INDIAN ISLAND (AP) – Maine’s Roman Catholic bishop looked back to the role that American Indians played in the church’s early years in the state as the Diocese of Portland began a yearlong celebration of its 150th anniversary.

During a special Mass on Saturday at St. Ann Church, Bishop Joseph Gerry returned to the church’s earliest roots in Maine.

The Penobscot Indians are believed to have had their first encounter with a Jesuit in 1604, when French explorer Samuel de Champlain sailed up the Penobscot River.

Indians were among the first Catholics to live on lands that one day would make up the statewide diocese established by Pope Pius IX on July 29, 1853.

Before then, what is now the Portland diocese fell under the jurisdiction of the bishops of Baltimore, and later Boston.

At the service, Gerry said an eagle feather given to him long ago by a Penobscot woman remains among his most cherished possessions. He said he received the gift from a tribal elder, who told him that to give someone an eagle feather meant the giver valued the recipient’s life more than his or her own.

“You have no idea how many times I’ve told that story and how much it means to me,” Gerry told worshippers.

The gift of the feather to the then-new bishop was a tangible symbol of the nearly 400-year relationship between the Catholic Church and Maine’s native people.

St. Ann on Indian Island is the oldest continuous site of Catholic worship in New England; the current church building, completed in 1830, is the third-oldest Catholic church in Maine.

Traditional drumming and dress were among the touches that gave Saturday’s services a decidedly native flair. The parish’s choir performed hymns in English, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Mohawk languages.

During the service, Bishop Gerry reflected on the Indians’ role in the early years of the Catholic Church in Maine and about the power of prayer, especially as it pertains to the shrine at Ste. Anne de Beaupre in Quebec, the site of healing and miraculous cures healing made possible, he said, through prayer.

The 150th anniversary Mass coincided with the Feast of St. Ann, Jesus’ grandmother, whom native Catholics hold in high esteem.

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