Irish Heritage Center helps immigrants

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Berkeley Elias / Lead Photographer

By Max Lorber, Staff Writer

18th century Irish immigrants in Portland reached out to fellow community members for help to fund the construction of a Catholic church. While many discriminated against the Irish people, some heeded the call, and extended a hand to this struggling group.
Now, the Maine Irish Heritage Center (MIHC), headquartered at the former St. Dominic’s church on State Street in Portland, helps newly arrived immigrants.

In 1828, having secured enough funds through donations to begin construction, the foundation stone for St. Dominic cathedral was laid. It was completed in 1833. At this time, the Irish community was regularly persecuted by local Portlanders, many of them Protestant. According to The Irish of Portland, Maine and St. Dominic’s–175 Years of Memories, violence perpetrated against Irish-Catholics was rampant, it was not unheard of for Irish men to be shot or beaten to death on the streets of this city.

By 1888, the Irish Catholic population in Portland had grew substantially, many of whom were fleeing the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1851, known in Irish history as An Gorta Mor, the Great Hunger in the Irish Gaelic language. Most of them came from the rural Connemara, a mountainous region on the west coast that spans between Galway and Westport. The 55-year-old cathedral was no longer adequate for such a large congregation, so they again raised money and began the construction of a larger building on the same lot. There was still a lot of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment in Portland at the time. To prevent sabotage, local longshoreman, many of whom were Irish-Americans, guarded the construction site with bats and clubs through the evening. Completed in 1893, the building still stands to this day.

“This church has such a strong connection to the Irish community,” Vinny O’Malley, executive director of the Irish Heritage Center in Portland and second generation Irish-American, said while discussing St. Dominic’s history. As they struggled with poverty and disease through late 19th and 20th century, St. Dominic’s served not only as a place of worship, but also a community center, school and daycare. Families would converge and assist one another. The community that formed around the church helped one another through hardships, such as the influenza outbreak of 1918. A black wreath hanging on the door, an old Irish custom marking a death in the family, was a common sight in 1919 and into the 1920s. Throughout the 20th century, it was normal for a community members to have their baptism, confirmation, wedding and funeral at St. Dominic’s.

Due to a dwindling congregation, the Catholic Church decided to close and deconsecrate St. Dominic’s in 1997. Ownership of the property went to the City of Portland, and then was gifted to the newly founded MICH in 2003. With the building in disrepair, MIHC was closed in 2006. The 4,100 pound bell had dislodged from its moorings and fell to the ground that year. The Patriot’s Day nor’easter storm of 2007 caused severe damage.

Members of the MIHC applied for grants and solicited donations. “The Diocese did a study, they said we needed five million dollars or this place was going to fall down on top of itself. Well, we’re still here,” O’Malley said. In 2008, the MIHC reopened, and the 116 year old bell was reinstalled in the church tower.

The MIHC is largely a volunteer organization that hosts events, concerts, film screenings and art exhibitions, as well as celebrating Irish culture with Irish Gaelic language and Irish dance classes. They have also done work with Portland nonprofits, including Learning Works and Opportunity Alliance.

Margaret LaCombe Feeney, a member of the MIHC, did a genealogical study on the Feeney family in 2008. John Ford, the famous film director and native Portlander, is part of that family tree. His real name was John Martin Feeney, nicknamed “Bull Feeney” in high school because of his prowess on the football field. He was an altar boy at St. Dominic’s in the first decade of the 1900s.

“About a quarter of today’s Mainers have some Irish blood,” said Herb Adams, a local Portland historian. A genealogy program is now run by the MIHC.

For the last three years, Welcoming the Stranger, a local grassroots organizations that help immigrant families through a mentorship program, has held their Thanksgiving meals in the MIHC community room on the first floor. The MIHC hosted a concert by Pihucintu, a chorus consisting of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe this past March. Local Portlanders from the Democratic Republic of Congo celebrated an election held in their native country in December of 2018.

After listing the above mentioned events that the MIHC has hosted, O’Malley said, “Whatever we do here, we want to be cognizant of the fact that we are all immigrants…and some of our experiences are very similar.”

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