A History of St. Martha's
With Many Thanks to Dennis and Carol Dalton*
(The Pastors of St. Martha's -click here)
As one peers back through the shroud of time aided by the rather sketchy historical data gleaned from various archives, it appears that St. Martha's Parish has its origins in the celebration of the Mass in private area homes. The Kennebunks were, in the first half of the 19th Century, relatively thinly populated; there was scarcely a smattering of Catholics in this area. The Mass was purportedly celebrated in the private home of one Thomas Casey as early as 1845, although a search of the York County Registry of Deeds indices, numerous ancient maps, certain genealogical records for residents of the Kennebunks and county burial records do not reveal the existence of any such gentleman.
The Kennebunks were later formally administered as a mission, initially by St. Mary's Parish in Biddeford. For reasons that are unclear, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport later became attached to St. Joseph's Parish in Biddeford as missions. At that time there was still no church or chapel structure devoted to the celebration of the Catholic Mass in the Kennebunks.
In the latter half of the 19th Century, the influx of persons of Irish, and later French and French-Canadian ancestry, together with the steadily increasing appearance of summer visitors spurred the growth of the Kennebunk and Kennebunkport missions in their nascent stages. Likely as a result of pressures engendered by the burgeoning of the dominant Biddeford parishes as the French and French-Canadian population swelled, there came a time in the early 1890's when St. Joseph's Parish had no priest to send for the celebration of the Mass in the Kennebunk and Kennebunkport missions. In response to a fervent plea from one Catholic Kennebunkport resident, Mrs. Eliza Driscoll, the Bishop at the time urged Mrs. Driscoll to contact Father Dugre` of the Springvale parish. Mrs. Driscoll dutifully did so, and hence the later affiliation of the Kennebunks missions with the parish in Springvale.
This new affiliation was pivotal to the growth of the Kennebunks as a free-standing parish. Father Dugre` presided over the missions in the Kennebunks for ten years, but it was his successor in 1902, Father Joseph Casavant whose rare energy and vision catalyzed the growth of St. Martha's Parish. He worked tirelessly to construct a church building, St. Martha's Church, on South Street, in Kennebunkport. There is a twinge of mirthful irony perhaps in considering the possibility that the name of our parish, St. Martha, derives from Biddeford's St. Mary's Parish being unable to service the needs of the Kennebunk Catholics (recall our patron St. Martha being devoted to service, while her sister, Mary, enjoyed the "contemplative life"); however it is more likely that the name of our parish derives from a prominent summer visitor, Mrs. Martha Walker, of St. Louis, Missouri, who, in the late 1890's, made available the use of a small chapel building across the street from the South Street church building built by Father Casavant. In gratitude, the parishioners named the church St. Martha.
Unsatisfied with this feat, Father Casavant also cause the church building on Storer Street in Kennebunk (Which is now the Lutheran church) to be constructed in 1904; this new church was blessed as St. Monica's Church. Such was Father Casavant's devotion and energy that in a mere five years, the Kennebunkport and Kennebunk missions went from the celebration of the Mass in a single tiny chapel (and occasionally in the Town Hall in 1901) to two church buildings.
Apropos to the growth and vigor of the Kennebunkport and Kennebunk missions, in 1909, Kennebunkport was established as an independent free-standing parish, with Saint Monica in Kennebunk as a mission. Bishop Louis Walsh appointed the Right Reverend Monsignor Charles Collins as the first resident pastor of the newly established St. Martha's Parish the same year. Monsignor Collins purchased the rectory on Ocean Avenue in Kennebunkport at which a small winter chapel was later erected.
Upon Monsignor Collins resigning as pastor of St. Martha's Parish in 1913 to serve as editor of The Pilot, Boston's Catholic newspaper, under the direction of His Eminence, William Cardinal O'Connell, Father Michael Kenely was appointed pastor of St. Martha's, serving for an astonishing forth-three years, until 1956. Among the highlights in Father Kenely's tenure were the attachment of both Wells and Ogunquit to Kennebunkport as summer missions, and the celebration of the first Confirmation ceremony conducted in the Kennebunks in 1914.
Father William J. Kelly succeeded as pastor in 1956. During his fourteen year tenure as pastor, Father Kelly, like Father Casavant, showed great vigor in shepherding his congregation. In was under Father Kelly's auspices the former St. Martha's Church located on North Street, Kennebunkport (and which is now the municipal building) was constructed. This building had formerly been locate at "seven corners" - the intersections of the Log Cabin, Sinnott, Arundel and River Roads. It had been operated at the time as the Arundel Opera Theater before being moved to North Street and converted by Fr. Kelly into the former church. It was with the opening on Christmas Eve 1964 of the "new" St. Martha's church on North Street, remodeled from the relocated Arundel Opera House Theater building, that the notion of a centrally located altar was inaugurated in York County. Fr. Kelly also built the new St. Monica's Church on the site of our existing church in 1969. Fr. Kelly then left the Kennebunk parish, establishing an independent parish at Wells and Ogunquit, Kennebunkport's former missions.
Father Stephen Mulkern became resident pastor, enduring in that role until 1986 when Father Hilary Cameron took charge of St. Martha's. Presiding as pastor for ten years, it was under Father Cameron's pastorship that the reconstruction and expansion of our existing church was conceived and the erection of the new parish center begun. Father Cameron's vision of a unified parish became a reality with the merging of St. Martha's by the Sea and St. Monica's into St. Martha's Parish early in 1996. It is with the reconstruction of our parish hall into a resplendent worship space, and the corresponding remodeling of the old worship space into a new parish gathering center that the construction begun under Father Cameron as completed under the vigilant eye of our new pastor, Farther Laurent Laplante.
As we look to the future, acknowledging the blessings bestowed upon our Parish, including our beautifully reconstructed worship space, we remain appreciative of the enthusiastic and insightful guidance of our current pastor, Father Laplante.
* This material was graciously provided by Carol and Dennis Dalton from a pamphlet they prepared for the dedication of St. Martha's Church.
The Pastors of St. Martha's
Rev. Michael J. Kenely: 1913 - 1956
The Reverend William J. Kelly - 1956 - 1970
The Reverend Stephen Mulkern, 1970 - 1986
The Rev. Hilary J. Cameron: 1986 - 1995
Rev. Laurent R. Laplante: 1995 - 2006
Rev. Claude J. Albert: 2006 - 2008
On January 1, Fr. Tom Murphy became Administrator of the newly formed Holy Spirit Parish.