“To sail a sloop…from Kittery Point to Quoddy Head, in all kinds of weather, is not a small undertaking. To…call on families on isolated islands, visit the lightkeepers and the lifesaving stations, is a task of greater magnitude.”
– First Annual Report, Maine Sea Coast Missionary Society, 1906
Maine Seacoast Mission first took on its “task of greater magnitude” when two Mount Desert Island pastors and brothers, Alexander and Angus MacDonald, sailed a small sloop called Hope to islands and lighthouses along the Maine coast, intent on relieving the desolate conditions they often found there. As a pastor in Bar Harbor, Angus was connected to many of the wealthy rusticators of Mount Desert Island. He successfully solicited their help in funding the Hope and its charitable endeavors, and the Maine Seacoast Mission was born in 1905.
From the start, the Mission provided access to medical and dental care, spiritual support, education, and crisis services.
A house and 60 acres of land along the Narraguagus River in Cherryfield were donated to the Mission in 1963, leading to the development of the Downeast campus site and a permanent center for the Mission’s work in Washington County. The EdGE program, an innovative youth development program, was launched in 2002, and the EdGE building was constructed on the campus in 2006.
The Mission’s administrative headquarters were historically in Bar Harbor. Tristram and Ruth Colket donated their beautiful Bar Harbor home to the Mission in 1972 along with an endowment for its upkeep. Known as Colket Center, this 1902 mansion housed the Mission’s central offices, and served as a venue for the Mission’s Mount Desert Island outreach, as well as for weddings, concerts, and art exhibits.
With the blessing of the Colkets, the Mission sold the mansion to the Bar Harbor Historical Society in 2019, using funds from the sale to bolster its programs. The new offices are located in Northeast Harbor overlooking Sunbeam V‘s dock.
Highlights from the Mission’s archival collection are currently on display at the Great Harbor Maritime Museum in Northeast Harbor for the exhibition “Beacons of Hope.” Visitors can see the exhibit during the Museum’s normal operating hours, which are seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Maine Seacoast Mission Timeline
1905 – Mission founded
Brothers Alexander and Angus MacDonald sent a circular letter to “coast pastors and summer residents asking co-operation and support in an undenominational movement having in view the spiritual uplift of the people living on the islands, headlands, and light stations on the coast.” With their support, the brothers founded what was then called the Maine Sea Coast Missionary Society (1910 Annual Report).
1905 – Hope
Hope, the first mission sloop, was sailed by Captain Henry E. White. The first year, he traveled 1,535 miles and visited 64 settlements. White, the Mission’s first employee, was also a missionary, and part of the early work of the Mission included holding nondenominational Christian church services and teaching Sunday School (1905 Annual Report).
1906 – Morning Star
A more sea-worthy sloop, Morning Star, was donated to replace the MacDonald’s original boat. Hope was sold in 1908 and a power tender was purchased for the Morning Star (1910 Annual Report).
1908 – First Christmas gifts
The Mission gives out its first Christmas gifts to children as part of the Sea Coast Sunday School. “Through the kindness of many friends the Mission has been able to remember all of the children with some Christmas gift, for which they express much gratitude” (1908 Annual Report). The Mission’s Christmas gifts wrapped in white parchment paper tied with red string have become a staple of Christmas on the coast.
1910 – First assistant missionary hired
Rev. Hannah Powell is hired to work with women and children becoming the assistant missionary and the first Mission employee that did not captain the boat. Powell was a member of Sigma Kappa sorority and this started the beginning of a long partnership between the sorority and the Mission. The sorority sisters were early supporters of the Christmas and Scholarships programs and for many years paid the salary of one to two Mission workers (1970 Annual Report and 100 Years of Friendship the Maine Seacoast Mission and Sigma Kappa).
1911 – Early beginnings of the Scholarships program
The 1911 Annual Report mentions two young girls from an island receiving instruction from Charlestown Academy “through the kindness of Mrs. J. S. Kennedy.” This marks the unofficial start of the Scholarships program. Since its humble beginnings, the Scholarships program has awarded $3 million to more than 3,500 students.
1912 – Sunbeam I
Prior to the launch of the Sunbeam I, the Mission could not visit the outer islands during the winter because of ice and harsh weather. In 1911, the Annual Report notes the need for a “boat suitable for winter cruising” as “it is during the winter season that the Missionary’s services are the most needed.” Sunbeam I, which was suitable for “rough winter weather” was launched later the next year (1911 and 1912 Annual Reports).
1920 – First nurse on the Sunbeam
A nurse starts visiting islands on the Sunbeam thanks to the support of the Red Cross (1921 Annual Report). A Red Cross-affiliated nurse would continue to make visits to the islands on the Sunbeam until 1944. At that time, the nurse served over two thousand people on 12 islands.
