PEARLEY LACHANCE’S GIFT to the Waterville area truly represents a labor of love.

Lachance, 81, of Winslow, is a devout Catholic, so dedicated to his faith and family that he gets emotional when he talks about the church he and his wife, Alice, were married in and what it meant to them.

St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church on Elm Street in Waterville was torn down three years ago to make way for senior housing after the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland was unable to find a buyer who could re-purpose it. The new St. Francis Apartments incorporated stained-glass windows, woodwork and other items from the church, including a cast-iron, gold-colored statue of St. Francis which was placed on the building’s lawn along with a special enclosure housing the church bell.

The decision to raze the 137-year-old church was — and still is — a sore point for many Catholics in the area who grew up in the church and had strong emotional attachments to it.

The Lachances are no exception. Pearley says Alice was so upset about it that she was physically sick for three days.

“Alice took it very hard. She had done all her sacraments there — baptism, first communion and confirmation, and our wedding day.”

He remembers May 29, 2013, the day the gold-painted cross atop the steeple was taken down as part of the demolition. It was nearly too much to bear. To make matters worse, a couple of months later the Lachances learned that a man who got all the granite from the church also got the 11-foot-tall cross that had been on the steeple 140 years and the granite and cross had been hauled to Albion and left in a cow pasture.

The Lachances drove to Albion, found the field and its owner and asked to buy the cross.

“It was so far in back of the house and the barn,” Pearley recalled. “It was in a pasture and when we went there, the cows came out to greet us.”

They agreed on a price of $300 for the cross, which was made of galvanized sheet metal over a wood beam and the arms of the cross were hollow. Pearley hauled it to his Winslow garage on a trailer.

“We had no idea what we were going to do with it,” he said.

He started researching St. Francis, who was a bishop in Geneva, Switzerland, at the time of the Protestant reformation.

“I said, you know we’ve got to do something, and it’s like you have a thought and you go over it and over it and try to come up with a solution.”

He started to read articles and recalled what the cross symbolizes — Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross and resurrection, the foundation of Christianity — and where it should be placed. While the bell from St. Francis Church is preserved in a special house on the former church property near the senior apartments, Pearley did not think it appropriate to put the cross there as well.

He got an idea.

Since the cross came from St. Francis Church and the Catholic cemetery on Grove Street in Waterville is called St. Francis Catholic Cemetery, he thought that would be an appropriate home for the cross. Furthermore, the cemetery is a quiet place, where people go to plant flowers, pray, reflect and remember their loved ones who have died.

To put the cross there, he needed permission, so he made an appointment to visit Bishop Robert Deeley at the Diocese in Portland.

“The Diocese owns all the churches, so any final decision that has to be made concerning major events has to be approved by the Bishop. That’s why I went to him. I met a man that I could talk to. We never had to justify this or argue about it or anything like that. I had well-prepared myself to convince him that this would be the right thing to do with the cross. He agreed. He said that really makes sense and you have my approval.”

Pearley worked with cemetery officials to find a suitable place in the cemetery for the cross — between the flagpole and granite stone near the cemetery office. Then he found a man who could restore the cross — John Gawler, of Belgrade. He hired Bill Mushero of Oakland to build a foundation for the cross at the cemetery and that was done last week.

Gawler is working on the cross in his shop and Pearley hopes it will be ready to be installed in the cemetery on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, which also is his and Alice’s wedding anniversary.

He sees the cross restoration and placement as not only a gift to Alice, but also to the many people who had a connection to the church, including those who remain bitter about its demise. He plans to hold a cross dedication Nov. 11 at the cemetery, and Bishop Deeley will be there. Anyone else who wants to come is invited, particularly those who loved St. Francis Church.

“I hope people see that something that started as a very negative thing will end up being a positive thing,” he said. “There will be a ceremony, and this is where I hope this whole healing process will happen because the Bishop is really a social man, an easy-to-talk-to person and when he comes, he mixes with the crowd.”

Pearley will have spent a few thousand dollars for the cross restoration and installment by the time November rolls around, but he doesn’t want to take any credit for that. A proud Franco-American who has volunteered for church and community all his life, he has a long history in Waterville. His grandparents came to the U.S. from Canada in 1899 when Pearley’s father was 6 months old and worked hard in the Wyandotte Woolen Mill at Head of Falls. His own parents worked at the C.F. Hathaway & Co. shirt factory and later opened a grocery store.

The restored cross — you might call it Pearley’s legacy to Waterville — will be erected within sight of his grandparents’ graves at St. Francis Cemetery, and when he and Alice die, they will be buried next to them.

I like to think that, with all his work to rescue and restore it, the cross will serve to protect and bless him in return — and for eternity.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter for 28 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.


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