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Our towns: Parish celebrates 140 years in Suncook

At St. John the Baptist in Suncook 98 years ago, Irene Parenteau was baptized into the Catholic Church. Today, Parenteau joins her home church to celebrate its 140th anniversary while also commemorating an occasion of her own: the 80th anniversary of her joining the Sisters of Holy Cross.

“Nobody in Suncook gave me more than two weeks in the convent, but look how many years I stayed in there,” Parenteau said of her extensive time in the order.

In addition to the anniversaries of the church and Parenteau, St. John the Baptist is honoring its historical French origin and the annual Feast of St. John the Baptist, which occurs June 24. The festivities include Mass celebrated by Bishop Peter Libasci of the Manchester diocese and other priests with ties to the church, followed by a reception in the parish hall.

Evelyn Plourde, president of the parish group the Ladies of Saint Anne, coordinated today’s event to showcase some aspects of the rich history of the church.

St. John the Baptist was founded in 1873, when the first pastor of the church, Frenchman Jean-Batiste-Evariste Riche, was sent by the Diocese of Portland to build a church in Suncook. Sixteen parishioners assisted Riche in constructing the church during his three years as pastor. A number of fleur-de-lis carved into the original structure represented the French origins of the parish, Plourde said.

The third pastor, the Rev. Isidore J.C. Davignon, began to truly develop the culture of St. John the Baptist. During his tenure from 1881-1895, he expanded the church, installed stained glass windows and built a tower to display a 1,700-pound bell.

“He played a very large role in the direction of the parish,” Plourde said.

Most notably, Davignon founded the St. John the Baptist Parochial School. The school opened in 1888 with 192 students. Several religious from the Sisters of Holy Cross moved to Suncook to teach at the school, and the order continued to teach there until it closed in 1974 due to lack of support.

Davignon also established the Ladies of Saint Anne in 1893. The sodality group assists with both the church and the parish, which Plourde said are truly separate aspects of St. John the Baptist.

For the church, the Ladies of Saint Anne helps out with the liturgical side of matters, such as buying new linens or candles for Mass. For the parish, the organization provides relief for the needy in the community through raffles and donations.

Plourde has been involved with the sodality since 1965 and has served as president since 2007.

“Out of all the different organizations through the years, we’re the only ones that persevered,” she said. “We’re the sole organization left in the parish.”

Today’s celebration will pay homage to both the Ladies of Saint Anne for their 120th anniversary and the Sisters of Holy Cross for teaching Suncook children for nearly 100 years.

The day will also focus on honoring the church’s namesake, St. John the Baptist. Plourde said the saint’s feast day is a key celebration in Franco-American culture, and Suncook’s French ties have made it a meeting place for French natives from Canada and New England for the event.

In the history of organized celebrations by Franco-Americans in the area, Plourde said she has noted three years where the St. John the Baptist feasts have been particularly large. One of these occurred in Suncook on June 23, 1940.

“Over 2,000 Franco-Americans came from a lot of New Hampshire, neighboring states, and some French Canadians too,” Plourde said. “There was a large outside Mass and procession, with a traditional meal at night.”

The festivities will also honor two of the church’s native religious. Along with Parenteau’s 80th anniversary, the Rev. Paul Rainville, who also grew up at St. John the Baptist in Suncook, is celebrating his 50th anniversary as a priest.

Although Rainville is unable to attend, Parenteau, who turned 98 Wednesday, will make the trip from St. George Manor in Manchester, a home for the Sisters of Holy Cross.

“You can tell them everything, and I’ll sit there and smile,” Parenteau said to Plourde of today’s celebration in her honor.

Parenteau was born in Suncook and attended St. John the Baptist Parochial School under sisters of the order she would eventually join, followed by St. George High School in Manchester, where she would later teach.

Upon graduation, Parenteau entered the Sisters of Holy Cross and lived at the order’s motherhouse in Montreal before taking her final vows. Due to an ill-timed trip back to the Northeast for novices to visit family and friends prior to their vows, she and several other soon-to-be sisters were unable to travel back to Montreal for the final vow ceremony. The group ended up saying their vows at St. John the Baptist, completing Parenteau’s journey from baptism to religious life at the Suncook church.

During her 80 years as a religious, Parenteau spent her life in schools around the world. After receiving her undergraduate degree at Notre Dame College in Manchester and her master’s in Montreal, she taught at the secondary and collegeiate levels at schools in the United States, Canada and Europe.

“I had a life of schools,” Parenteau said. “I’ve always been very happy. I’ve had such great, great enjoyment in teaching.”

Despite her extensive travels, Plourde said the sister’s heart has always remained in Suncook.

“Of course, it’s always here,” Parenteau said.

In its 140 years, St. John the Baptist has joined 5,193 couples in matrimony, baptized 11,841 people into the Catholic Church and remembered 15,528 men and women at funerals. It has turned out 26 native priests and 28 native religious women, three of whom were missionaries, a large number for such a small parish.

But even with its rich history, the future of the church is uncertain. Plourde said she wanted to make this anniversary memorable because of the trend of Catholic churches merging because of financial constraints.

The Suncook parish is already twined with Holy Rosary Parish in Hooksett, which means its pastor, the Rev. Edmund Crowley, serves both churches but their finances remain separate.

“With all the merging, and we’re already twined, we don’t know if we’ll make it to our 150th anniversary,” Plourde said. “That’s why I’m pushing so hard for this one, to leave everyone, especially the elderly, with a good feeling in the end.”

Despite the difficult times, St. John the Baptist continues to have a strong presence in Suncook. It opens its doors as a designated disaster relief area, allows Allenstown to use its facilities for voting and hosts a senior center.

Parishioners help put together Thanksgiving baskets annually, and Plourde said Crowley also works with other clergy in the village to assist the needy, including running an interfaith food pantry.

“They join together and work for the benefit of the area,” she said.

(Mel Flanagan can be reached at 369-3321 or mflanagan@cmonitor.com.)

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