from Sears and Roebuck Co. The 12 ft. benches were replaced with pews and the ceiling and walls of the church were elaborately decorated. In 1898, under Fr. LaRiviere, a new organ was purchased.

The Centennial Celebration
In 1908, the Centennial celebration of the Church was held. In preparation, the old cemetery was graded and beautified. Bishop Walsh celebrated the mass and then attended a “grand” party at the Kavanagh mansion. The birthday of the Maine Catholic Historical Magazine was celebrated during this party.

The Rectory
The rectory in use today was built in 1823 by John Madigan as his home. Madigan was a son-in-law to Cottrill and bought the land from him in 1821. He was the eldest son of Walter Madigan, who emigrated to the area in 1803 and was regarded as the best educated of the Irish settlers who came to the area. He managed a general store in the Mills. After years of family ownership, the house was donated to St. Patrick Church in 1933 for a rectory by the estate of Catherine Madigan Bennett. Up until that time, the priests stayed at the Kavanagh home when they visited St. Patrick. The first resident pastor was Fr. Bennett. In 1933, Fr. Edward Lynch was appointed pastor and he was in residence at St. Patrick through World War II until 1948. These years are described in a letter to the Bicentennial Chair as “lean years” by former parishioner.

In 1948, Fr. Gillis was appointed pastor. He was described as a “man of deep faith, good humor and a warm personality and was instrumental in working with the community of Damariscotta-Newcastle area to meet the needs of the poor. He reportedly visited all who were ill in the hospital, non-Catholic and Catholic alike. He had no problems doing odd jobs around the grounds of the church and rectory and on occasion was mistaken as the groundskeeper.

Chapel in the Pines
Mid-Coast Maine experienced economic growth through tourism and an increase in jobs beginning in the late ’50’s, early ’60’s. In 1962, under the ministry of Fr. O’Brien, an outdoor chapel was established to accommodate the increase of summer visitors to the area. The first altar was built of wood pine logs. It was later replaced with a granite altar. In the late '90's, a beautiful San Damiano cross, created by Deacon Martin Fallon at the request of pastor Fr. Ray Picard, was placed at the rear of the granite altar. This chapel continues to be used today during the summer when the weather permits and is called “The Chapel in the Pines.”

The Second Restoration
In the early 1970’s, with Fr. Henry Sims as pastor, the Diocesan Liturgical Commission under the Bishop decided that as far as possible St. Patrick’s should be restored to its original simplicity because of its historical significance. An expert on old buildings, J. Everette Fauber, Jr., F.A.I.A. from Lynchburg, Virginia, took measurements, scraped paint and researched the original appearance of the church. The frescoes, which had been added in the late 1800’s, were eliminated and the walls repainted in the original pale tone. The sanctuary railing was restored and some of the statues removed. The 1896 stained glass windows donated by early parishioners and the pews were left in place One of these old benches remains in the balcony to which the old mortised stair rail, painted Indian red guides one up the narrow stairs. The unique altar was left in place, and St. Patrick’s was one of the few churches in the US where the priest was "back-to" the people for at least part of the Mass. With the completion of the restoration, St. Patrick’s Church was accepted into the National Historic Registry as a building with historic significance. In 1996 a table was placed in front of the historic altar to allow the priest to face the congregation at Mass.

The Parish Center
During the late 1960’s and the 70’s, an influx of young families dramatically increased the congregation at St. Patrick Church. Subsequently, Kelley House which was used for Confraternity classes became wholly inadequate. With the foresight of Fr. Henry Sims, plans were made for construction of a parish center closer to St. Patrick’s. A committee was formed, pledges solicited and Kelley House was sold. An architect was hired and after several years of hard work, meetings and discussions, the present St. Patrick’s Center became a reality with formal dedication in March of 1987. Fr. Stephen Mulkern, the pastor and Fr. Henry Sims, retired pastor, were both in attendance.

In the summer of 1995, Fr. Ray Picard was assigned pastor of St. Patrick parish. Under Fr. Picard’s leadership, the parish quickly outgrew the capacity of the old church and Sunday Mass was moved to the Parish Center until 2004.

In 1998, Bishop Joseph J. Gerry celebrated a commemorative Mass at St. Patrick Church, marking the 200th anniversary of the founding of the parish. He also blessed the front door of the church, dedicating it as a Jubilee Door, one of three so honored in the diocese in preparation for the Great Jubilee 2000.

The Third Millennium
St. Patrick's parish experienced many changes in the first decade of the third millennium. The sheer growth of the parish pressed the pastor and the parish council to look forward for solutions to space constraints. After study and discussion, the decision was made to expand the current worship space with a new building connected to the old church. During this planning stage, emphasis was placed on the idea that there is only one St. Patrick Church. A capital campaign was initiated and ground breaking for the new building occurred in October of 2002. All parishioners had the opportunity to participate in the planning of this space. The new worship space was blessed and dedicated with great celebration by Bishop Richard J. Malone in July of 2004.

During this same period of time, Fr. Picard was assigned as administrator of Our Lady Queen of Peace in Boothbay. St. Patrick's shared three deacons with OLQP, John Kreppein, Tom Ford and Martin Fallon. A new section of St. Patrick Cemetery named after Bishop Cheverus was opened. The parish became a covenant church for Habitat for Humanity. Parish council committees were active.

In June of 2005, the parish pastor, Fr. Ray Picard, was assigned to Sacred Heart Parish in Yarmouth and Fr. Alfred Irving was named administrator for St. Patrick's. At this same time, church communities became aware of the movement to cluster parishes due to the lack of priests in the state. St. Patrick's was ultimately included in the Bath-Brunswick cluster and the cluster organization became official on July 1, 2009. Between 2005 and 2009, there was much discussion related to this action. Efforts were made to complete the New Hall located in the basement of the new building with contemplation of a smaller capital campaign by the Parish Council.

In July of 2008, the Bicentennial of the Old Church was celebrated. Activities included Mass with Bishop Malone, a reenactment in the cemetery, presentation of historic artifacts, tours of the old church and a parish dinner.

Today, as part of All Saints Parish, we enjoy the leadership of Fr. Frank Murray, Pastor and Parochial Vicars Fr. Fredrick Morse and Fr. Normand Carpentier. Deacon Martin Fallon continues to serve us as well.

The band of sturdy people who founded St. Mary’s of the Mills in 1798 would find it hard to believe the changes that have taken place in 200 years.

Our beloved little church, which sits serenely on the hill amid the swirl of changes - seeming to say reassuringly, "Do not worry. Be still and know that I am here. Christ is here. Come whenever you can and be with me."
*** Noelle Brosch images