Sadness turns to joy as parishioners return to the church that they call home

November 30 was a day of rejoicing for parishioners who attend St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Madawaska. For the first time since the church was vandalized on October 2, they were able to return to celebrate Mass. 

“It was devastating. We were so saddened by that, but today, it’s like we’re coming back home. We’re back home. That is what we’re so happy about,” says Martha Dufour, regent of the Daughters of Isabella. “Our hearts are so filled with joy right now to be able to sit in these pews again and celebrate the Eucharist. It’s something that is hard to put into words.”

“The smells, the incense, the lights, the people, the responses, the music, all of that — it was being home,” says Ann Marie Clavette, who serves at the parish.

“Tonight, when I received Communion, I had tears,” says Lee St. Onge, an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, who also leads the French choir and runs the church’s thrift store. “We’re back home. I’m just happy.”

The November 30 Mass of Reparation was celebrated by Bishop Robert Deeley and concelebrated by 11 priests from across Aroostook County. During the Mass, the bishop walked around the sanctuary and down the aisles of the church, sprinkling the altar, walls, and congregation with holy water. The altar, which was among the items vandalized, was left bare until the Liturgy of the Eucharist, when it was dressed with altar cloths and had candles placed upon it and lit.

While describing the vandalism as “terrible” and “sad,” the bishop called the Mass of Reparation a new beginning for the church and the community.

“This is a holy place. We do not expect such vandalism to happen in holy places. This evening, however, we look forward. We look beyond what has happened, and we look to the future,” the bishop said. “Because of the efforts of many people, we can come together this evening to bless this church once again.”

Father Kent Ouellette, pastor of Notre Dame du Mont Carmel Parish, which includes St. Thomas Aquinas Church, says the timing of the Mass was ideal, coming just days before Advent.

“It’s fantastic. Just before the beginning of a new liturgical year with Advent, that is perfect,” he says. “Hearts will begin to mend and begin to know that even in tragedies, the Lord is with us and will always be with us, no matter what.”

Father Ouellette says that he has felt the Lord’s presence beside him as he has sought to help his congregation deal with the initial shock and the subsequent sadness over what happened. 

“For me, as a priest, I never felt alone because I know the Lord is with us, and I also knew that the faithful people were with me,” he says.

He says his message to his congregation has been to not lose faith, to be assured that St. Thomas Aquinas Church would open again, and to keep mercy and forgiveness in their hearts for the man accused of the crime.

“The biggest thing was not to judge, not to condemn, and to bring mercy at all levels — in our minds and in our hearts to anybody involved in any way,” he says. “The human condition of brokenness sometimes comes out in these ways, and we just need to bring that compassion and healing and forgiveness, and just be with each other and be with the Lord.”

Parishioners say they have kept the man accused of the vandalism and his family in their prayers since the day the damage occurred.  

“We gathered together at noontime in front of the church, a large group of us. We called people, and we prayed the Rosary and the Divine Mercy with our pastor and the other priests in the area,” says Clavette. “We prayed for our parish, but most especially that day, we prayed for the person who did this.”

The damage estimate is $200,000 to $300,000, but the church is insured. The altar, tabernacle, marble walls, and organ were among the items vandalized. The damage to the organ was so extensive that it will have to be rebuilt. In the meantime, a parishioner donated an organ for the church’s use.

“The vandalism was really devastating,” says Cliff Cyr. “I was the sexton, and when I saw this, it was unbelievable, but today, I know where the damage was but no one else does. You would really have to look closely.”

While the damage was heartbreaking to see, Father Ouellette and the bishop both say there are reasons to be grateful.

“We are grateful for the parts of this tragedy that can be seen as grace. What a blessing that the custodian arrived early to work and saw the lights on. What a grace that he called the police and did not enter the building himself. He could have been hurt. What a blessing were the police who arrived and found the man still inside. They were able to move him out of the building without harm to him or them. And what a blessing was the prompt response of Father Kent Ouellette for his leadership throughout this crisis. It was he who realized the seriousness of the situation and moved all worship to St. David Church. Finally, what a blessing was this community, which waited patiently for the damage to be repaired in such a way that the community could gather and see the building as sacred once again,” the bishop said.

Along with Masses, some ministries were also held at nearby St. David Church, while the Knights of Columbus offered the use of their hall for faith formation classes. 

Parishioners say they are grateful for the hospitality that was shown to them but are nevertheless happy to be back at the church that has long been their spiritual home.

“It means a whole lot, a whole lot,” says Joan Cyr. “My husband and I and our three kids were all baptized here. Except for my son, we were all confirmed here. We were all married here.”

“I’m happy we’re back. It’s like coming home,” says Roger Albert, a state representative and longtime reader at St Thomas. “The church has been a centerpiece for my family.”

“It’s everything for me and my family. It’s our sustenance. It gets us from week to week and through thick and thin,” says Greg Cyr, the parish’s business coordinator.

“It’s not that we don’t like St. David, because it’s a beautiful church, but this is the one that we attend. As a child, this was where I used to come, so you kind of get attached to it. I’m glad we’re back,” says Deacon Don Clavette.

“You feel like you’re back home. Your community is important. Your Catholic community is important, and it’s a smaller church. We just like the atmosphere,” says Priscilla Canna.

“I know the Lord is present at every church and everywhere, but it is just where I feel comfortable,” says Sandra Hebert, who serves on the Parish Council. “It’s like being in a warm, comfy blanket when you’re at St. Thomas Church. You’re still comfortable at other churches. They’re nice and beautiful and spiritual, but it’s not like having your comfy blanket around you.” 


Bishop Robert Deeley gives the opening prayer.
Deacon Donald Clavette reads the Gospel.
Dressing the altar for the first time with altar cloths.
Lighting the candles for the first time.
Bishop Deeley incenses the altar.
Bishop Deeley incenses the altar.
BIshop Deeley celebrates the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Bishop Deeley and priests celebrate the Liturgy of the Eucharist.