PEAKS ISLAND — Peaks Island residents gathered with Bishop Robert Deeley on Sunday, July 23 for a celebration 100 years in the making – the centennial of the founding of St. Christopher Parish.
“It is a particular joy to be with you as your bishop to mark this anniversary,” said the bishop. “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. Christopher and strengthen it in faith and charity,” the bishop said.
St. Christopher Parish was established in 1923, a move driven in large part by an increasing summer population with steamboat ferry service then well-established and workers seeing increased vacation time.
“There were probably only a few year-round Catholics in 1923. It was not a Catholic island by any means. Most of the people who came here were summer residents, and they were the ones who really pushed and worked for St. Christopher’s to get a Catholic church, because they would go to cathedral or some church in the summer, and it’s a trek. They didn’t have buses or cars at the time. They would walk from their cottage to the boat and then walk to the church,” said Ellin Gallant, 93, who grew up on the island.
In 1911, Sunday Mass had begun to be celebrated at the Greenwood Garden Dance Pavilion, part of an amusement park that had opened in the 1880s. With summer attendance reaching into the hundreds, Father George P. Johnson, rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, realized the need for a true worship site. He began looking for land to build a church, and in June 1923, he purchased a 30,000 square-foot lot from Herman Littlejohn, Sr. Groundbreaking for the new church took place in October, with the building completed in March 1924.
“That was quite an achievement – to build a church that quickly and all for $35,000. It was certainly a lot of money at the time, but I don’t think we would have much of a church with that sum today,” the bishop said in his homily.
Like Gallant and her sister, Joyce O’Brien, who brought up the offertory gifts during the centennial Mass, many of today’s parishioners have roots that go back to those early days.
“My father was a lifelong parishioner. He was baptized in town because the church hadn’t been built yet. My grandfather was one of the people who helped get the parish started,” said Kim MacIsaac, who put together a booklet on the church’s history. “We have a number of people, families, who were instrumental in starting the parish. Many of their descendants are still parishioners.”
St. Christopher Church was built in a mission style with timberwork throughout. The church could originally seat 440 people with an additional 70 in the choir loft, which is no longer used. It is estimated about 500 attended the first Mass, which was celebrated by Father Johnson just a week after the church was completed.
At first, parishioners sat in rows of wooden chairs, but they were soon replaced by pews. That would be the first of many improvements through the years, including the installation in the 1950s of a stained-glass window in the sanctuary, which depicts the crucifixion of Christ in the middle, with Mary to the left and St. John to the right. The church also received the gift of a carillon during that same period, and in 1964, a belfry was added to the church to house it.
At 100 years old, the church was starting to show signs of age, so in preparation for the centennial celebration, money was raised for renovations, which included resealing the eye-catching, central stained-glass window.
“The stained glass behind the altar had to removed and resealed because it was falling apart. The stained glass was falling out, so that had to be completely taken down,” said Phyllis MacIsaac, a member of the Centennial Committee.
Renovations also included restoring statuary, including the statue of St. Christopher, the church’s patron, and a replica of Michelangelo’s La Piéta, which was a gift to the parish for its 50th jubilee.
“I have a good friend, Judy Walsh. She was a conservator at the National Gallery, and so, she volunteered and did the conservation that was necessary on the Piéta and on all the other statues that needed to be done,” said Phyllis MacIsaac.
Other renovations included putting in new electrical wiring, installing vintage-style lighting, and removing old carpeting and refinishing the floors.
“In a lot of ways, it looks the same, just really clean. You don’t know why it looks so beautiful, but it does,” said Mary Anderson, a longtime parishioner.
“The Church looks beautiful and is ready now to gather in its parishioners and bring them closer to the Lord Jesus through the prayers and Masses that will continue to be celebrated here. I understand there may still be some things to do, but it is quite an accomplishment to have done what you have,” said Bishop Deeley.
The work still to be done includes rebuilding the handicap ramp and repairing the skirting around the base of the church.
Support for the renovation project came from across Peaks Island and included both financial donations and labor. For instance, when the church’s pews needed to be moved so that the flooring could be done, dozens of people turned out to help.
“All kinds of people came forward to help. Many of them weren’t Catholic, but they realized this was a community thing. It was an important historical milestone, and they wanted to help,” said Kim MacIsaac.
“We had the entire community, not only Catholics but non-Catholics. They all jumped in,” said Fred O’Keefe, head of the Centennial Committee.
Some of the money for the renovations was raised by selling engraved pavers, which now lead the way to church. Following the centennial Mass, the bishop blessed the new walkway and sprinkled holy water on it, praying, “Grant that all those who enter this church by this walkway may persevere in the teaching of the apostles, in the breaking of the bread, and in unceasing prayer, and so be built into living stones in the heavenly Jerusalem.”
While the renovations and centennial provided special reasons to celebrate, the bishop reminded parishioners in his homily that it is important to remember that a parish is more than just a set of buildings.
“The parish is about people who are striving to live a faithful life. So, my friends, there is much that is good that we celebrate this anniversary. Coming together now, around this altar, reminds us, however, that this is the most important thing the community can do. Jesus’ presence to us in the Eucharist is our food for the journey of life. How grateful we can be that this church exists as a place in which the community is able to gather and celebrate. What we do here gives life and meaning to everything else the parish community does,” he said.
“It became another home for me,” said O’Keefe, who frequently checks on the church to make sure all is OK and has also served on the Finance Committee, the Parish Council, and as sacristan. “I’m going to continue to be involved at St. Christopher’s as long as they let me do it.”
Father Seamus Griesbach, pastor of St. Christopher, said he and those parishioners hope the centennial celebration provided an opportunity for less active Catholics to reconnect with the church.
“That was our hope, when we were discussing this centennial, that this would be a bit of an onramp and a way to reach out to some of our parish families that, over the years, for one reason or another, have grown a little bit more distant from the practice of their faith. Even though they have that great heritage, like any great heritage, you have to renew it, or else, you’re living in a museum. If it’s going to have life, then each generation has to take up that same mantle and really accept ownership,” he said.
Father Griesbach concelebrated the centennial Mass with the bishop, along with Father Kevin Upham and Father Cyprien Tatah, parochial vicars of the parish. Also concelebrating were Father Louis Phillips, Father Ed Clifford, Father Prabhu Toniyo Pastin, HGN, and Father Antonidass Amirthanathan, HGN.
Following the Mass and blessing of the new walkway, parishioners gathered at The Lions Club for a celebratory dinner to share stories, hear a little about the church’s history, and view photos and a video showcasing the parish’s history.
Additional pictures from Sunday’s celebration can be viewed at www.portlanddiocese.org/news/bishop-celebrates-centennial-st-christopher-parish.