LILLE, Maine — For close to a century the church of Notre Dame du Mont Carmel has stood guard over the religious needs of this small St. John Valley community.
These days the church fills more of a cultural than spiritual niche in its newest role as a museum, but according to its director, that in no way lessens its impact on the community.
“This is a significant building, it’s unique and absolutely beautiful,” Don Cyr, director of Musee culturel du Mont-Carmel, said over coffee while sitting at his kitchen table one recent morning in the old rectory. “If it were not here the [St. John] Valley would be a less significant place.”
Now a center for the arts, the Musee culturel du Mont-Carmel is celebrating the centennial of the building’s completion in 1910 by holding a concert featuring the Acadian musical group Boreal Tordu at 7 p.m. July 11. Tickets at the door are $15.
The birthday came close to not happening at all, according to Cyr, since the church was scheduled for demolition in the late 1970s.
“The contractor had already been hired to pull it down,” said Cyr, 62. “I had some conversations with local business leaders and we quickly formed the Association Culturelle et Historique du Mont-Carmel.”
Working with the bishop and the Catholic Diocese of Portland, Cyr’s group was given the church building with its contents and neighboring rectory where he now lives surrounded by a lifetime’s collection of Acadian artifacts.
By 1984 the group was on solid enough financial footing — thanks to loans, grants and fundraising — to begin the long task of bringing the church back to its original splendor.
“Between 1984 and 1989 we took everything modern out of the former church,” Cyr said. “It was me and anyone who would volunteer.”
Among those volunteers, Cyr said, was association co-founder Boyd Pryor.
“If not for him I would not have had the courage to get it done,” Cyr said.
According to historians and Cyr’s own research, the story of the former church began in the early years of the Madawaska Settlement when the parish spanned what is now the border between Maine and New Brunswick at the St. John River.
The first Mass near the present-day Mount Carmel near Lille was said in 1840.
Throughout wars, border disputes and questions of ecclesiastical jurisdiction the faithful came to Mount Carmel to worship, and the current building was the third and final church built for those parishioners.
In 1908 construction of the building, based on Montreal architect Theophile Daoust’s design, was begun.
“This was probably the most prosperous time in the St. John Valley,” Cyr said. “There was a big population and a lot of sawmills doing big business.”
That prosperity translated directly into the grandeur that is the former Mont Carmel church, built in what Cyr describes as an “ancient Roman basilica” style, complete with twin cupolas topped by winged angels carved by Louis Jobin of St. Anne de Beaupre, Quebec.
Those original angels — made of pine with hammered tin and lead — are now in the front of the church next to the altar area.
Replicas hold the places of honor atop the towers.
Throughout the years of restoration — which to date has cost around $2 million — Cyr has remained true to the original design.
“When we were doing work in the attic we discovered clapboards with the building’s original color,” he said. “We cleaned it up, took the board to Maine Potato Growers’ paint department and they were able to analyze it with a computer and duplicate it.”
Some compromises have had to be made in order for the building to adhere to code specifications — asphalt shingles have replaced old wooden ones, for example — but overall the building is slowly transforming back to its former glory.
“The church was built by Leonide Gagne from Edmundston,” Cyr said. “He made some modifications of Dauost’s design, but they were good modifications.”
Gagne ended up shortening the depth of the choir loft, shortened the overall length of the building and opened up the ceiling with clerestory windows.
The result, Cyr said, was a church that is wide and expansive.
“We’ve done a lot of research and used a lot of logic based on evidence we found and based on people’s memories in doing the restoration,” Cyr said. “We’ve been lucky to be able to tap into a lot of firsthand information including a fabulous set of very early photographs on glass plates.”
Along the way the building has been transformed into a center for cultural and performing arts such as the Boreal Tordu concert.
The main church area can seat 500 people and possesses what Cyr terms “perfect acoustics.”
A small chapel can seat 120 people, and a basement theater area is able to seat 250.
While Cyr and his dedicated crew have done a great deal of work over the years, he said much remains to be done.
The removal of layers of old paint and tin panels has revealed the original painted and stenciled plaster on the walls. The columns have retained their original faux-marble paint.
The space above the altar area appears to rise into infinity, and careful cleaning has lightened up the deep blue paint with its thousands of gold-leaf stars swirling around one large, central star.
“See how the star’s rays are shooting away from the altar and the Virgin Mary,” Cyr said. “You would think a church named for Our Lady would have its star’s rays pointing toward her.”
Cyr theorizes the reason behind the rays’ directions lies in the fact the altar area was completed in 1910 — a time when Halley’s Comet was passing overhead.
There’s a lot of symbolism in the building, Cyr points out.
The two towers, he explained, each have seven windows representing the seven days of the week. Each window contains 52 panes of glass for the weeks of the year.
The designs within the windows represent both a Celtic cross and the tablets of the Ten Commandments.
“A lot of thought went into these,” Cyr said.
After close to four decades of working on his church, Cyr has no plans to stop.
“This is my life’s work,” he said.