Maine Irish Heritage Center is steeped in history, and repairs will ensure its future

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Mar. 11—So much of Vinny O'Malley's life, family history and identity can be traced to the old St. Dominic's church building in Portland's West End.

It's where his Irish immigrant parents came to worship and find a community in their new country. It's where O'Malley went to school and met lifelong friends. And for the past 20 years, as home of the Maine Irish Heritage Center, it's been for O'Malley a symbol of his pride in his hometown, its long Irish history and the way it welcomes immigrants.

The center's board and volunteers are planning to use $3 million in federal money, announced in December, to weatherize the building after years of water and wind damage. They plan to replace the building's slate roof and completely restore its brickwork for the first time since the church was built in 1892. The federal allocation is by far the biggest the Maine Irish Heritage Center has ever gotten, eclipsing a $100,000 gift used for converting the heating system to gas a decade ago. It's also a clear sign to O'Malley and others who care passionately about the center and its mission that it will continue to serve the community for years to come.

"It's not easy to describe how I feel about this place. A lot of it is pride," said O'Malley, 73, of Portland. "It's just part and parcel to who I was and who I am, like tens of thousands of other people."

The volunteers and staff who run the Maine Irish Heritage Center want people to know more about their building and organization, what it offers and what its future might look like. As part of that effort, there will be a free open house at the center on Sunday from 1-4 p.m. The open house follows the city's annual St. Patrick's Day Parade, which will be held on Commercial Street starting at noon on Sunday.

Since it opened in 2003, about five years after the Diocese of Portland closed the church, the center has been a volunteer, nonprofit group largely dependent on grants and donations for repairs and renovations. The center does have revenue from renting out the church and reception hall for weddings, memorial services, concerts and other events, but the $80,000 to $100,000 a year operating budget is just enough to "keep the lights on" and pay a small staff, said Bob Kearney, board chair.

EXPENSE TOO GREAT

When the center's board learned a few years ago that money for groups like theirs might be available through the federal Community Project Funding program, they contacted the offices of Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree and Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins.

In December, Pingree announced the $3 million for the center was included in the fiscal year 2023 government funding bill. Kearney said that, without the $3 million, repairs to the roof and brickwork would have to be made a little bit at a time and stretched out over many years. Already the years of damage to the bricks and roof can be seen in the vast amounts of water damage inside the church's main area and choir loft, including to plaster and stained glass windows. A half dozen or so stained glass windows on the State Street side of the church building have been boarded up, to protect the from further weather damage. Often after a storm, volunteers find bricks or slate tiles on the sidewalks around the building.

Kearney said, over the years, it hasn't made sense for the center to make major repairs inside the church building while water keeps leaking in. With the $3 million, the church will get an entirely new roof — though still slate to comply with historic district standards — as well as new copper flashing, new gutters and a complete repointing of all brickwork. The work will take up all of the federal money, at an estimated cost of about $3.3 million, and should take place sometime in the next year or two, generally at the same time, Kearney said, so that the costly building of scaffolding and platforms around the church will only have to happen once. At its highest point, the top of the bell tower, the church is about 130 feet tall.

"I'm incredibly proud to have secured federal funding to preserve the Maine Irish Heritage Center for future generations," Pingree said in a statement Friday. "For many Irish families, St. Dominic's Church was the center of their community, celebrating weddings, baptisms, and cultural events, but after more than 200 years, the historic structure needs repairs and updates."

Pingree will be at the Maine Irish Heritage Center on Tuesday to present a ceremonial "big check" for the $3 million and to tour the center.

"Without her support, and her looking at what we really needed, we would not have enough funding to do all this," Kearney said about Pingree's efforts. "A small nonprofit like us can't raise that kind of money all at once."

DOORS CLOSE, MISSION CONTINUES

The cornerstone for St. Dominic's, Portland's first Catholic parish, was laid on the corner of State and Gray Streets in the city's West End in 1828. Though the biggest Irish immigration to Maine and the United States happened after the massive Irish famine of the 1840s, earlier famines and desperate economic times in Ireland fueled immigration in the 1820s and '30s as well, said Matthew Jude Barker, author of "The Irish of Portland, Maine: A History of Forest City Hibernians." Irish immigrated to New England and the Northeast in large numbers, partly because those areas had most of the economic opportunities at that time.

By around 1860, there were an estimated 3,000 Irish-born citizens living in Portland plus about 1,000 of their children, Barker said. At the time, Portland's total population was just over 26,000. Much of the early Irish settlement in Portland was on the fringes of the Old Port and the West End, around the intersection known as Gorham's Corner, said Maine State Historian Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr. Today the site is marked with a statue of famed Hollywood film director John Ford, who grew up in Portland in the early 1900s, was baptized at St. Dominic's and whose father ran a bar in the neighborhood.

By the 1880s, the Irish Catholic population had grown to the point where St. Dominic's needed to expand. A new, much larger church was built on the site between 1888 and 1893. That's the building that today houses the Maine Irish Heritage Center. O'Malley, whose own parents came to Maine from Ireland in the 1920s, said the parish had some 4,000 members when he was growing up in the 1950s and '60s.

Like so many other churches, St. Dominic's congregation dwindled as people moved to the suburbs. Faced with more than $1 million in needed repairs, the Diocese of Portland closed the church in 1998 and eventually transferred ownership to the city. There were proposals from developers to use the church for commercial purposes, but the city chose to sell the building for $1 to the group that became the Maine Irish Heritage Center.

The centerpiece of the center is the church sanctuary, which seats 600-700 in oak pews and is lined with ornate stained glass windows. Unlike some Catholic churches, most of the glass is painted with flowers or patterns, very few saints or other figures can be found. The sanctuary can be rented for weddings and other functions, as well as concerts, though in the past few years there have only been handful of each. The church's choir loft is used by local painters, to work on their paintings quietly, and the center often hold art exhibits.

The church basement, where weekday masses were once held, also features stained glass windows and is rented out as a function hall or used for center activities. The heritage center holds various programs and events throughout the year in both the sanctuary and the basement function hall. On March 7, the church hosted a concert of Irish music by Derek Warfield and the Young Wolfe Tones. On Feb. 25, the center hosted "Irish Voices: An Evening of Irish, Poetry, Art and Music."

There is also an Irish genealogy center and library in the former sacristy, which is staffed on Fridays to help people with research. The center offers genealogy consultations and help by appointment as well. The center also has an archive of campaign ephemera and other materials from former Maine Gov. Joseph E. Brennan, as well as a collection related to Ford's career.

Maine continues to be one of the most Irish places in the country; it ranks fifth among U.S. states with the highest percentage of people with Irish ancestry, according the U.S. Census Bureau's 2016-2020 American Community Survey. Maine had 16.6 percent of its population claiming Irish ancestry, which was behind only New Hampshire (20.2 percent), Massachusetts (19.8 percent), Rhode Island (17.6 percent) and Vermont (17 percent.)

The center has about 400 members, but O'Malley and Kearney both say they'd like to make more people aware of what it offers and what it can be used for, while they also work to preserve it as an important piece of Maine Irish history. They hope the open house Sunday and the attention the $3 million in federal money has brought will help do that.

"We want to continue making this a real center of community, for everyone," said O'Malley.