The Rev. Michael P. Gendreau spent the week packing his few priestly belongings and moving from one river valley to another. This is the time of year when clergy in several denominations start new assignments in new congregations.
Gendreau has moved before and will move many more times during his career. Yet he does not anticipate that any other transfer will feel like this one does. The priest is going from St. Agatha in Aroostook County to Augusta in Kennebec County, and Gendreau says it feels like he’s “being uprooted.”
That’s because Gendreau’s roots are long and deep in St. Agatha. For the past five years, he has served as the sole priest for the two Catholic churches and a summer chapel on the shores of Long Lake. His family connections in the church and the town go back five generations.
His great-great-grandfather Romain Chasse gave the land on which the St. Agatha Catholic Church was built in 1890. The farmer’s children were baptized, married and buried there as were his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Gendreau was baptized in the church 40 years ago next month.
St. Agatha Catholic Church sits atop one of the rolling hills that peacefully cradle Long Lake in the St. John River Valley. This time of year, the church is a place where the lush green that carpets the earth meets the vast bright blueness of the sky. Situated at the head of the lake, the parish is a decade older than the town of the same name, which celebrated its centennial last year.
Gendreau was as reluctant to return to the Valley in 1995 as he is to leave now. When told of his assignment, the young priest asked the bishop, “Do you know where you are sending me?”
The Rt. Rev. Joseph P. Gerry, who heads the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, was unaware of Gendreau’s ties to St. Agatha. Although baptized in the church, he grew up in St. David’s parish in Madawaska, where his parents own a clothing store. Gendreau was ordained at that church in 1990.
“At first, it was humbling and intimidating,” Gendreau says of his return to St. Agatha. “People had known me and my family for years. I felt like a little boy again and yet I was coming home in a different way. Because I am a priest, I came into the community and immediately was thought of as a leader.”
The first weekend he was back, the Chasse family reunion was held at the annual Acadia Festival, and last year, the community and the church marked the town’s 100th anniversary. Gendreau now says he leaves with a new appreciation of his Franco-American heritage and culture.
“I feel like the people here gave me back myself,” the priest says. “I have rediscovered my identity and who I am.”
Gendreau did not leave the Valley for college intending to be a priest, even though at 17 he had told his uncle, the Rev. Joseph Michaud, “the next ordination in this family will be mine” when Michaud was ordained. The young man did not talk about becoming a priest again until 1983.
Instead, Gendreau went to Thomas College in Waterville, where he majored in marketing. The plan was for him to eventually take over the family business. Until then, he chose to work in marketing in southern Maine. In 1983, the company Gendreau was working for went bankrupt and he moved home to work for his father.
“It was then my pull toward the priesthood surfaced again with much more power,” he recalls. “I was at my grandfather’s funeral in St. Agatha and I knew the answer I had asked for [about joining the lpriesthood] had been given. … I became a priest because nothing else was enough.”
Gendreau is handsome. With his chiseled jaw and dark complexion, he looks as if he were chosen by a Hollywood casting agent to portray a priest on some soap opera. Yet he is also open, articulate, warm and self-effacing. He teases his parishioners about the fact that he knows so much about them, including most of their sizes.
They are as reluctant to see him go as he is to leave.
“His roots are all here,” Luke Derosier Jr. says after Father’s Day Mass. “He’s from here. He’s like family. He knows most everybody personally. We will miss him.”
At this particular service, Gendreau talks about the “vous” and “tu” of God. He tells his congregation that when he returned to lead the parish, he was stunned when men old enough to be his grandfathers spoke to him in French using the respectful “vous” rather than the more familiar “tu.”
He urges them “to address God as toi. That makes God one of us, and isn’t that what Jesus was about? When we address God as toi, we involve Jesus in every aspect of our lives.”
It is not a sermon he will be able to take with him to his new assignment. Gendreau, who has conducted at least one Mass a weekend in French at St. Agatha, will miss the language almost as much as he will miss the people.
The people have not begrudged him the time he has needed to spend with his own parents during the past five years. They have understood and been supportive, says Gendreau, because “one of the values here is that children are there for their parents. I’ve been able to be there for my parents and not feel guilty that I was neglecting my congregation.”
And the congregation has not neglected him.
“I have left several congregations as a priest and during my time in the seminary,” he said. “People have always told me what they are feeling as I leave; this is the first time people are asking me how I feel about leaving.”
While the people of the St. John Valley are renowned for their warm hospitality, they also are intensely private and extremely modest. Both Gendreau’s parents and his uncle declined to be interviewed, and “Father Mike,” as he is called by his parishioners, was reluctant to talk about himself and his role at St. Agatha.
Gendreau points out that just as the people come together in celebration, they also rally around each other during traumatic times. In early April, tragedy descended upon St. Agatha when Marc Bard shot and killed his fishing buddy Leonard Daigle, then turned the gun on himself. Police believed Bard may have wanted to shoot Daigle, his wife, Gertrude Daigle, and Bard’s wife, Louise Bard, who had had divorce papers served on her husband only moments before the incident.
“When a member suffers here, the whole body suffers,” Gendreau says, adding that many still are pained by the deaths of their fellow parishioners. “We all try to grieve together and try to heal together.”
Today, Gendreau will celebrate Mass in his new church in the state capital. He knows he will encounter new challenges and rewards in this parish. Yet it will not be home, “chez-nous” in French.
“I will not find any place else in Maine like the St. John River Valley,” he says, “There is no other place like this place. This is chez-nous.”