History of the Portland Diocese
On July 29, 1853, Blessed Pope Pius IX created the Diocese of Portland, then comprising the states of New Hampshire and Maine (excluding the Madawaska region). The origins of the Catholic community in what is now Maine date much earlier than the middle of the 19th century however. In the summer of 1604, Pierre du Gua, Sieur de Monts, a Huguenot, founded a mixed colony of about 80 French Catholics and Protestants on Ste. Croix Island (also known as Dochet’s Island) in the Ste. Croix River, not far from present-day Calais. This site was abandoned the following year after about half of the inhabitants, including the priest on the expedition, died during the harsh winter of 1604-1605. Further French settlements followed on Mount Desert Island in 1613, at Castine in 1633, and at Augusta on the Kennebec River in 1646. Blessed François Montmorency Laval, vicar apostolic of New France since 1658, reported that some 200 baptisms took place at the Assumption Mission in Augusta between 1660 and 1663, a true testimony to the dedication of the Jesuits missionaries who served there and along all the major rivers of what is now the State of Maine. Missionary activity continued throughout the 17th and early 18th century despite growing hostilities between France and England over control of the region. This armed conflict was punctuated by attacks on English settlements and Native American villages. In one of the most famous attacks, English forces destroyed the village at Norridgewock on August 23, 1724, killing scores of Native Americans, including their chiefs and Father Sebastian Rasle, SJ, their devoted missionary for decades.
During the American Revolution, the scattered Native American communities in Maine were periodically visited by chaplains of the French Navy allied with the rebel cause. By 1785, Loyalist settlers from New England forced Acadian farmers in New Brunswick off their lands, causing them to flee into the Madawaska territory in Aroostook County above the Great Falls on the St. John River, planting the roots of what would become a string of parishes on both sides of the St. John Valley. In 1789, Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore, the first bishop in the newly-formed United States of America, sent the French refugee priest, Jean-Louis de Cheverus, to serve the Native Americans at Indian Island and to found what would become St. Patrick’s Parish in Newcastle. Parishes in North Whitefield, Eastport, Machias, and Portland followed in close succession for growing numbers of immigrants from Ireland. Bishop Benedict Fenwick of Boston founded a utopian Catholic farming community at Benedicta in 1833 with the hopes of even establishing a college there. During the 1850’s, anti-Catholic prejudice led to the burning of the churches in Bath and Lewiston, and the tarring and feathering of Fr. John Bapst, S.J., by a mob in Ellsworth.
In this climate, the Reverend Henry B. Coskery, Vicar General of Baltimore, declined to accept the appointment as first Bishop of Portland in 1853. It was not until 1855, that the Diocese’s first bishop, David W. Bacon (1815-1874) of Brooklyn arrived in Portland at night, dressed in as a layman in order to avoid a riot. During Bishop Bacon’s tenure the first Catholic schools were established in Portland, Bangor, and North Whitefield. After a halt due to the Civil War, and the destruction wrought by the Great Fire of Portland in 1866, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, its chapel, and the Cathedral Residence were finally opened in 1869. In 1870 jurisdiction for the Madawaska territory was finally transferred from the Diocese of St. John, New Brunswick to the Diocese of Portland.
Portland’s second bishop, James Augustine Healy (1830-1900) was born in Macon, Georgia, the eldest son of an Irish immigrant cotton planter, Michael Healy and his wife, Mary Eliza Clark, a mulatto slave. Healy was ordained a bishop on June 2, 1875 in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland. His tenure was spent founding parishes and schools for the growing number of Irish and French Canadian immigrants. After 25 years as Bishop of Portland, Healy had founded 33 parishes, 22 schools, 18 convents, and a small number of hospitals and orphanages. Healy is remembered in particular as the bishop of children and of the poor.
In 1901, Healy was succeeded by Bishop William H. O’Connell (1859-1944) as third Bishop of Portland. During his tenure, tensions broke out between the French-speaking and English-speaking clergy and laity, tensions which would mark the reign of his successor. O’Connell is remembered for negotiating for a very successful diplomatic mission to Japan in that same year on behalf of the Holy See. Within a month of his return from Japan in 1906, O’Connell was named Archbishop of Boston.
O’Connell was himself succeeded in the See of Portland by Louis Sebastian Walsh (1858-1924), a native of Salem, Massachusetts and Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Boston. Bishop Walsh’s tenure was marked by a new wave of immigrants, this time from Poland, Italy, Slovakia, and Lithuania. Vocal groups of Franco-Americans clashed with Walsh over the ownership of parish property, leading Walsh to place six of the ring leaders under interdict. Bishop Walsh was a keen supporter of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (first founded as the National Catholic War Council) against the efforts of his predecessor, Cardinal O’Connell of Boston, to have this first national organization of bishops suppressed by the Holy See. Bishop Walsh was an avid historian his entire life, acquiring the site of the French Capuchin mission at Castine, marking the tricentennial of the founding of Saint Sauveur mission on Mount Desert Island, and founding the Maine Catholic Historical Magazine.Having served as Auxiliary Bishop of Hartford, Bishop John Gregory Murray (1877-1956) was named fifth Bishop of Portland on May 29, 1925. A building boom of parish churches and schools in the early years of Murray’s tenure, and the borrowing to pay for that construction, left the Diocese in very precarious financial health at the onset of the Great Depression. Murray found himself unable to control the Diocese’s spiraling indebtedness of millions of dollars. On October 29, 1931, he was transferred to the archiepiscopal See of St. Paul in Minnesota where he died in 1956, much beloved for his kindness and compassion toward people of all walks of life.
