Photo courtesy of Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland

LIMERICK — Recalling stories of the days when attending Mass meant hopping on a stagecoach and then a train, parishioners of St. Matthew Parish in Limerick gathered with Bishop Robert Deeley on Saturday, Oct. 16, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the parish and the dedication of the first St. Matthew Church in the town.

“It is a particular joy to be with you as your bishop to mark this anniversary. Our coming together for this celebration reminds us of the bond we have as Church and of the need we have to work together for the good of the people of God. I congratulate you on this anniversary, and in our prayer together, we can ask God to continue to bless your parish community of St. Matthew and strengthen it in faith and charity,” said Bishop Deeley during the centennial Mass.

The first St. Matthew Church was dedicated by Bishop Louis Walsh on Oct. 10, 1921, to serve a growing number of Catholics, many of whom had come to the area to work in the Limerick Yarn Mill. 

Prior to that, Catholics who wanted to attend Mass or receive the sacraments had to travel to Sanford/Springvale, nearly 25 miles away. While it is still a trip the priests of the parish, who also serve St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in Sanford, make today, back then, it meant taking a stagecoach to East Waterboro, then taking a train the rest of the way.

“That was the whole day. Then, they would stay overnight, and the next day, they would go to morning Mass, have their dinner or whatever, then head back home,” said Cecile LePage, a lifelong parishioner.

With the size of the community continuing to increase, a priest began traveling to the area. At first, Masses were celebrated in private homes. Then, beginning on Christmas Day in 1912, the faithful gathered in the shipping room of the mill. The mill’s superintendent was Catholic and made the space available.

“We were very amazed at the people. They would have to get things ready in the mill for the church service to take place on Sunday, and then, they would have to take everything down, so people could have the mills to work,” said Suellen Doggett from Waterboro, a longtime parishioner.

The foreman of the mill used shipping crates to build a frame for the altar. A parishioner’s sheets and lace curtains were used for altar linens, and someone donated a rug where parishioners would kneel while receiving Communion. The office of the shipping room served as the confessional.

In 1915, Bishop Walsh bought a home where Masses were celebrated in the summer, but it wasn’t heated, so the shipping room continued to be used once the weather turned colder. Land was then purchased for construction of a church, which was completed in 1921.

When it opened, parishes in towns such as Gorham and Windham had yet to be established so St. Matthew Parish served people not only from Limerick but 22 surrounding towns.

“To have a church in your town where you don’t have to go very far to attend Mass and take your kids to catechism, it was wonderful. It was wonderful,” said LePage, who was born in 1935 and grew up attending the church.

One period in the church’s history that LePage and other longtime parishioners remember with particular fondness was when the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement lived and worked in the parish. The sisters, who served at St. Matthew from 1949 to 1967, operated a kindergarten (the only one in town), taught religious education, sponsored a girls’ club and a boys’ club, and started a youth choir.

“The nuns were very, very good about having functions for the towns or plays or whatever,” said LePage.

“As teenagers, they provided the center of our social life. They did. Our teenage choir was like a youth group, and we did all sorts of things with them. One of the highlights was Christmas caroling each year. One year, we went in the back of an old pickup truck with a little pump organ and a miner’s hat with a light, so we could see. It was really fun,” said Elaine Vermette Jedrychowski.

“It was wonderful. We were so blessed with the nuns. We were down there all the time,” said Carmen LePage, a lifelong parishioner.

The original church continued to serve the congregation into the 1980s, when it became evident that the community, especially during the summer tourist season, had outgrown the space. The decision was made to build a new church less than a half mile away. To save on costs, parishioners helped to build it.

“When the church was being built, I pounded nails, painted, things like that,” said Bill Lanoue of Limerick.

The parish’s history tells of people carrying chairs and statues from one church to the other on a March morning in 1987, with the new church dedicated in June of that year.

Unfortunately, the new church would last just a couple of years. In December 1989, fire broke out, destroying it and everything inside.

“December 7, I’ll always remember what day it was because it was a holy day, and we were going to have a Mass at night, and that’s when the church caught fire in the afternoon and burned down,” said Carmen LePage. “It was terrible. It was one of the worst days of my life.”

“To stand there and watch that building go down was difficult, but we found out how strong we were,” said Vermette Jedrychowski. “We made it, and we learned that the church is not a building. The church is the people, and the Spirit carried us through.”

A new church, which stands today, was built on the same spot and was dedicated by Bishop Joseph Gerry, OSB, on June 2, 1991.

“We have a gem here right now. It’s really a beautiful church,” said Cecile LePage.  “I don’t think a lot of people realize what we have here. They don’t realize what a wonderful church we have and how lucky we are to have a church right here in the middle of all these towns.”

People had a chance to learn about the gem of a church over a period of 100 days, which is how long the parish’s centennial celebration lasted. Events, which were guided by Heather Silva, the parish’s administrative assistant, included bean suppers, bingo, blood drives, movie nights, Rosary gatherings, and more. Appropriately, however, the culmination of the festivities was the celebration of the Eucharist, the same reason Catholics gathered in the area a century ago.

“The Eucharist links us to those 100 years ago, and it will link us to those who come 100 years after us. It is what we do, have done, and will do for another 100 years,” said Father Wilfred Labbe, pastor. “That is where we meet Jesus most intimately and most assuredly.”

“Jesus is with us in our gathering. As such, the purpose of this holy space remains the same as it ever was,” Bishop Deeley said. “Here, we are formed for the world. Here, we are changed by the presence of Jesus. Here, we are sent forth to witness to his message.”