The history of the Roman Catholic church on the Island is as long as that of European settlement. The Mi'Kmaq native peoples had already been visited by missionaries when the first French colonists and Acadians arrived in 1720. Between 1720 and 1758, when the colony was called L'Ile-St-Jean and was a French possession, the Roman Catholic church was the only religious institution here. Even after the British assumed control of the colony, Roman Catholic churches continued to appear. A Catholic chapel had been raised in the New London area prior to 1774, as many French had settled there to work the rich fishing grounds.
From its inception until well into the twentieth century, St. Mary's in Indian River was the Catholic church closest to Kensington, and town residents took an active role in its parish community. The first Indian River church was built in 1815 near the waters of Malpeque Bay. One of the graves next to this modest frame structure was that of Thomas Barrett, an early Irish settler from whom Kensington at one point took its name, Barrett's Cross.
In 1842, Father James MacDonald took over the position of resident priest and, deciding that the parish had outgrown its original home, he forged ahead with the building of a new church and parochial house. The new house of worship was dedicated to The Blessed Virgin Mary and it was sometimes called "St Mary's of the Pines," a reference perhaps to the fourteen-inch square timbers that comprised the frame. An imposing edifice for its time, the church was opened and dedicated on June 20, 1843, in the first such ceremony ever held on the Island. "St. Mary's of the Pines" served as the focal point for Catholic worship in the area for over fifty years. However, on August 4, 1896, as the Rev. Msgr. D. J. Gillis sat on the parish house veranda reciting the rosary, the church was struck by lightning and its wood construction was immediately ablaze. Even though the building was in danger of collapsing, Father Gillis and a passerby, T. A. Driscoll, both ran into the church to save the sacred vessels and the statue of Our Lady. For those who might think it strange that the church burned even as the rosary was being said, it is also claimed that-- as soon as the statue was saved-- the fire progressed no further.
Although upset by this severe loss, the Rev. Gillis soon began making plans to rebuild, and aimed to construct the most beautiful church possible. Most who have seen St. Mary's Church in Indian River-- completed in 1902 and still standing today-- agree that he succeeded in this aim, as the church is generally considered one of the Island's foremost architectural landmarks. Like St. Mark's Anglican in Kensington, the new St. Mary's was designed by famed Island architect William Critchlow Harris, and is the largest wooden church in the province. Its interior design features characteristic elements of the French Gothic style, such as a unified nave and chancel (the nave is the congregational seating, the chancel is the clergy and choir area) and a high vaulted ceiling with dark cherry-wood ribs. The exterior of the church is dominated by the cylindrical, 128-foot tower on the northwest corner, with niches at its base containing statues of the twelve apostles. Also remarkable are the differently- patterned layers of shingles which encircle the church. But Harris' greatest achievement at Indian River was perhaps not so much visual as auditory. At this stage of his career, Harris was preoccupied with acoustical perfection and meticulously designed the interior for the five organs that were to be placed in the church, with the main one located in the choir loft. Today, Islanders and visitors alike flock to St. Mary's for the summer concert festival, where its walls ring with classical and traditional music. Unfortunately, the main church is only used for the summer months; over the past decades, the upkeep and heating of the church has become too heavy a burden for the small parish to support alone. A group has been formed to try and save this architectural masterpiece from the ravages of time and weather. Hopefully, the same indomitable spirit that raised the original $20,000 to build the church will prevail, and this monument to faith and the local community will stand for generations to come.
With a seating capacity of 600, there was plenty of room for Kensington residents at St. Mary's Church. Nevertheless, difficult traveling in the winter and a desire to have their own place of worship led residents to explore other venues for Catholic mass. By 1906, members of the Catholic Mutual Benevolent Society decided that they would construct a hall, and a chapel was constructed on its second floor. The pastor in Indian River, Msgr. Gillis, would travel into town to offer mass. But on Saturday, December 7, 1928, the CMBA hall went ablaze and, despite the best efforts of the parishioners, little else was saved but the pews and the stations of the cross. However, since there were no telephones in Indian River at the time, Father Gillis was not made aware of the destruction of the hall. At Sunday celebration the next day in Indian River, he announced that mass would be held in Kensington the following Sunday at 10:00 a.m., whereupon a parishioner promptly stood up and told him that there was no longer any hall in which to hold mass. More than a bit flustered, and struggling to find his composure, Father Gillis replied that yes, yes, he had expected this all along and-- on second thought-- mass would probably be held at Indian River the following Sunday.
After the fire, masses were then held at the Temperance Hall until 1937, when a new church was built in Kensington. Constructed during the pastorate of Father Reginald MacDonald, the new place of worship was built on land owned by the CMBA, and when finished, was consecrated in the name of the Holy Family. The architect who designed the impressive structure was James Harris of Charlottetown. The parish community banded together and made considerable offerings towards the furnishing of the church interior. Made in the memory of lost loved ones, some of these donations included the altar, the tabernacle, a stained glass window portraying the Holy Family, chalices, and even a handmade crocheted altar cloth. All gave what they could to create a beautiful house of worship for Catholics in Kensington. Today, this wooden church continues to be both an architectual landmark and active faith community in the town, continuing the more than 200 year history of the Catholic church in the area.