One of the rooms in the new museum at St. John the Baptist Church in Brunswick features a display of ornate vestments once worn by clergy. Chance Viles / The Forecaster

The new museum at St. John the Baptist Church  in Brunswick aims to preserve the culture and history of the church, featuring exhibits that are in some cases hundreds of years old.

Museum curator Bob Bouchard holds pieces of the former church bell that melted in the 1912 fire that burned down the original church. Chance Viles / The Forecaster

Preserving the history of the church is especially important, according to Bob Bouchard, who is a parishioner, church historian and museum curator, because it lost nearly everything in a fire in 1912 caused by errant sparks from a nearby railroad.

The St. John the Baptist History Museum at the church on Pleasant Street opened last Sunday. Four rooms display everything from rare priest robes to communion servers, purificators, stained glass and pieces of the original church bell that melted in the fire.

“This museum will help us grow not only in our appreciation of the past and present, but in our commitment to ensure this parish community continues to be strengthened in its faith of the Lord and devotion to our Blessed Mother,” Murphy said.

The museum is dedicated to Gerard Menard, the former historian and parishioner who began organizing the collections. Menard died in 2020 at 94.

“It was his dream to get this museum together, and in turn it became my dream. I am happy to see it come together,” Bouchard said.

Menard and his wife Valencia Pinette “were remarkable people with a great reputation,” said Deacon John Murphy.

“He was the kind of a man who was just very particular, always dressed to the nines and always about presentation. Anything Gerry put his hand to was well-loved,” Murphy said. “Gerry had a deep love for the traditions of the church, and I think he inspired people.”

Clergy wore the black vestments on display at funerals, but that was discontinued in 1962. Chance Viles / The Forecaster

Menard’s family members were not available for comment.

The church was founded in the late 1800s. Parishioners rallied to rebuild it after the fire, and a new foundation was built within a year. The building was completed in 1927, but it was largely unadorned for a while, Bouchard said. In 1945, Italian artist and sculptor Giovanni Prampolini was brought in to paint the frescos parishioners see today.

“Each angel has the same face, and that was his wife, that is something I found very interesting,” Bouchard said.

Over the years, the church’s artwork and artifacts grew, with former clergy vestments left behind and old items tucked away.

“Before this museum, a lot of this stuff was stuffed in drawers or the laundry room,” Bouchard said. “Some of these things have probably never been seen, while others may bring people back to old times.”

A collection of church accessories, including candle holders, patens, purificator and burses. Chance Viles / The Forecaster

In particular, some older parishioners might remember a set of black vestments worn by clergy at funerals until the Catholic Church discontinued their use in 1962. Also displayed are a number of items from the church school, fairs and bazaars.

One of Bouchard’s favorite displays is a closet filled with vestments dating back to the fire.

“You really get a sense of the personality and devotion to the church clergy had, some pieces were so heavy and they’d wear them on entire Sundays,” Bouchard said.

Modern vestments are more simple, while the older robes had heavy trim and hoods to match.

Some of the vestments have phrases on them in English, some in French, showing its shift from predominantly Irish membership to French Canadian in the early 1900s.

One room is adorned with photos of church life that stretch back as far as photography can. Another two rooms contain a number of artifacts, including a few magnificent stained glass windows from St. Andrews Church in Pejepscot, which closed in 2009.

“This place has a tremendous legacy,” Murphy said.

Other exhibits include former altars, chalices, a former pastor’s desk and an ornate bible from 1884. There’s also a document-filled research room.

“I think the museum is a fitting tribute for our ancestors. Now, we just hope we can get young people in the door to learn,” Bouchard said.

Museum curator Bob Bouchard sorts through vestments at the new museum. St. John vestments in the collection are from after the 1912 fire; some of the others, from the former St. Andrews in Pejepscot, are well over 100 yeas old. Chance Viles / The Forecaster

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