Welcome to Maine! Congratulations! Those were the greetings repeated from Kittery to Fort Kent as parishioners extended a hand, shared a laugh or took a photograph with Bishop Robert P. Deeley as he began visits to parishes across the state.
In his introductory news conference, held on the day of his appointment in December, Bishop Deeley said, “I can only move things forward if I find out where things are, and then learn where we might go,” and that is what he has spent the first weeks of his episcopacy doing.
Beginning the weekend after his installation, he has traveled to parishes and schools to get better acquainted with the diocese’s priests and parishioners. In his first two months, he visited churches in seven of Maine’s 16 counties.
“It is my privilege and responsibility to be the shepherd of this holy people that follows the Lord Jesus here in the Catholic Church in Maine,” the bishop said during one of his first homilies. “Wherever the bishop celebrates the Eucharist, the unity and communion of the Church is celebrated. For that reason, I am particularly happy that we have the chance to be together today.”
Parishioners expressed their happiness as well, calling it a privilege to have the 12th Bishop of Portland celebrate one of his first Masses with them.
“I think what he’s doing is fantastic,” said Carmine Dolce, a member of St. Martha Knights of Columbus Council 12033 in Kennebunk, “making the rounds and letting the people know that he’s there for them. He seems like a very likeable person.”
“To have somebody who is in charge of so many people at such an important time come here is just wonderful,” said Rit Leslie, who offered the readings during the Mass the bishop celebrated at Holy Family Church in Lewiston. “It’s very important to us here in Lewiston to have a bishop in place now.”
“It’s really exciting. I really feel that we are blessed because he chose our parish,” said Patty McCullum, the cantor at St. Margaret Church, Old Orchard Beach.
“It’s a thrill that he’s here with us, that he thinks enough of us to come down here. I can only imagine what his calendar looks like around this big, monstrous state. I think it’s tremendous,” said Frank Daily, a parishioner who attends St. Martha, Kennebunk.
One of the bishop’s first stops was the newest church in the diocese, Saint Faustina Church of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Jackman. A December snowstorm had prevented Bishop Richard Malone from being present for the church’s dedication so parishioners viewed it as a special blessing that Bishop Deeley came to celebrate with them just nine days after his installation.
“It was such an honor to have him come, especially seeing that we missed out on Bishop Malone in December, which was a big disappointment,” said Isabelle Haggan, sacristan. “We’re happy to have him here, and our church is brand new, and it’s made quite a difference.
“I, as well as the community of Jackman, Saint Faustina Church of St. Anthony Parish, are deeply delighted in the bishop’s visit,” said Father Kevin Martin, pastor. “We thank him for coming and taking the time to be with us. We pray for him and for his ministry among us.”
“I think it’s delightful that the bishop came here, especially that he came here at the very beginning of his administration. It was a great blessing for us to have him there,” said Elizabeth Foote, a parishioner at Holy Family, Greenville, who sang in the choir during the Mass in Jackman.
Bishop Deeley’s early visits included St. Mary of Lourdes Parish in Lincoln, an area struggling economically after a boiler explosion at the local mill put approximately 200 people out of work. The bishop offered his prayers for those affected.
“Coming to be with you this morning, to be with you in prayer is a great opportunity for me to know where this is and who are the people are suffering because of this, and how is it that we can pray together and be together in a moment of need,” he said.
Parishioners wanted him to know that, despite the challenges, their faith remains strong.
“People are still so excited to be part of this parish. We haven’t lost that spirit,” said Alycia Grieco.
In addition to celebrating weekend Masses, the bishop also led Lenten observances, including vespers at Most Holy Trinity in Saco and the Stations of the Cross on the second Friday of Lent at St. Louis Church in Fort Kent.
“It was great to have him around. It really brings him closer to all of us,” said Irene Bouchard, a St. John Vianney parishioner.
“I think it’s awesome that he’s come. I really do,” agreed Arlene Bouchard Paradis.
During his parish visits, the bishop held meetings with priests and also took time to chat with parishioners. It was an opportunity for them to learn a little bit about their new chief shepherd and to share hopes and concerns.
Frank Daily, of St. Martha, Kennebunk, said he hopes the bishop follows the example of Pope Francis. “If Bishop Deeley imitates that spirit, it’d be great. The upbeat idea that the Church brings in everybody, is concerned for everybody.”
Similarly, Diane Labonte, from Good Shepherd Parish, Biddeford, said she hopes his focus will be on the homeless and the poor. “We have so many needs, to be able to help, to make that avenue a little clearer for us would be wonderful,” she says.
Kimberley Nicastro of St. Mary of Lourdes said that she was pleased to hear the bishop pray for vocations. “We need it because our priests are getting older,” she said. “I was glad to hear that as part of his homily.”
Arlene Bouchard Paradis expressed the wish that the bishop would travel to Fort Kent as often as possible. “We’re so far here, and sometimes we feel forgotten,” she said “That’s the only thing I hope he might be able to do, but I know he’s a busy man. He’s got not just us; he’s got the whole state.”
Other parishioners wanted the bishop to know that, while their communities may be small, their faith is not.
“Even though we’re rural, we’re hardscrabble, and we love our God,” said Ken Woodbury of Holy Family, Greenville.
“This is a very vibrant parish with a lot of faith. We’re very faith-filled. We have quite a few young families, and they’re here in church at Masses on the weekend,” said Anita Clavette of St. John Vianney Parish, Fort Kent.
Clavette said she also thinks it’s important for the bishop to reach out to the young people of the diocese.
Patty McCullum said she would like to see the bishop work to help churches better connect with one another.
“I’d like to see us brought more together and focused in a better direction. I feel like we’re kind of lost, and we need our shepherd to guide us.”
Although parishioners are still getting to know their new shepherd, those who have had a chance to meet him, say he has made a good impression.
“I like him a lot. I mean he’s down-to-earth, approachable,” said Mark Labonte of Prince of Peace Parish, Lewiston.
“I think he’s a very caring and a very down-to-earth person, and I think we’re very fortunate to have him come up as our bishop,” said Karen Chandler of Holy Family Parish, Greenville.
“He seems to be gentle, friendly,” says Arlene Bouchard Paradis. “He seems like a really nice man.”
“My first impression was that I would be very comfortable with him. He’s very down-to-earth,” said Isabelle Haggan. “Of course, I would respect him highly, but I would feel comfortable treating him like a house guest.”
Now that we’re in the season of Easter, Bishop Deeley will visit more parishes as he celebrates the sacraments of confirmation and first Eucharist.