FORT KENT, Maine — In his nearly 30 years in the priesthood, Father James Nadeau has worked with inner-city youth, has overseen the reconstruction of a major cathedral, and has even been shot at.
But perhaps the greatest test of his faith came last April when floodwaters from two rivers threatened to wash away the physical and spiritual home of his parish in the St. John Valley.
“This is the worst I’d ever seen,” Nadeau, 47, said, recalling the morning of April 3 when the St. John and Fish rivers crested and merged into one body of water flooding the town’s East Main Street area and the historic St. Louis Catholic Church.
It has taken eight months, more than $3 million, and countless hours of cleaning, repairing, haggling with insurance adjusters, and dealing with church bureaucracy, but this week the church once again will open its doors to the faithful — just in time for Christmas Eve Mass.
There is still evidence of the nearly 3 feet of water that flowed into the ground floor of the church, if you know where to look.
“Right there you can see how high the water was,” Nadeau said, pointing to a faint line along some woodwork during a recent tour of the 200-year-old building.
The priest had to raise his voice to be heard over the constant pounding and din last week as carpenters and their assistants scrambled to finish installing the hardwood floor on the altar area and put the finishing touches on the 122 replacement pews that had just arrived from Pennsylvania.
“We have eight months of dust and cleanup to finish,” Nadeau said. “We had 30 helpers here to unload the pews when they arrived, [and] then some college and high school students showed up to help bring in the kneelers.”
The new church organ arrived the same day as the pews, and technicians were busy wiring and connecting the digital instrument to the building’s sound system.
The floodwaters destroyed the old organ in addition to ruining about $40,000 worth of carpeting that had been laid down during a major renovation two years ago.
Since the flood, members of the Fort Kent congregation have been celebrating Mass and other religious events at the Knights of Columbus hall several miles east of the church.
The Catholic church in Soldier Pond, where Nadeau also serves, has held funerals and weddings.
“I know for the people of this parish they are anxious to get back here,” Nadeau said. “This is their spiritual home. The Knights of Columbus have been great to let us use their hall, but it’s not a church.”
Some families, Nadeau said, have put sacraments including baptisms on hold, preferring to wait to have the sacred rites performed in the church.
In addition to the damage to the church, the attached rectory which houses the pastor’s living quarters and parish offices, was extensively damaged.
“The whole first floor of the rectory had to be gutted,” Nadeau said. “We had to get new furniture, rip out and repair walls, and get a new heating system.”
A sinkhole also was discovered in the building’s garage.
“I worked 12 years in Portland and with inner-city parishes and redesigned a cathedral,” the priest said. “Nothing compares to this.”
Not even the time when, while traveling in Rome, he found himself in the middle of a drug raid complete with gunfire.
The massive cleanup and repair project has taken its toll on Nadeau’s health.
He has undergone surgery for heart catheterization, his high blood pressure is out of control, and he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It all stems from this flood and cleanup,” Nadeau said. “It has been personally very stressful.”
A big part of that stress has been dealing with the innumerable details surrounding the insurance claims and funding.
The geology of the area surrounding the building is also causing Nadeau some sleepless nights.
“The sinkholes are still a major concern,” he said. “A geological recording showed 10 different holes around us. We are going to have to wait and see what happens with those.”
Amid the mess and repairs, there have been bright spots.
“Once the flood came we had a plethora of volunteers come to take things out and now we have a whole new set of volunteers helping to put things back together,” he said. “All I have to do is ask for help and people say, ‘How many do you need and when?’ They have been a lifesaver for me.”
When the waters began rising back in April, they did so with virtually no warning. Nadeau said he was unaware of the approaching catastrophe until he went to let his chocolate Lab Bristol out that morning.
“The waters of the St. John [River] were up against the back of the building,” he said. “I went out to look out the front door and the Fish River was beginning to pour across the road.”
Nadeau said he immediately gathered up cemetery and other vital records and emptied the tabernacle of the sacred hosts.
Though the waters did not reach the altar, the floor underneath was severely damaged and needed to be replaced.
When the altar and floor were removed, Nadeau said, he made a happy discovery.
“We found sections of the original wooden grills that were around the altar area and a lot of old woodwork,” he said.
Those pieces, in addition to a 2-foot-tall urn, are now on display in the rectory.
The new solid oak pews were delivered from New Holland, Pa., and according to subcontractor Jon Bitler, installation was ahead of schedule.
“The people of this parish have been wonderful,” Bitler said. “Everyone has been really accommodating and awesome.”
While Bitler and his assistant were working on the pews, over in a corner John Trembley was deep into the wiring of the new digital organ.
“My dad sold the old organ to this church in 1941,” Trembley said. “Now I’m helping to install the replacement.”
Trembley, who was a church organist for 50 years in Belfast, said working on organs around the state “is how I keep out of mischief.”
Diane Nadeau-Saucier has been the organist at St. Louis Catholic Church for a number of years and last week said she is eager to be back.
“It’s been a long time,” Nadeau-Saucier said. “It’s been great at the KC but I’m really looking forward to playing on a real organ again and not the small electronic keyboard.”
The relocation of the congregation has been hard on a lot of people, Nadeau-Saucier said.
“It’s been difficult,” she said. “This is where generations of people were baptized, got married and had funerals.”
She looks forward to being part of the healing process.
“Playing music in church is just the same as praying,” she said. “It’s all about prayers.”
Despite the extensive damage, Nadeau said, the church itself was not desecrated and he is looking forward to the Christmas Eve services.
“There will still be a few things left to clean up,” he said. “But we will be back in our home.”