Westport parish celebrates 100 years, welcomes new bishop

By Dave Jolivet, Anchor Editor

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WESTPORT, Mass. — It may have been his first week on the job in the Diocese of Fall River, but Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., had the honor of celebrating a Mass at a Westport parish celebrating its 100th birthday.

Bishop da Cunha, the eighth bishop of the Diocese of Fall River, visited the parishioners of St. George last Sunday to celebrate the anniversary of the parish established in 1914 by the diocese’s second bishop, Bishop Daniel F. Feehan.

“We are so honored to have Bishop da Cunha here as his first visit to a parish in the Diocese of Fall River, as we continue to celebrate the past 100 years and look to the future and the next 100 years,” pastor Father Stephen B. Salvador told The Anchor. “I’ve only been here two months, but I’ve been so welcomed by everyone. I feel like I’ve been here for years.”

Former pastor of 13 years, Father Gerard Hebert, who was at the celebration, told The Anchor, “Msgr. Edmund Levesque would have loved to have been here. He was here 18 years as an associate and five years in retirement.”

In his homily, Bishop da Cunha told the capacity congregation, “As I have been reading about the history of this parish, on the 75th anniversary Father [Roger D.] Leduc began a program called, ‘We the Parish.’

“That is why this parish is here 100 years later. Because of the faith, the generosity, of so many people who came before you; some of your ancestors, and now we see this beautiful church, this beautiful community of faith carrying on because you are contaminated by their goodness, by their generosity, by their faith. They are contagious and you caught it. Right?

“But now, 100 years from now, 50 years from now, is going to depend on us. And I include myself now because I am now here, right? I am now a part of the history of this parish and this diocese. And I include myself now as part of those who ought to give that contagious example for others. We, the parish.

“So my urge and invitation to you, all of you today, is that we the Parish of St. George, will be here for the next generation because we will share our gifts, our treasures, our faith with one another. And we will make it contagious for our people to come and join us and follow us, and this parish will be here for the next generations to come.”

“We believe that Heaven touches earth when we celebrate Mass,” parishioner centennial celebration committee secretary Jean Poisson told The Anchor. “The entrance song was ‘Praise to the Lord,’ an old standard I have heard on many occasions but nothing like this. As the song began I felt that Heavenly presence. More than the angels singing their praises to God, I believed that the faithful departed of St. George Parish also joined us, the living members of the parish, in offering praise and thanksgiving.

“The offertory gifts of bread and wine were augmented with symbols of our 100 years of existence. A shadow box containing the original 1922 contract for the construction of the current church building symbolized our respect for the gathering place where so many have worshiped Our Lord. The first and current register books for Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, Marriage and death were also brought to the altar.” Other meaningful gifts were also part of the Liturgy. 

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Ninety-one-year-old Oscar N. Stebenne was one of the many gift-bearers during the Liturgy. Stebenne is oldest parishioner born and baptized at St. George’s. “I was baptized here, made my First Communion and Confirmation here,” he told The Anchor. “I returned after I came back from World War II and got married. It’s beautiful to be a part of this celebration. It’s a special day.”

The history of the vibrant parish had its beginnings in the mid 1880s until its founding in 1914. During that period many French Canadian immigrants took root in the Westport area, particularly to work at the Westport Factory, whose lifeblood was the Noquochoke River that supplied power to the workplace.

Situated between New Bedford and Fall River, the immigrant Catholic community had to travel quite a distance, back then, to attend Mass and receive the Sacraments. Eventually, a building in the area of Beeden Road and Route 177 became a mission of Notre Dame de Lourdes and St. Anne’s parishes, both in Fall River, that served the French-Canadian community at the time.

Witnessing the growing faith community in the Westport Factory area, Bishop Feehan knew the time was right to establish a new parish there named St. George. Its parish boundaries included all of Westport and Dartmouth.

Bishop Feehan appointed Father Charles Clerk as the inaugural pastor.

In 1917, a young, enthusiastic priest, Father Alfred A. Coulombe, a native of Lotbiniere, Canada, was named the parish’s second pastor. The 38-year-old hit the ground running and created a wave of excitement for the construction of a new church building for the fledgeling parish. 

Construction started in 1922. The building was to be a Romanesque design made of tapestry brick, with “made stone” decorating the facade. It was to have a Spanish tile roof and a spire reaching 60 feet into the Westport sky. 

The cornerstone was laid in 1923.

Tragically, Father Coulombe would never see the completion of the house of worship he so lovingly and diligently worked for. On Oct. 29, 1923, he was killed in a head-on automobile crash between Sanford and Beaulah roads, on Route 6, the very route his new church building overlooked.

Despite the fact that the church building did not yet have pews and was far from complete, the first Mass celebrated there was Father Coulombe’s funeral.

Shortly after the tragedy, Father Philias L. Jalbert was named pastor. His first order of business was to bring comfort  and healing to a devastated parish community.

On Sept. 17, 1924 Bishop Feehan dedicated the new church, fulfilling the dream of Father Coulombe. 

Through the years the parish continued to grow and flourish. Following Father Jalbert’s pastorship; St. George was pastored by Father Albert Masse, then Father Alphose Gauthier.

In 1949, Father Joseph Bourque became pastor, and had the honor to burn the mortgage at a gala event at nearby Lincoln Park ballroom. Along with Irene Rodgers, Father Bourque set out on a quest to restore the church interior.

Father Bourque was succeeded by Father Lorenzo Morais, who established the parish Women’s Guild and the St. Vincent de Paul  Society.

Father Lucien Jusseaume became the next pastor followed by Father Rene Levesque who oversaw the second restoration of the church. Illness forced Father Levesque to retire and he was succeeded by Father Clement Dufour. 

Father Roger D. Leduc pastored the parish through its celebration of 75 years in 1989.

Father Gerard Hebert became the parish’s 12th pastor in 1996 and the priest who would lead the parish into a new millennium, and continued Father Leduc’s “Renewal 2000” program aimed at completing many much-needed repairs and restorations. Father Hebert pledged not to overextend the parish finances, making repairs and renovations only when the necessary funds were available.

In 2011 Father Maurice O. Gauvin became pastor and his primary focus was to bolster the parish Faith Formation program. Father Gauvin was instrumental in beginning the preparations for the upcoming parish centennial. But just a few months before last Sunday’s event, Father Gauvin was reassigned to Espirito Santo Parish in Fall River.

Father Stephen Salvador took over the reins and is now the parish’s 14th pastor, the man charged with leading the once fledgeling, now vibrant faith community in Westport into the next 100 years of Catholic mission.

Other priests who have served at St. George’s include: Fathers Albert Berube, George D. Poirier, Henry J. Canuel, Maurice Lamontagne, Richard L. Chretien, Philip J. Higgins, Arnold Medeiros, Albert J. Ryan, Edward Byington, Richard R. Gendreau, and Raymond A. Robida.

A reception at White’s of Westport continued the celebration following the Mass.

© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts