WHITEFIELD---Bishop Robert P. Deeley will join fellow clergy, parishioners, and community members in commemorating the 200th anniversary of St. Denis Church in Whitefield, one of the oldest churches in Maine, on Sunday, June 10. The bishop will celebrate an anniversary Mass at the church, located on 298 Grand Army Road, at 11 a.m. with a reception to follow.
In 1818, over 100 Catholic farming families settled in the Whitefield/Windsor area due to available land. Bishop Jean-Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus visited the new settlement, celebrating a Mass in a barn and establishing a parish. That same year, the Keating family of Whitefield donated 18 acres of land on the condition that a church be built. Fr. Denis Patrick Ryan, an Irish immigrant who had been serving at St. Patrick Church in Newcastle, moved to Whitefield because of the increase in population. A highly successful pastor, he would serve at St. Denis until 1840.
The first St. Denis Church was a wooden building with a section used as a dwelling for the priest. Located high on a hill overlooking the Sheepscot Valley, the church served as the geographical focus of the Irish community and attracted new Catholic settlers to the town, many of whom settled within earshot of the church bell.
On a visit to Whitefield in 1832, however, Bishop Benedict J. Fenwick, S.J., called the existing church a “miserably built” wooden building and, observing a rise to over 1200 parishioners, authorized the building of the present church.
Completed in 1833, the new church was a tribute to the piety of the Irish who fashioned it. It was built in the Greek Revival style of brick, donated and made by parishioners. The interior is that of a New England meetinghouse, and the historic cemetery of the original pioneers of the parish is located next to the present church.
In the 1850s, Fr. Edward Putnam oversaw the construction of a bell tower, a fine Tuscan-style campanile. Fr. Anthony Siniscalchi, pastor of the church from 1875-1888, arranged for the present main altar to be built in Italy and shipped to Maine for installation. The side altars are a gift from Michael Gorman, a member of the parish and a native of Ireland, who died in 1890. In the late 19th century, the Stations of the Cross, initially built for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland but deemed too small, were installed at St. Denis. Pews and stained-glass windows were also put into place during this period.
In 1998, a major renovation project was completed, including brick work, the re-painting of the wood siding, and the construction of a new roof. The floor was also replaced with white pine boards, the same type of flooring that had been in the building since 1833, and the electrical and heating systems were redone.
Now a member of St. Michael Parish, St. Denis Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
All are encouraged to attend the anniversary Mass on June 10.