‘My duty to come’
For generations of those in the faith, attending Catholic Masses was non-negotiable. Today, churchgoers, especially those at traditional celebrations, still speak of a duty to the church. Others decry the sense of duty that has been lost.
Helene LaPointe, 89, remembers when Sunday morning Masses were so crowded at what’s now the Basilica of St. Peter and Paul, there were simultaneous services in Latin held upstairs and downstairs.
At that time, Masses in English and French also were celebrated in Lewiston, as the languages were dominant in the working-class community. The same was true in other cities and towns across Maine, from the St. John Valley to Biddeford.
Today, Lewiston is home to the last regular French-language Mass in Maine, celebrated at 4 p.m. each Saturday at the Basilica. During a recent service, about 150 people attended the Mass, held in the chapel in the church basement.
LaPointe and other worshippers attend the French Mass in Lewiston, in part to connect with their native language and the culture of their parents and grandparents. Church attendance was non-negotiable, a sentiment LaPointe still carries.
“Why, I think it’s my duty to come,” she said. “I believe in the Mass.”
Despite the fervor of devoted churchgoers such as LaPointe, traditions that bound previous generations of Mainers to the Catholic faith slowly have eroded. With it, common sights like French Masses have disappeared, even where the language is still used every day.
When the Rev. James Nadeau enters St. Louis Church in Fort Kent for the 4 p.m. Mass on Saturdays, he usually sings in French. During a recent Mass, his choice was “Jouez Pour le Seigneur,” or “Play for the Lord.”
The weekly Mass here often includes one or more French songs and is one of the final reminders of a time when French-language Masses were common in the heavily French-Catholic St. John Valley.
Yet, as the years have passed, English has taken the place of the native French, according to Nadeau, pastor at St. John Vianney Parish. But this does not mean French is phased out; just as in Lewiston, the tradition remains.
“I can do funerals in French, baptisms in French and I would say a good 50 percent of the confessions I hear are in French,” Nadeau said. “At our 4 p.m. Saturday Mass, we try to have one or two songs in French.”
That is still a far cry from the Mass remembered by parishioner Norma Landry, who grew up in a French-speaking home in Fort Kent.
“As an adult I would choose to attend the French Mass,” Landry, 52, said. “We knew it was going to come to an end and I remember my mom telling me we’d see a day when there was no more Mass in French.”
Landry said she misses it.
“It was part of who we are, part of our faith that you know you’ll never get back,” she said. “I remember growing up every night after supper we’d all kneel down and say the Rosary in French.”
These days, French-speaking Catholics will travel across the border to attend Mass in Canada.
French Masses in the St. John Valley ended when the parishes in St. Francis, Eagle Lake, Wallagrass and Allagash merged with Fort Kent in 2007, which brought many Catholics along who didn’t speak French, Nadeau said.
“The French was foreign to them and that was not very welcoming,” Nadeau said. “It’s not that we don’t want to say the Mass in French or that we can’t do it, but we want to be inclusive.”
It’s much the same in Madawaska, where Roger Lagasse, parish business manager, said the bulk of those attending Mass have grown to prefer an English language service.
As in Fort Kent, Lagasse said, the priests in Madawaska can accommodate requests for French-speaking services and sacraments. But the nature of certain requests offers solemn proof that this once-vital tradition is slowly going away.
“When Father says Mass in the nursing home, he does it in French,” Lagasse said, about one request. “The older people really like that.”
Chapter II: Faces of a changing church
The Catholic church declined in Maine for myriad reasons: culture change, reforms, scandal. Yet the results were the same: closed churches, fewer priests and empty pews.
LaPointe, in Lewiston, is one of 68.2 million Catholics in the United States and one of 172,545 Catholics in Maine. At 89, she still considers herself to be a “strong” Catholic — unlike a majority of those in the faith.
Only 27 percent of American Catholics described themselves as “strong” Catholics in 2012, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the General Social Survey. That was a decrease of more than 15 points since the mid-1980s and among the lowest levels seen in the 38 years the survey has been taken.
Over the past four decades, self-reported church attendance declined among “strong” Catholics and among Catholics overall, the research center, based in Washington, D.C., found.
The percentage of Catholics who said they attended Mass at least once a week dropped from 47 percent in 1974 to 24 percent in 2012. Among “strong” Catholics, it fell more than 30 points, from 85 percent in 1974 to 53 percent in 2012.
What spurred this trend? Experts see the roots of the Catholic Church’s frailty in the cultural revolution of the 1960s, highlighted by the church’s own progressive — for the time — reforms after the conference known as Vatican II. That momentous conference in Rome dictated that Masses and hymns be performed in the language of the people, turned priests to face the congregation rather than the altar, and gave a greater role to parishioners.
Since then, the church’s gradual decline was accelerated by revelations of clergy sex abuse starting about a decade ago, which shook the institution to its core.
Longtime priests, including the Rev. Rudolph J. Leveille, 83, of Bangor, can’t identify one crystallizing moment when the church they knew changed. For Leveille, who retired as an active priest in 1997, the overall secularization of American society is the cause.
“People have lost their sense of sin,” he said.
Ordained on June 15, 1957, Laveille has seen many changes. During his first seven years, he gave Mass in Latin, with his back to the people, as priests had for centuries. In the mid-1960s, after Vatican II, Laveille celebrated Mass in English and faced worshippers.
“I thought it brought about much closer contact between the priest and the people,” he said.
It wasn’t until 1964 that Maine had a Catholic church — St. Patrick’s in Portland — that was built with an altar facing the people. Laveille was serving as a priest there at the time.
“The original plans were that the altar was going to be up against the wall,” he remembered. “But it was caught in time so that it could have been turned around.”
Turning the altars, although a revolution in the 1960s, did little to change the church’s path.
St. Patrick’s closed in 2013 and was sold last year to the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, one of 15 churches in Maine closed since 2006, according to the diocese.
Roughly over that same period, the number of diocesan priests in Maine fell from 221 in 1970 to 117 in 2000, and stands at a mere 57 today. This crisis of numbers is serving to catalyze efforts to grow the church and also literally changing its face in Maine.
Coming next: In coastal Maine, a youthful priest from Nigeria now tends to parishes long composed of millworkers and fishing families, a stark reflection of how the Catholic Church is changing both here and across the globe.