Members of the O’Neil family of suburban New York think of themselves as Catholic church connoisseurs. They’ve been to St. Patrick’s Cathedral many times. They checked out Notre-Dame basilica in Montreal on a recent trip. Two years ago, they went on an extended tour of Italy, where they visited churches as both worshippers and tourists.

Sunday, they were on their way home from a week’s vacation at a camp in Rome when they drove by St. Helena in Belgrade Lakes.

Mass hadn’t been on the agenda that morning. The mother of the family, Kris, wasn’t able to make the vacation because she couldn’t get away from work at the last minute; and as much fun as everyone had, they wanted to get home to her.

But something about the unassuming brown wooden church, stained-glass windows thrown open to the summer humidity, made Jim O’Neil pull over.

Son Brian, 12, admits he wasn’t happy. Even though it was only 10 a.m., he was looking forward to McDonald’s after a week of hot dogs and beans and an occasional Korner Store pizza from Oakland.

Mass was the last thing he wanted to do.

But even he admitted afterward that it was worth the stop.

“It was really nice,” he said.

Jim O’Neil agreed. “I’m glad we stopped,” he said, adding the vibe at the church was “a perfect end to a great vacation week.”

“It’s low-key and everyone is friendly and welcoming. It has a vacation feeling,” he said.

Grace was more effusive than her brother. “It’s the prettiest church I’ve ever been in.”

Prettier than St. Patrick’s Cathedral? Than Notre-Dame Basilica? Than all those churches in Rome and Florence?

“Yes, yes yes!” she said, throwing her arms in the air and dancing around to make her point.

While most of the stories about churches these days are about them closing, St. Helena, one of a dozen or so in the state open only in the summer, thrives.

Frequently on Sunday mornings between the last Sunday in June and Sunday of Labor Day weekend, the church’s pews can’t hold everyone and parishioners spill out onto the lawn, listening to the service through the open doors and windows.  Cars fill the small dirt-and-grass parking lot and line Main Street  — Route 27 — and narrow School Street.

On Aug. 18, the church celebrated its 100th anniversary.

It was built in 1913 after summer Mass had been offered at a Great Pond camp owned by the McCormack family. They invited Jesuit priests up from New York City’s Fordham University in the summer, and the one requirement was that they’d say Mass on Sunday, according to granddaughter Sister Mary Alter, quoted in a story on the Diocese of Portland website. She told the congregation at the 100th anniversary Mass that people would come in boats or stop off as they traveled down Route 27. A tradition was born.

The Masses were also held for a while at the Belgrade Hotel. The McCormacks donated the land at the corner of Main Street and School Street for the church, and there it still stands.

It was named St. Helena after one of the McCormacks’  daughters, Helene, whose patron saint was Helena. This summer’s celebration was held on the Feast of St. Helena.

Now part of Corpus Christi Parish in Waterville, the church previously had been under the pastors at Sacred Heart in Waterville, St. Bridget’s in North Vassalboro and St. Theresa’s in Oakland.

As churches closed, St. Helena continued to draw a congregation.

The church remains almost unchanged from when it was built. The wooden sign is hand-made.

There’s no heat or insulation. The stained-glass windows are understated blue and green. The inside is unfinished wood, with rafters crisscrossing the peaked ceiling. Two ceiling fans move the air that comes through the open stained-glass windows. Those used to the heavy incense and the furniture polish smell of the buttoned-up church they go to the rest of the year will notice the inside of St. Helena’s has the comforting summer-baked wood smell of camp.

The blond wood of the interior glows with sunlight that spills in the open windows most of the summer.

When it starts getting dark for the final couple of Saturday night Masses, the lights come on and add their own soft warmth.

O’Neil said he’s been awed by some of the churches his family has visited — the artwork, the architecture. And, he says, the whole purpose of an ornate church was to inspire awe in the congregation. But he said St. Helena’s inspires its own kind of awe.

“You don’t need a lot of ornamentation to talk to God,” O’Neil said. He said the church feels closer in its own way, without the eye candy, beautiful in its simplicity, with the trees outside and the breeze blowing through.

Grace agreed. “Jesus would like this church. And so would Mom.”

Maureen Milliken is news editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email her at [email protected] Kennebec Tales is published the first and third Thursday of the month.

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