1923 – Beginning of the hooked rug program
For 15 years, the Mission’s hooked rug program provided income and a sense of community for women living in coastal communities and on islands. The program began in 1923 and a year later the industry was under the “efficient superintendence” of Alice Peasley in South Gouldsboro (1924 Annual Report). During the program, more than 650 rugs were created and sold (“Sadie’s Winter Dream” by Judith Burger-Gossart). Peasley, also known as “Ma” joined the Mission in 1917 on Crowley Island and was the first permanent, year-round staff member of the Mission. She worked for the Mission for 36 years, retiring in 1954 (1955 Annual Report). Listen to an audio recording of Peasley on a radio broadcast.
1926 – Sunbeam II
Sunbeam II is launched in Damariscotta and “has already found a place in the hearts of the people” (1927 Annual Report). Read more about the launch here.
1936 – Neal Bousfield joins the Mission
Rev. Neal D. Bousfield is hired as a Missionary Pastor. Two years later, he became the Mission’s Superintendent and served in that role until his retirement in 1972. During his 34-year tenure, he guided the organization through the Depression era, World War II, and Bar Harbor’s Fire of 1947, which devastated the town of Bar Harbor, where the Mission was then housed.
1939 – Sunbeam III
The 1939 Annual Report recounts the voyages of the Sunbeam II and states the need of a new boat. “Ice and blizzard, rough seas and fog, have vainly sought to stay her from the path of duty to those in distress and need. Her record of achievement is written in the love of hundreds. She has traveled well over a hundred thousand miles going about doing good.” Sunbeam III launched Dec. 27, 1939.
1940 – Artist Ruth Rhoads Lepper joins the Mission
Ruth Rhoads Lepper is hired to illustrate the book Anchor to Windward written by Edwin Valentine Mitchell about the Mission. She soon became the Mission’s artist-in-residence creating pen and ink drawings featured in annual reports for years to come (1940 Annual Report).
1940 – Sargent House opens
The Mission purchased Sargent House, “a home where girls from remote places along our coast might come to live and have the privilege of a high school education” (1941 Annual Report). Because of a partnership between island and mainland schools which sees students travel more easily between the islands and school, the house is only needed for a few years.
1944 – A nurse joins the staff
When the Red Cross stopped financially supporting the Sunbeam nurse position, the Mission stepped in and added two nurses to staff positions. These nurses would continue to provide island health services until 1948. While a nurse was not part of the staff going forward, nurses, doctors, and a dentist would continue to go out on the Sunbeam in the years following. The Mission’s commitment to island health would come full circle in 2001, with the launch of telemedicine program.
1945 – Edith Drury joins the Mission
Two weeks after the a call was put out for a teacher on Muscongus Island, Drury joined the Mission’s staff. (The Bulletin, Spring 1945). Drury worked for the Mission for 20 years and wrote the “God’s Tugboat” newspaper columns for Maine Coast Fisherman magazine and National Fisherman magazine gaining national recognition for the Mission and its work. A 1987 resolution honoring her stated “For over 20 years, Edith shared her faith with the people of Down East Maine. She visited over 50 mainland schools and 20 island schools, working with the children, devising contests, recreational activities, and reading programs. She distributed garden seeds and plants in the schools and encouraged the children to plant gardens.” Read more about her here.
1950 – Early food security program
The 1950 Christmas edition of The Bulletin recounts Operation Biscuit which provided flour to families during a particularly hard year. A few years later, the Mission partnered with the state to provide cheese, dried milk, and butter to families and notes that the program helped students stay in school. (The Bulletin, Spring 1954). While the Mission had provided food to individuals in the past, both of these programs acknowledged the connection between food security and education.
1951 – The Mission in Parade magazine
The Mission is featured in the Dec. 23 issue of Parade in a two-page spread called “The Christmas Boat’s Coming” with a story about the Sunbeam and its Christmas trips to islands and lighthouses. (The Bulletin, Christmas 1951)
1962 – Mission supports healthcare in Washington County
The Mission helps open the Arnold Memorial Medical Building in Jonesport to provide health care to far-flung residents of Downeast after the previous doctor moved away (1962 Annual Report). The clinic is still operational and is now part of Downeast Community Health.
1963 – Cherryfield property donated to the Mission
The 1963 Christmas edition of The Bulletin mentions the acquisition of 60+ acres with plans for it to be turned into a retreat center and gathering place. The groundbreaking for the chapel on the property, which would later be called Weald Bethel, happened in the spring of 1964. This marks the beginning of the Downeast Campus.