Hartford once again provided Portland with a bishop in the person of Joseph Edward McCarthy (1876-1955) who succeeded to the See in 1932. By 1936, Bishop McCarthy had stabilized the financial situation of the Diocese by issuing bonds which liquidated the entire debt by November of 1963. Numerous Catholic elementary schools, high schools, and colleges opened during his tenure, which was also marked by the rigors of World War II. In 1946, the Holy See provided Bishop McCarthy with the Diocese’s first auxiliary bishop, Daniel J. Feeney, a native of Portland. By 1948, the administration of the Diocese fell to Bishop Feeney due to Bishop McCarthy’s declining health.
Bishop Feeney (1894-1969) succeeded to the See of Portland in 1955 upon the death of Bishop McCarthy. He quickly set about celebrating the centennial of the arrival of the first Bishop of Portland. That same year, 1955, saw the ordination of 15 candidates to the priesthood for the Diocese, the largest class ever in Maine. Bishop Feeney’s tenure also saw the establishment of the Christian Family Movement, the Catholic Youth Organization, and the predecessor agencies of Catholic Charities Maine. He attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council and initiated the Diocese’s participation in the nascent ecumenical movement.
In 1966, Peter Leo Gerety (1912- ) of the Hartford Archdiocese was named the Coadjutor Bishop of Portland with right of succession, to assist Bishop Feeney in the implementation of the Second Vatican Council. Under Bishop Gerety’s direction a number of new parishes were founded in the suburbs of the metropolitan areas of the State. The first diocesan capital campaign was held, and the Bureau of Human Relations Services, precursor to Catholic Charities Maine, became a state-wide agency for the first time. The declining numbers of religious sisters made it impossible for dozens of Catholic schools to remain open. On the other hand, the Diocese opened its first units of low-income elderly housing in Portland and in Waterville during Bishop Gerety’s tenure. After only eight years in Maine, Bishop Gerety was appointed Archbishop of Newark in 1974.
That same year, Bishop Gerety’s auxiliary bishop, Edward C. O’Leary (1920-2002) succeeded to the See after having served as a much appreciated pastor and chancellor. Amedée Wilfred Proulx (1932-1993), a native of Sanford, became Bishop O’Leary’s auxiliary bishop in 1975, the first Franco-American to serve in this capacity. During Bishop O’Leary’s tenure, the Church in Maine experienced both an increase in population and a decline in the number of priests, leading to the first planning process to manage these trends. A sister-diocese relationship was initiated with the Diocese of Nassau in the Bahamas. The Diocese joined the Maine Council of Churches during this time. Bishop O’Leary appointed women for the first time to positions of leadership in the Office of Catholic Schools, the Diocesan Tribunal, and the Chancellor’s Office. Like Bishops Healy, Walsh, and Feeney before him, Bishop O’Leary took frequent public stands on a number of social issues of importance to the Church, notably pro-life issues. Bishop O’Leary retired for reasons of health in 1988.
Portland’s tenth bishop, Joseph J. Gerry, O.S.B. (1928- ), was installed February 21, 1989, having served as Auxiliary Bishop of Manchester, New Hampshire for three years, and as Abbot of St. Anselm Monastery for 14 years prior to that. During his tenure, Bishop Joseph published roughly one pastoral letter per year, treating such topics as Vocations, the sacrament of Confirmation, and human sexuality. An increasing number of parishes began to share a pastor in common and new parishes in Old Town, Lisbon, and Waterville, for example, were founded by the consolidation of two or more existing parishes. The revelation of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests in decades past shocked the residents of the State in 1993, 1998, and 2002 into 2003. With the death of Bishop Proulx in November of 1993, the Diocese of Portland was without an auxiliary bishop until the episcopal ordination of Sanford native Michael R. Cote (1949- ), now Bishop of Norwich, Connecticut, in July of 1995. In 1997, after an exhaustive consultation process, Confirmation began to be celebrated at the time of First Communion throughout the Diocese. The first permanent deacons were ordained for the service of the local church. In 1999, voters turned down a referendum advocated by the Diocese which would prohibit partial-birth abortion. In 2000, voters narrowly defeated a measure permitting physician-assisted suicide which the Diocese had vigorously opposed. A major renovation of the Cathedral was completed in 1999 in time for the diocesan observance of the Great Jubilee of the year 2000. The high point of the diocesan Jubilee year was a Eucharistic Congress at the Augusta Civic Center which drew thousands. Finally, a new St. Dominic Regional High School opened in January, 2002, realizing a long-held dream of its alumni and supporters. In February, 2004, the retirement of Bishop Joseph was accepted by Pope John Paul II upon having reached the age limit of 75.
In November 2003, a new history of the diocese entitled “The Catholic Church in the Land of the Holy Cross: A History of the Diocese of Portland, Maine” was published by Les Éditions du Signe of Strasbourg, France.