Closing the Church Doors
In 1978 the energy crisis and the high heating costs forced the closure of the Notre-Dame du Mont-Carmel church. The St. Gerard church, a short distance away in Grand Isle, was more modern, cost efficient, and could accommodate both parishes. Consolidation took place and Notre-Dame closed its doors. This was not a happy prospect for some of the parishioners of Notre-Dame who formed a group called La Fabrique and sued Bishop Edward O’Leary of Portland in hope that he would reopen the parish. The Bishop did not relent and the case was in court for close to five years. At the same time, La Fabrique also sued Don Cyr and Norman Daigle because they had purchased church property from the Bishop (the rectory as a private residence and the barn, respectively). The battery of lawyers representing Bishop O’Leary, Cyr and Daigle, were buoyed by the Vatican, which sent them eleven similar cases in the United States. All cases had been thrown out of court. (The lawyers working for the defendant included former governor Kenneth Curtis, Solomon Brothers, Philip Parent, and David Griffiths. William Smith was the lawyer for the plaintiff.)
By 1983, the La Fabrique case was thrown out of court. The Bishop of Portland faced a dilemma. Before the court action took place, a contractor had been hired to demolish the building. In the five years that passed, the Madawaska Historical Society placed the property on the National Register of Historic Places. As well, Cyr needed assurance that he would not lose the rectory, which was his private residence. Bishop O’Leary carefully considered the future of this former church. Though he endured a five-year court case, he understood that La Fabrique was fundamentally acting for a good cause – the Bishop knew that destroying the building at this stage would not be appropriate. And so, he met with Cyr to discuss the issue. Cyr proposed that the former church would make an outstanding museum and cultural center. Delighted by the idea, Bishop O’Leary suggested that Cyr form an organization to manage the next steps. The building was saved (ironically, if it had not been for La Fabrique taking action to sue the Bishop, this magnificent building would have been destroyed).
Saving the Building
The five-year court case was not kind to the building. It had been locked, unheated, and unoccupied for too long. The frost was twelve-feet deep the first winter and an earthquake seriously destabilized parts of the foundation. To remedy the situation, Bishop O’Leary sent a contractor and $5,000 worth of hemlock beams to stabilize the foundation. These challenges were dealt with temporarily, but the rest of the building needed serious repairs, including additional attention to the foundation. To manage these next steps, the Association culturelle et historique du Mont-Carmel was incorporated in the spring of 1984 and 501c3 status was received later that year (Richard Rhoda of Houlton kindly volunteered his services to incorporate the organization). The original board of the association consisted of twenty-two representatives from throughout the St. John Valley, including the Canadian side. As the association’s first member, Bishop O’Leary offered the building to the association for one dollar, including the majority of its contents.
Restoration Begins in Earnest
Work on the foundation and roof began in 1989 with the help of two grants totaling $61,000 from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and a $70,000 loan secured by Cyr. The building needed to be repainted, but the priority was to ensure a strong foundation and roof, plus several other issues on the exterior of the building. This included installation of emergency safety lighting (inside and out), and replacement of sills and a 70-foot chimney (Desjardins Masonry of Van Buren repaired the chimney). Thanks to a community development grant, the entire building was rewired to code and a handicap accessible entrance was built at the rear of the building (where a convent had been originally connected) and installation of a handicap accessible restroom (RL Todd Electric of Caribou did the electrical conduit work and Kutch Construction of Fort Kent built the handicap entrance). Once these projects were completed and the building was stabilized, historic preservation work could begin.
From the beginning of incorporation, the association adopted a policy to hire the most competent and talented professionals to do the work. The association has continued this policy to today (we learned how important this policy was when we cut corners repairing the roof in our early years). At times, project costs may be more expensive, but the work is done well the first time, and very importantly, we provide employment to the people of this region.
Fortunately, the interior of the building was mostly intact, requiring little emergency attention. It had been modernized through the years, especially in the 1960s when the Second Ecumenical Council made extensive changes that resulted in relocation and modification of altars. A modern confessional had been built near the front doors under the choir loft. A passageway to the cellar (near the front doors of the church) had been cut through the floor on the opposite side of the building. The result was two plywood boxes about 8 feet high on each side of the building behind the pews. Not only were they aesthetically distasteful, they gravely impeded the space. Once removed, the building was more to its original state.
The modernization efforts also included removing pews near the front doors and a chest high wall put in their place. The floor of the altar had been carpeted and a platform was built extending the altar floor closer to the pews. Between 1984 and 1989, the carpeting and platform had been removed, the confessional had been donated to St. Joseph parish in Sinclair, Maine, and the entrance to the cellar had been demolished and the floor repaired.
Opening the Doors
While the extensive repairs and restoration was taking place, we opened our doors for concerts, workshops, and to showcase historic artifacts. The magic of this former church creates a wonderful atmosphere with perfect acoustics and ancient Roman decoration. As a result, hundreds of events have taken place, ranging from performances of French theatre and chamber orchestras, to lectures on architecture, and exhibits on history, culture, and local artifacts.
Don Cyr became the association’s president and the museum’s director. A serious collector of Acadian and Québecois material culture, he donated his extensive collection to the museum. This collection is arguably one of the most extensive in the United States, representing all strata of Acadian and Québecois material culture, which includes furniture, ironware, small artifacts, documents, textiles, and folk art and original religious artifacts.