A brief history of St. Mary’s proud 170 years in Houlton, Maine

Father David Raymond , Special to The County
15 years ago

HOULTON, Maine — We all know the Church of St. Mary of the Visitation simply as St. Mary’s. Everyone in town knows this church as simply, St. Mary’s.
    The parish of St. Mary’s, too, has always had a beautifully simple image. When reviewing the sesquicentennial history of the parish, it reveals how in 1839 a small Catholic group of about 30 families, some living at the barracks on the hill, called themselves the “little rock.” They met in the home of Jeremiah Mullen whenever a priest was visiting the area to celebrate Mass, baptize the young and marry engaged couples.
It is from that very seed of faith that we can celebrate 170 years later. I am amazed to find the grave stones of some members of the original “little rock” resting in the cemetery behind the church. Around the humble church constructed in 1839 grew the Catholic enclave of the area.
The story of the Catholic presence in Houlton begins at a time etched in the greater history of Aroostook County. In 1828, during a border dispute between the U.S. and Great Britain, Brevet-Brigadier General Brady, colonel of the 2nd regiment of Infantry of the U.S. requested the presence of Father McMahon of Eastport to administer the sacred sacraments to the soldiers at Hancock barracks in Houlton.
Then at the close of the “Bloodless Aroostook War” it became evident that a resident pastor was needed to care for the growing Catholic population. In 1839, Benedict Joseph Fenwick, the bishop of Boston answered the people’s prayers by sending Father Manasses Daugherty to Houlton as the first pastor of St. Mary of the Visitation.
Many people today remember the beautiful white wooden church constructed by the sacrificial gifts of the good people back in 1885. Father William Lonergan, pastor of St. Mary’s for 15 years, led the building campaign. Also at this time, St. Monica’s mission was constructed which nurtured the faith of the people in Cary until demographics and time closed the mission in 1958.
The history of St. Mary and the story of Houlton are very much integrated. Madigan Hospital, the sisters of St. Mercy and St. Mary’s academy and school, for instance, frame the lives of so many of Houlton’s past and present generation.
St. Mary’s, in which people gather for daily celebration of the Eucharist, today dates from 1960. It grew out of the ashes of Fr. Lonergan’s 1885 church which was victim of a horrible fire during the night,  January 12, 1958.  Credit for building the new church must be given to the vision and generosity of the people of the parish. Fr. Michael Tierney led a campaign along with life-long resident Paul McGillicuddy as campaign chairman.
The design of the new church building came from the work of the nationally known architect Viggo F. E. Rambusch. In 1988, Catholic University in Washington recognized Rambusch as the ”Dean of American Church Architects.” He coordinated the decorating, lighting and furnishing of more than 1,000 churches, synagogues, theaters and other public places.
His design for St. Mary’s incorporated several features that became commonplace only during the years following Vatican II. The spacious sanctuary and the baptismal font are two examples of architectural appointments envisioning post-Vatican II ecclesiology. Today, St. Mary’s remains proud of its property which includes a beautiful parish center completed in 1998.
St. Mary’s church is proud to be the flagship of Catholic presence in southern Aroostook County. Our faith community supports many vital programs and ministries to meet the spiritual and many temporal needs for the good of our parishioners and those beyond Military and Main Streets.
For example, each year St. Mary invites anyone wanting a Thanksgiving meal to come to St. Anthony’s Hall for a free hot turkey dinner. St. Mary’s serves the needy of the entire community and beyond by its support of St. Mary’s food pantry cared for by the dedicated efforts of Mildred Madigan and other volunteers. Dedicated individuals give unselfishly to bring Christ to the sick, the poor, the young and those who mourn.
Houlton has a strong Catholic identity, a strong North American history and a Catholic Christian mission that points to a bright future.