February 19, 2020
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Down East church falling into disrepair as tribe and diocese debate ownership

Courtesy of Donald Soctomah
Courtesy of Donald Soctomah
Stained glass windows at St. Ann's Church at the Passamaquoddy community of Pleasant Point, also known as Sipayik, depict St. Francis Solanus and, on the right, St. Kateri Tekawitha, a Mohawk who died in 1680 and was canonized as a saint by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. A decision to remove 19 stained glass windows from the church has revived a dispute between the tribe and the Diocese of Portland over which entity owns the church building and its stained glass windows.

Though the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Diocese of Portland have agreed to remove 19 stained-glass windows from St. Ann Roman Catholic Church at Pleasant Point, they have not agreed on who owns them.

The differing opinions over ownership extend to the entire church building and all its contents, which include the 19 stained-glass windows. The debate has been lingering for years and has hampered planning efforts to address the slow physical decline of the seaside church on tribal land, which was built in 1928. It also means the question of how long the windows might be in storage, and what may become of the church building, likely won’t be resolved anytime soon.

The windows — described in a 2013 report on the physical state of the church as “notable for their exquisite, painterly style and hand-blown stain [sic] glass” — will be removed to protect them from the building’s deteriorating conditions. Water infiltration into the building, especially into the attached bell tower and the flat-roofed convent wing attached to the back, have contributed to crumbling and cracked masonry and rusting exterior steel door and window frames, according to that 2013 report by the National Park Service.

Some of the stained-glass windows, including one made by the renowned Franz Mayer studio in Munich, Germany, incorporate Native American themes and images that the report described as unique. Several saints are depicted in the windows, including St. Kateri Tekawitha, a Mohawk who died in 1680 and was canonized as a saint by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.

When the steel-framed, brick building was constructed, it was built to replace a wooden church that had burned down the year before, in 1927, said Donald Soctomah, the tribe’s historic preservation officer. The tribe’s insurance coverage paid for the building, he said, and members of the tribe donated money, some of which they earned by making and selling hand-woven baskets, to commission the windows.

“When it was first built, it was just plain windows,” Soctomah said, adding that the stained-glass windows were installed later.

The church currently is not used and is kept under lock and key by the diocese, Soctomah said. The 20 or 30 tribal members who attend weekly Catholic services do so at another tribal building on Elders Way. Larger ceremonies in the community such as weddings and funerals often attract around 200 people, he said.

Courtesy of Donald Soctomah
Courtesy of Donald Soctomah
A stained glass window at St. Ann's Church at the Passamaquoddy Tribe community at Pleasant Point, also known as Sipayik, depicts a black-robed Jesuit priest surrounded by Mohawk Indians. A decision to remove this stained glass window made by the renown Franz Mayer Studio in Munich, Germany, and 18 others has revived a dispute between the tribe and the Diocese of Portland over which entity owns the church building and its stained glass windows.

“They don’t want anybody inside of it [but] the tribe feels it belongs to us,” Soctomah said of the church. “I don’t understand why the diocese is keeping it from the tribe.”

Soctomah has searched extensively to try to track down a deed for the property that would list who owns it, but has been unable to find one, he said.

David Guthro, spokesman for the Diocese of Portland, did not return messages left for him on Tuesday. Attempts to directly contact other tribal officials about the ownership and physical state of the church have been unsuccessful.

According to documents posted by the Friends of St. Ann on its Facebook page, tribal and diocese officials, including Bishop Robert P. Deeley, met in Portland early last year to discuss the matter.

Though the church sits on tribal land and tribal members helped pay for its construction, the diocese also helped to pay the construction costs and has covered its operating expenses. It has “never been clear” what the specific responsibilities of the two entities are in taking care of the property, according to the minutes of that meeting.

“There is a question regarding the ownership of the building and thus the holder of the authority to make decisions,” the minutes read. “The current attendees of the church are not able to provide for its maintenance.”

In a written update sent recently to tribal members by Marla Dana, the tribe’s chief at Pleasant Point, she said that the walls of the church are starting to shift slightly, which could damage the windows. She said a church official had proposed to move the windows into storage in Jackman, but that the tribe planned to put them into climate-controlled storage at Maine Indian Education offices in Calais, at the Wabanaki Culture Center.

“We will not let anyone take our windows from our community, nor would we sell them, those are our windows,” Dana wrote.

She added that a recent estimate for making all the needed repairs to the church, including either repairing or replacing a flat-roofed convent wing, was for “around $2.5 million or more.”

 


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