PORTLAND, Maine — When workmen installed thousands of slate roof tiles, high atop St. Dominic’s Church on State Street, back in the 1890s, they used the finest materials available, including sturdy, iron pins securing each gray-stone shingle to the roof deck below.
But now, more than 120 years worth of salty, sea-driven winter storms off Casco Bay have corroded those vital metal shafts and they’re beginning to give way. Each time they do, a slate tile slips off the towering roof, crashes to the ground below and shatters into a thousand historic shards. Then the rain gets in, and that’s bad for the ceiling, stained glass windows and ornate plaster work inside the cavernous sanctuary below.
That’s why the fresh $3 million, recently promised by the federal government, is going to come in handy for the Maine Irish Heritage Center, which now occupies and cares for the former Catholic house of worship. The funds, allocated in 2023 Community Project Funding, are specifically earmarked for replacing each slate shingle pin with a rust-impervious stainless steel version, as well as repointing every mile of mortar holding the building’s impressive brick edifice together.
“We want to get the envelope really watertight so we can do more work on the inside without worrying about any damage,” said Bob Kearney, president of the Irish Heritage Center’s board of directors. “This was built by Irish immigrants and it’s held up pretty good but we definitely have to deal with those two issues.”
Once the roof and walls have been taken care of, the center plans to restore the old church’s many stained glass windows, plaster details and construct more display space for its historic collection of items. The center has already made significant upgrades to the building’s lighting, accessibility, heating system and downstairs parish hall. Those are being financed through other means including donations from individuals, block grants from the city and even financial support from the Irish government.
The Heritage Center has been taking care of the historically Irish-American Church since the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland closed it in 1998, the year the building turned 105. However, St. Dominic’s parish, itself, was even older than that.
According to the Maine Irish Heritage Trail, largely researched by the center’s Matthew Jude Barker, the first Catholic mass ever said in Southern Maine happened in Portland, in 1822, when the city’s population of faithful numbered just 43 souls. Fewer than 10 years later, Portland had its first full-time priest. The original St. Dominic’s church went up on the spot, at the corner of Gray and State Streets, in 1830.
“By 1853, the Catholic population of Maine and New Hampshire had become so great that the Portland Diocese was established on July 29th of that year,” Barker wrote.
A Catholic girls’ school was opened at St. Dominic’s in 1865, run by the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame, out of Montreal. Those nuns were later replaced by the Sisters of Mercy, in 1872.
“In 1886 Father John Wigmore Murphy, a native of County Cork, became the pastor of St. Dominic’s. Soon after he put plans into action to tear down the old church and begin construction on a new, far larger St. Dominic’s,” Barker wrote.
The new St. Dominic’s was formally dedicated on August 6, 1893. A boys’ school was added in 1923 and by the mid-1950s the parish boasted 4,000 official congregants. At the time, though the church had always catered mostly to Irish-Americans, there were also a smattering of those with Syrian, French and English roots, as well. For a time, Polish members of the church had their own chapel in the basement.
But, as inner-Portland began to lose population to the suburbs in the 1960s and 70s, so did St. Dominic’s. By 1980, parishioners had dwindled to 1358. In 1997, it was decided the remaining 240 households affiliated with the building could no longer care for it. Deferred maintenance over the years had left parts of the church in dire need of more than $1 million in repairs.
St. Dominic’s parish merged with Sacred Heart’s on the other side of town in 1998.
After that, the city of Portland took possession of the building and began looking for someone to possibly remodel its sanctuary into several floors of office space. But an offshoot of the local Irish American Club, called Friends of St. Dominic’s, intervened and saved the sanctuary from that ignominious fate.
Kearney was part of that group, too.
“The city wanted to turn it around right away, and see what anybody could do with it, because they wanted the old girls’ school next door for affordable housing — but this big church wouldn’t have benefited them at all,” he said. “We thought, let’s take the essence of the Irish immigrants who built this, and their history, and turn it into a community center.”
Portland city officials agreed that it was a good idea and gave the Friends of St. Dominic’s a sweetheart deal — after proving they had the fundraising and fiscal chops to follow through on their dream.
“They sold it to us for a dollar,” Kearney said.
Friends of St. Dominic’s then morphed into the Maine Irish Heritage Center and, 20 years later, the building is holding up well and the group is hosting more and more Irish-themed cultural events each year including art shows, concerts and plays.
The center also has a small paid staff and professional genealogists on hand to help local Irish Americans trace their roots back to the ‘auld sod. They can even use DNA to help pinpoint living relatives and exact villages.
Kearney said the center also has a mission to serve more than just Irish Americans, as well.
“We want to be a diverse community center because, though this was built by Irish immigrants, we understand that there are new immigrants coming to Maine all the time,” he said.
But the building, itself, is in constant need of attention, first. The federal money, shepherded by Maine’s Congressional delegates Rep. Chellie Pingree, Sen. Angus King and Sen. Susan Collins, will go a long way in securing the Maine Irish Heritage Center’s long-term goals.
“These kinds of buildings are always works in progress,” Kearney said. “We’ve done a lot but there’s still more to do.”