INDIAN TOWNSHIP, Maine — Catholic priests at one time had to travel over dusty roads by stagecoach, across lakes by canoe and finally on foot to minister to the needs of American Indians in some of the most remote areas of Maine.
Eventually the train replaced the stagecoach, but that mode of travel was used until around the mid-1800s, when the Portland Diocese finally assigned a full-time priest to handle the spiritual needs of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, tribal state Rep. Donald Soctomah said this week.
At 3 p.m. Friday the Passamaquoddy Tribe plans to re-create those historical trips — not by stagecoach or train, but by ferrying a priest by canoe from the strip at Indian Township to Peter Dana Point to commemorate the 160th anniversary of St. Ann’s Church.
Soctomah said several people helped organize the 160th anniversary celebration, including Annabelle Meader, Cindy Perley, Joanne Dana, Blanche Socabasin, Brenda Dana, Karen Sabattus, Diane Campbell, Michelle Smiley, Nora Deschaine, Mark Stevens and the last nun to live at Indian Township, Sister Carol LeTourneaus.
“She will be in the canoe too to represent the Sisters of Mercy, who have been here since 1879,” Soctomah said. The Rev. Frank Morin will represent the priests who have been at Indian Township in the past.
Current and former priests have been invited to attend, along with religious leaders from other tribes. The tribal drummers will be there, in addition to Gov. Billy Nicholas and tribal Councilor Wayne Newell. A Christian Mass will be held at 4 p.m. with a potluck dinner afterward.
Indian Township, near Princeton, is divided into two sections: the reservation on Route 1 along what is known as the strip, and the Peter Dana Point settlement near Grand Lake Stream, about six miles by road and three miles by water from the strip.
The tribe’s tie to the Catholic Church dates back to 1604, when the French landed at St. Croix Island in Red Beach, about 10 miles from downtown Calais.
In those days, the tribe migrated in search of food, so it was not unusual for them to camp in areas throughout Washington County. “The tribe wasn’t stationary,” Soctomah said. “They followed the herds of the caribou and the moose. Indian Township was one of the sites. Pleasant Point was another. But there were many, many other sites where tribal members lived.”
When it came time to build a permanent church, two sites were selected: the one at Pleasant Point near Eastport; the other at Peter Dana Point. They both are called St. Ann’s.
The decision to build at Indian Township created quite a stir when, in 1848, funds became available.
Tribal elder Delilah Mitchell told Soctomah about the debate among tribal members.
Peter Dana, who lived on the settlement near Grand Lake Stream, wanted it built there, while Capt. Tomah Lewey wanted it built on the strip, where he lived.
They drew straws. “The chief held the straws and Peter Dana picked one straw and Captain Lewey picked the other straw, and Peter Dana won, and that is why the church is there,” Soctomah related.
The cemetery is located across from the church and is one of the oldest in Washington County. Soctomah said he has seen markers there that predate 1848.
Records show that the Rev. Vetromile was the first priest to say Mass at Indian Township. When asked for the priest’s first name, Soctomah said the he was simply known as Father Vetromile. Until the roads were built he always was taken by canoe to the church at Peter Dana Point, Soctomah said.
It wasn’t just Passamaquoddy who attended church on the reservation in those days.
“A lot of the area’s Irishpeople and Catholics would come on the reservation to have Masses,” he said. Eventually, local communities built their own churches.