July 4, 2012

Freedom of worship: David Paul

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Growing up the oldest of eight kids on Munjoy Hill, David Paul knows something about prejudice and the power of faith to overcome it.

He learned to hold his own and made friends among the black, Italian and Jewish families that populated Portland's working-class, waterfront neighborhood in the 1940s and 1950s. Through it all, the chapel at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was a refuge.

"We were poor Irish Catholics, so we took the brunt of it, and when my father left, we took a little more," said Paul, 67. "Whenever I had a problem, I'd go to the chapel and I'd work out a solution."

Paul returned to his East End roots in 2005, when he joined the effort to restore the historic Abyssinian Meeting House on Newbury Street.

The venture showed him that Portland's African American and Irish Catholic communities share similar experiences in their past struggles for freedom of worship.

Paul joined the restoration committee at the urging of its chairman, Leonard Cummings Sr., another Munjoy Hill native who had worked with Paul at the telephone company.

The volunteer committee needed someone to keep the books for a long-term, multimillion-dollar project. Paul had ideal experience as a former business manager for the telephone workers' union. He's also a real estate agent who has renovated several homes.

"My first meeting with the committee, they elected me treasurer," Paul said. "I got involved because of my background and my friendships, but it was the building that grabbed me."

Built in 1828, the Abyssinian is the third-oldest African American meeting house, after churches in Boston and Nantucket.

In 1826, six black men - Reuben Ruby, Caleb Jonson, Clemant Tomson, Job Wentworth, Christopher Manuel and John Sigs - published a letter in a local newspaper, announcing their plan to build a church for Portland's black community. They no longer wanted to be relegated to the back pews of Portland's white congregations.

"Pardon our misapprehensions, if they be such," the men wrote, "(but) we have sometimes thought our attendance was not desired."

The letter still amazes Paul.

"They felt they had to apologize, and they just wanted to build their own church," he said. "They had to be terribly strong in their beliefs, not only in their religion but in themselves as people."

Maine's Irish and Roman Catholic communities faced similar prejudices, perpetuated by anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic factions. During the 1850s, churches in Bath and Lewiston were burned and Father John Bapst was tarred and feathered by a mob in Ellsworth.

Portland's first Catholic church, St. Dominic's, was built at Gray and State streets in 1833. As immigration increased and the city's Catholic population grew, the original building was torn down to make way for a larger church, built by Irish immigrants.

While the church was under construction in the early 1890s, Irish longshoremen guarded the property at night, armed with baseball bats and two-by-fours, to prevent vandals from setting the building on fire before it was finished.

At that time, Maine's Catholics were led by Bishop James Augustine Healy, who was the first black priest and bishop in the United States, though he identified himself and was accepted as white.

Healy was born in Georgia, a son of an Irish immigrant plantation owner and a mixed-race slave. He was bishop of Maine from 1875 to 1900, serving at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, a few blocks from the Abyssinian.

The Abyssinian thrived through the 1800s as a religious and cultural center for Portland's black community. It also operated a school for black children when the city's schools were segregated.

The Abyssinian's membership took a serious blow in 1898, when the SS Portland was caught in a terrible storm and sank during a return trip from Boston.

(Continued on page 2)

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