LIMERICK – Recalling stories from when attending Mass meant getting on a stagecoach and then onto a train, parishioners of St. Matthew’s Parish in Limerick gathered with Bishop Robert Deeley on Saturday, October 16 to celebrate the 100e anniversary of the founding of the parish and the consecration of the city’s first St. Matthew’s Church.
“It is a special joy to be with you as bishop to mark this anniversary. Our gathering for this celebration reminds us of the bond we have as a Church and the need we have to work together for the good of God’s people. I congratulate you on this anniversary, and in our prayer together we can ask God to continue to bless your parish community of St. Matthew and to strengthen it in faith and charity ”, declared Bishop Deeley during the Mass of centenary.
The first St. Matthew’s Church was consecrated by Bishop Louis Walsh on October 10, 1921, to serve a growing number of Catholics, many of whom had come to the area to work on the Limerick spinning mill.
Before that, Catholics who wanted to attend mass or receive the sacraments had to travel to Sanford / Springvale, nearly 25 miles away. Although this is still a trip that the parish priests, who also serve the parish of St. Therese from Lisieux to Sanford, take today, at the time it meant taking a stagecoach up to East Waterboro, then take a train the rest of the way.
“It was all day. Then they would spend the night and the next day they would go to morning mass, have their dinner or whatever, then go home, ”said Cécile LePage, a longtime parishioner.
As the size of the community continued to increase, a priest began to visit the area. At first, Masses were celebrated in private homes. Then, from Christmas Day 1912, the faithful gathered in the expedition room of the mill. The mill superintendent was Catholic and made the space available.
“We were very surprised by the people. They should get things ready in the mill for the church service to take place on Sunday, and then they should take everything apart so people can have the mills to work, ”said Suellen Doggett of Waterboro, a longtime parishioner. .
The mill foreman used shipping crates to build a frame for the altar. One parishioner’s lace sheets and curtains were used for altar linens, and someone donated a rug where parishioners knelt in communion. The office in the expedition room served as a confessional.
In 1915 Bishop Walsh purchased a house where Masses were celebrated in the summer, but it was unheated, so the expedition hall continued to be used once the weather turned colder. Land was then purchased for the construction of a church, which was completed in 1921.
When it first opened, parishes in towns such as Gorham and Windham had not yet been established, so St. Matthew’s Parish served not only the people of Limerick, but 22 surrounding towns.
“Having a church in your town where you don’t have to go very far to attend mass and take your children to Sunday school was wonderful. It was wonderful, ”said LePage, who was born in 1935 and grew up attending church.
A period in church history that LePage and other longtime parishioners remember with special affection was when the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement lived and worked in the parish. The sisters, who served at St. Matthew from 1949 to 1967, operated a kindergarten (the only one in town), taught religious education, sponsored a girls ‘and boys’ clubs, and founded a youth choir.
“The nuns were very, very good at having functions for towns or plays or whatever,” LePage said.
“As teenagers, they were the center of our social life. They did it. Our teenage choir was like a group of young people, and we did all kinds of things with them. One of the highlights was the Christmas carols every year. One year we went in the back of an old pickup truck with a little pump organ and a miner’s hat with a light, to see. It was really fun, ”said Elaine Vermette Jedrychowski.
“It was wonderful. We were so blessed with the nuns. We were there all the time,” said Carmen LePage, a longtime parishioner.
The original church continued to serve the congregation into the 1980s, when it became apparent that the community, especially during the summer tourist season, had outgrown space. The decision was made to build a new church less than half a mile away. To save on costs, the parishioners helped build it.
“When the church was built, I hammered nails, painted, things like that,” said Bill Lanoue of Limerick.
The history of the parish goes that people were carrying chairs and statues from one church to another one morning in March 1987, with the new church being consecrated in June of the same year.
Unfortunately, the new church will only last a few years. In December 1989, a fire broke out, destroying it and everything in it.
“December 7th, I will always remember the day because it was a holy day, and we were going to have a mass in the evening, and that’s when the church caught fire in the after- noon and burned, ”said Carmen LePage. “It was terrible. It was one of the worst days of my life.”
“Standing there and watching this building crumble was tough, but we found out how strong we were,” said Vermette Jedrychowski. “We did, and we learned that the church is not a building. The church is the people, and the Spirit has carried us through.
A new church, which stands today, was built in the same location and was consecrated by Bishop Joseph Gerry, OSB, on June 2, 1991.
“We have a gem here right now. It is truly a beautiful church, ”said Cécile LePage. “I don’t think a lot of people realize what we have here. They don’t realize how wonderful we have a church and how lucky we are to have a church here in the midst of all these towns.
People had the chance to discover the gem of a church over a period of 100 days, that is, the duration of the celebration of the centenary of the parish. Events, which were guided by Heather Silva, the ward administrative assistant, included bean dinners, bingo, blood drives, movie nights, rosary gatherings, and more. Fittingly, however, the highlight of the festivities was the celebration of the Eucharist, the same reason Catholics gathered in the area a century ago.
“The Eucharist connects us to those 100 years ago, and it will connect us to those who will come 100 years after us. This is what we are doing, have done and will do for another 100 years, ”said Father Wilfred Labbe, pastor. “This is where we meet Jesus most intimately and surely.”
“Jesus is with us in our gathering. As such, the purpose of this holy space remains the same as it always has been, ”said Bishop Deeley. “Here we are trained for the world. Here we are changed by the presence of Jesus. Here we are sent to bear witness to his message.