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A Concise History of the Relations Between the St. Mary’s Maliseets and the Catholic Church
Under the British regime the Natives continued their life of hunting and gathering through yearly migration along the river. In this early period some of these people probably camped on the north side of the St. John River at Fredericton. The river site of the Old Reserve was used as a campground as early as 1818. (Bear Nicholas) Native people attending church would have to cross the river and attend Mass at Ste.-Anne-des-Pays-Bas in Kingsclear about eleven miles above Fredericton. A chapel was built in Fredericton South in 1827 and was the first building named after St. Dunstan.
The pastor at St. Dunstan’s church in Fredericton, Fr. James McDevitt (1823-1897), was concerned that the Native People and the Irish Catholics in St. Mary’s did not have a chapel. Fr. McDevitt and his sister, Mrs. James Hayes, asked that a new parish be established and in 1887 and St. Mary’s Parish became a reality. As an example of his concern for the Natives in his will Fr. McDevitt left money for the Native People to receive Christmas dinners each year while the money lasted.
The first resident priest, Fr. John P. Kiernan called a meeting at the Native School for the purpose of organizing the parish. Mass was held at the school until a mission church could be built. When the church opened, a Maliseet choir sang on the day of dedication when Bishop Sweeney arrived to bless the church. While he was at St. Mary’s Ferry, Fr. Kiernan did much to improve the lives of the Native People. In an era when strong drink was prevalent in many levels of society, he formed a temperance group where he asked several Native People to sign a pledge of total abstinence from alcohol. In 1907, Fr. Ryan stated in a letter to the Department of Indian Affairs, “… the Reserve is so close to the city of Fredericton the many undesirable white people find their way to it particularly at night and bring with them their enemy, whiskey, in consequence even though at the present time we are supposed to have a policeman on the Reserve, I am often called to quell disturbances…”Later in 1911, the curate, Fr. Walter Donahoe, also placed an emphasis on temperance by forming The Temperance Society of the St. Mary’s Indian Band. He stated the meeting was not only for “the salvation of their souls but also for the preservation of their race by avoiding the evils of intemperance.” Meetings were held on Thursday nights and eighteen women and fifteen men took the pledge to abstain from alcohol for one year.
In 1913, Fr. Donahoe left and two new curates took up the temperance movement on the Reserve. Curates Fr. Alphé Gaudet and Fr. Dominic Cormier expanded the society to include social programs including acting, singing, dancing and music. The society was active until WWI when several of the men went off to war.
When the young priest, Fr. John Ryan arrived, he made plans for a new church. While St. Anthony’s was being built, once more Mass was said in the Native school, until the basement of the church was finished. Fr. Ryan requested that a new school to be built on the reserve and this school stood until 1920, when it was replaced. One of the Paul men looked after Fr. Ryan’s horse and the barn for him.
In the new church the balcony was built to accommodate the Native People and the church choir. Gabe Dedham stated that the Natives chose to be in the choir and they had pews made by a local craftsman for their seating. Another reason for their choice may have been the custom of charging pew rent in the main church. By being in the choir loft and having their own pews this meant the Natives did not have to pay this fee.
In 1908, Fr. Ryan in recognition of his administrative abilities was appointed Superintendent of Indian Schools of New Brunswick. Under his leadership much was done to improve teaching in the schools of the Native People of New Brunswick.
Brucie Green related that “Little Matilda Sappier was a great church worker. She did the altar linens and laundry. She was Catherine and Jim Paul’s daughter and a great-granddaughter of Gabe Acquin.”She would also have been a sister to Mrs. Maud Dedham above.
When Fr. Walter Donahoe returned to St. Anthony’s as the pastor in 1928, he along with the Indian Agent, B.J. Griffiths, began working on a plan to establish a new reservation on higher land away from the river. The land near the river was too small to include new housing and the overcrowding of the growing Native population increased the spread of diseases such as tuberculosis. Property was purchased from the Hayes estate and between 1931 and 1932; eighteen houses were built to a standard considered suitable to the times. Fr. Donahoe noted, “The Indian women proved themselves excellent housekeepers when they have a decent home to keep.” The school on the Old Reserve continued to be used for some time after the move to the new Reserve. Later it was used as the band hall until it was destroyed by fire.
In the 1940’s an outstanding men’s choir was formed at St. Anthony’s. It consisted of four Maliseet men: Noel Polchies, Peter Paul, Frank Peter Paul (Nemo) and Charlie Muise. The Native children had their own choir called the Tekakwitha Choir after the Blessed (now Saint) Kateri Tekakwitha. The children’s choir was under the direction of Mrs. Leitha Barry and they also carried on other activities such as study, knitting and social events. Their organist was Mrs. Barry’s son, Robert Barry. The children of the Tekak with a Choir were: Virginia Acquin, Harry Brooks, Gabe Dedham, Tena Muise, Grace Nash, Florence Paul, Mary (Dolly) Paul, Rebecca Paul, Rita Paul and Joyce Sappier.
