FORT KENT, Maine — Parish and community members rallied Wednesday behind the Rev. James L. Nadeau, whose sudden leave of absence from his post as pastor of St. John Vianney Parish took his flock by surprise.

The voluntary leave was announced late Tuesday by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland and the Maine attorney general’s office, which is conducting an investigation of unspecified allegations against the 51-year-old priest.

This is Holy Week in the Catholic Church and on Wednesday night Bishop Richard Malone was in Fort Kent to celebrate the Mass of the Holy Oils at a service attended by more than 200 parishioners.

Members of the St. John Vianney Parish were instructed by their bishop to put their faith in prayer and solidarity.

“I speak to you about the heavy heart we all have after hearing about the attorney general’s allegations,” Malone said in addressing the congregation before the start of the mass. “It is frustrating for me because I am not permitted by law to give any information about these allegations.”

Malone said he met with Nadeau on Tuesday for an hour during which he said, “the Holy Spirit helped us.”

The bishop stressed Nadeau has not been removed as pastor of St. John Vianney, rather he has stepped aside as the investigation proceeds.

“The diocese is cooperating fully with the attorney general’s office and at their request, I cannot discuss the allegations or anything about the investigation,” Malone said. “I am hopeful that the process will go smoothly in order to lead to an expeditious and just conclusion.”

Malone already was scheduled to say Mass in Fort Kent on Wednesday night but he stressed that even if he had been committed elsewhere, he would have arranged to be with the St. John Vianney parishioners.

“This is where I am supposed to be,” he said.

“I am very saddened by this whole thing,” Norma Landry, past chairwoman of the St. John Vianney Parish Council, said Wednesday morning. “Nobody really knows what is going on [and] in times like this I always turn to prayer.”

The allegations and subsequent leave taking by Nadeau, during Holy Week, could not have come at a worse time for the parish’s practicing Catholics.

“Holy Week is what we wait for all year long,” Landry said. “This is the start of our faith and for this to happen this week is really sad.”

Officials with the attorney general’s office have not commented on specifics of the allegations.

“As in any investigation, it’s important to respect the presumption of innocence,” Brenda Kielty, spokeswoman for the Maine attorney general’s office, said in the same release. “It is also important not to jump to conclusions about the nature of the allegations.

When reached Wednesday, Kielty said her office does not comment on investigations.

In Nadeau’s absence, the diocese assigned a priest temporarily to the parish to meet the spiritual needs of its members.

The Rev. Robert Vaillencourt, 58, has been assigned as temporary administrator at St. John Vianney Parish.

St. John Vianney Parish comprises St. Louis Catholic Church in Fort Kent, St. Mary Catholic Church in Eagle Lake, St. Charles Catholic Church in St. Francis and St. Joseph Catholic Church in Soldier Pond.

Parish staff and members of the St. John Vianney Parish Council would not comment on the allegations Wednesday, and office workers at the rectory were unsure where Nadeau was on Wednesday.

“We all love him,” Doris Daigle, longtime parish community member, said Wednesday afternoon at a local restaurant. “He has done so much for this parish.”

Daigle worked for Nadeau in 1987 when he was a vicar assigned to Fort Kent.

“He was wonderful to work for and was very good to me,” Daigle said. “With these allegations it is important as Christians we not judge.”

Her friend Joan Dow, who works at Mercy Home, an Eagle Lake care facility, said the entire town of Eagle Lake is behind their priest.

“I was blown away by all this when I heard about it,” said Helen Nadeau of Fort Kent. “It has got to be a mistake.”

All three women agreed Nadeau’s main concern was for his parishioners, a feeling echoed by Landry.

“I was chair of the [parish] council during the big flood of 2008,” Landry said. “All he wanted during that time was to make sure his flock was OK.”

A newly renovated St. Louis Church received major damage in May 2008 when the St. John and Fish rivers overran their banks in one of the worst floods in Fort Kent’s history.

“He was more about ‘what can I do’ than ‘what can be done for the church building,’” Landry said. “He is simply a wonderful human being for all ages — he reaches to the young, to the old and to the medium.”

As a show of support, parishioners scheduled a special saying of the rosary Wednesday afternoon at the St. Louis Catholic Church in Fort Kent.

The impromptu rosary was just one indication of the community’s faith in their priest, Daigle said.

“My grandchildren came up from downstate to get baptized by Father [Nadeau],” she said. “That should really tell you something.”

That night before the start of the Mass, Malone had a final message to the parishioners.

“I want you all to remember two things,” he said. “Prayer and solidarity – you have a wonderful faith-based community here.”

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.