1964 – Sunbeam IV
The 1963 Christmas edition of The Bulletin features a story about the new Sunbeam IV and how it will be christened with water collected from areas served by the Mission including Matinicus, Rockland, and beyond.
1971 – Narraguagus Nursery School opens on the Downeast campus
The Narraguagus Nursery School opens in the basement of what was then the Weald Bethel Chapel after a group of mothers ask to use the space (1971 Annual Report). This is the beginning of education programs on the Mission’s Downeast campus.
1972- The Mission moves to La Rochelle
The Mission moves its headquarters from Ledgelawn Avenue in Bar Harbor to La Rochelle at 127 West Street. The building was gifted to the Mission by Mr. & Mrs. Tristram & Ruth Colket. La Rochelle was the Mission’s home until its sale in 2019.
1980 – A focus on Washington County
In the Diamond Jubilee Annual Report that came out in 1980, the Mission confirms its focus on supporting the people in Washington County. In 1982, the Annual Report was dedicated to the work going on at the Downeast campus.
1989 – Food pantry opens
The food panty starts in a kitchen on the Downeast campus. From the beginning, the focus of the pantry has been on empowering its clients. (1990 Annual Report). By 1992, the pantry is serving hundreds of families a week and a garden space was added so people could grow their own food.
1995 – Sunbeam V
Plans for the newest Sunbeam V were announced in 1993 when the previous Sunbeam IV was almost 30 years old. The new boat had more space for community gatherings as well as a quiet space for private meetings.
2001 – Telemedicine program begins
In 2000, the telemedicine program, then a three-year pilot program, was announced. A year later, Sharon Daley, RN, started making visits to the island to set up telehealth visits on the Sunbeam. In 2003, the program changed its name to Island Health Services.
2002 – EdGE program begins
The EdGE afterschool program begins at Harrington and D.W. Merritt Elementary Schools. The program, named after the Mission’s late board president Edward S. Greaves, first served students in fifth through eighth grade. In 2006, the Ed and Connie Greaves Education Center opened on the Downeast Campus. Today, 800 students in kindergarten through eighth grade participate in EdGE programs at seven school.
2003 – Housing Improvement program begins
The Housing Improvement program which was then called the Community Summer Housing program begins in 2003 and was first mentioned in the 2005 Annual Report when “13 households and two local churches” were repaired by four church groups from Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Massachusetts. In 2008, switched its focus to include the weatherization of homes.
2010 – First Eldercare conference
The 2010 Annual Report recounts the first Eldercare Conference which saw “representatives from 12 island communities, with year-round populations and no bridge access to the mainland, gathered to discuss the issues facing the aging populations on islands.” This group still meets regularly.
2018 – Journey program begins
Journey, which was part of the Rural Futures Fund and its mentoring-based initiative, Aspirations Incubator, chooses its first cohort. The program provides mentoring and support to students from Narraguagus Jr./Sr. High School and Cherryfield Elementary School starting in 7th grade. Students in Journey develop the tools needed to successfully transition to high school and through higher education and career pathways. The first Journey cohort are set to graduate high school in 2023.
2018 – Weald Bethel Community Center expands
Weald Bethel Chapel expands into the Weald Bethel Community Center. In 2014, when the expansion first started it notes that the building will provide volunteers with a well-equipped space to stay, and that the new community center will be available to community groups at no charge.
2019 – Davis Maine Scholarship begins
The Mission and the Shelby Cullom Davis Charitable Fund launches the Davis Maine Scholarship which was modeled after the highly successful Davis New Mexico Scholarship. This scholarship program offers full, renewable, four-year scholarships at three partner colleges for first-generation students from eastern Hancock and Washington counties. The first group of Scholars started college in 2022.
2019 – Sunbeam V retrofit
When blooming rust was found on the interior surfaces of the hull of the Sunbeam V, the All Hands On Deck campaign was launched to fully refit the Sunbeam V. The changes included navigational upgrades, external repairs, engine room improvements, and refurbishment of the crew quarters, galley, and salon. The refit happened at Front Street Shipyard in Belfast.
2020 – Mission moves to Northeast Harbor
The Mission moves its headquarters to the Colket Center at 6 Old Firehouse Lane in Northeast Harbor which overlooks the Sunbeam V’s dock. Profits from the sale of the Mission’s previous building, La Rochelle, support Downeast programming.
2021 – Vaccinating islanders against Covid
The Mission partnered with the Maine CDC and MDI Hospital to hold 28 vaccine clinics on seven islands. Starting in March, the Mission administered 928 vaccine and booster shots throughout the year.
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