The St. Mary’s Indian School was under the direction of the Department of Indian Affairs. In the 1940’s the Sisters of Charity were asked to take over the teaching there. Rev. Sister Jean Marie and Rev. Sister Marietta taught academics as well as domestic science and handicrafts at the school. They lived at Rosary Hall in Fredericton and came over each day to do their teaching. About this time the Devon Town Marshall and prominent member of St. Anthony’s Church, Leo Hayes, would often bring pails of milk from his farm to the school to give to the children. As remembered by Leo Hayes’ daughter, Mary, this kind gesture was gratefully accepted.
The 1950’s and 60’s saw many changes in the church. The post war baby boom also saw many more children from the Reserve receiving their first Sacraments. The large classes of children were organized in lines on the church steps and had their photo taken. Many of these children were from the Native community.
The changes brought about in the church by Vatican II were generally welcomed by the laity. Some priests were somewhat overzealous in favour of change, such as, the complete refurbishment of the church’s interior and the destruction of the high altar. As well during the renovations a sanctuary lamp donated by the Natives in honour of their war veterans was discarded. Mrs. Louise Paul says,
“During Father Hynes’ time (1945-52) the ladies of St. Mary’s Reserve raised money to buy new
pews for the gallery and also to buy a new Sanctuary lamp which was suspended from the ceiling. The lamp had a brass plate with the inscription ‘In memory of Our Dead’. The lamp was later removed and its removal caused a lot of animosity among the members of St. Mary’s Indian Reserve.”
After this time of change and disregard for the lamp donation, several people from the Reserve began to fall away from the church. Their group attendance however, remained for special occasions, such as baptisms, marriages and funerals. A certain number continued to attend regularly and enjoyed the benefits of the church community.
The Native People have always been buried in the St. Anthony Cemetery, which was begun in 1890. For many years they had their own separate section. One day each year the men of the parish would go to clean up the cemetery. They would fill in sunken graves, mow the long grass, straighten tombstones, repair the fence and do any other obvious repairs that needed doing. This effort was not sufficient to keep the cemetery looking its best. In 1975, the Indian Band of St. Mary’s organized a cemetery committee to clean up the Native section. They did a fine job and this was noticed by the other parishioners so the St. Mary’s Cemetery Committee was asked to work in the whole cemetery. By the 1980’s a perpetual fund set up by the three Fredericton north Catholic parishes was in place from the sale of burial plots and an annual collection. The interest from the fund paid for the upkeep of the non-Native section of the cemetery. The Native section was paid for from the St. Mary’s Indian Reserve Bingo Funds. This system worked until the 1990’s when the cemetery maintenance was taken over by St. Anthony’s Parish.
In the forty-five years from 1970 until 2015, St. Anthony’s Parish has been blessed with several dedicated pastors. Several of these men of God have striven to make the church more inviting to the Native people by visits to homes on the Reserve, saying Mass in the Native community, welcoming them to the Sacraments, including their leaders in church projects/organizations, and inviting them to be part of the liturgy. Gradual success has been achieved as several of the Native People have returned to their former home at St. Anthony’s.
At present symbols of the Native community can be found in the dream catchers that hang on the pillars at the front of the church, the framed picture of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the communion basket used on the altar, the leather stole worn on special occasions by the priest and the sweet grass placed on the altar. Native elder, Imelda Perley, takes part in the Easter liturgy. The Muskrat Drummers participate at funerals of the Native People and a spiritual leader from St. Mary’s is part of the funeral services. St. Anthony’s Parish is striving to include the Native People in these ways and hopefully the prejudices and errors of the past can be put aside so a more vibrant and inclusive community can be built.
-Much of the information for this article has come from the book Behold I Am With You..,by Robert McNeil, which is a history of St. Anthony’s Parish published in 1987 on the 100thanniversary of the founding of the parish.
-Steadfast, Early Parishioners of the Roman Catholic Parish of St. Dunstan’s, Fredericton, N.B.by Frances Reid McGinn published in 2011.
-A book published in 1948 called the Official Historical Booklet of the Diocese of Saint John gives the state of the parishes at that time.
-Pax Vobis, A History of the Diocese of Saint John its Bishops and Parishes, by Rev. Dr. Michael McGowan published circa. 2002 is a more modern look at the parishes.
-Further reading included articles by Brucie Greene, who was a friend of the Maliseets of St. Mary’s. As well, the St. Mary’s First Nation website has an interesting history by Andrea Bear Nicholas.