BIDDEFORD — Held up by meticulously crafted brick pillars, the beautiful stone St. James School sign stands just off the walkway to the main entrance on Graham Street in Biddeford. The result of a merger between St. Joseph, St. André, and St. Mary schools, the school was founded in 1992, a fact etched into the sign just below the St. James name.
But you don’t have to explain any of this to Mike Provencher, the new middle school math and science teacher at St. James. After all, he named it.
“It was a competition between the incoming eighth-graders from St. Joseph, St. André, and St. Mary,” said Provencher, a member of the first graduating class of St. James in 1993. “It was determined that we would all attend school in the St. Joseph building, but we would have a different name for the school. I was sitting there in class, I even remember the room, and it came to me … St. James! Joseph Andre Mary Elementary School. The name won the contest, and I had no doubt that it would.”
And there is no doubt that Provencher’s homecoming to St. James has been an unqualified success that proves following God’s will and placing faith over fortune leads to happiness and fulfillment.
The story begins at the now closed St. André School, where Mike attended as a boy and got his first taste of the rich history and tradition of Catholic education in Biddeford.
“I started at St. André as a kindergartener and my teacher at the time was my father’s kindergarten teacher,” said Mike. “There is a longevity amongst Catholic school teachers that is almost like a professional lineage.”
He was an altar server every weekend, a member of the Boy Scouts, and even achieved the rank of Eagle Scout in Troop 308, still sponsored by Good Shepherd Parish to this day. Through the sacrifices of his parents, Mike was able to cultivate his faith in Catholic school, an experience that would stay with him through the years, even as he excelled and flourished in an astounding professional life.
“I graduated from the University of New England and didn’t know what I should do. The jobs in the area were limited and so, it being just after 9/11, I joined the York County Sheriff’s Office,” said Mike.
After a year as a patrol deputy, Mike was looking for something different. His fiancée, Lee Ann, who is now his wife, suggested a new path: respiratory therapy.
“I like to be in the action and in the hospital, a respiratory therapist is always in the action,” he said. “I became a respiratory therapist and worked in Massachusetts at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, then further away in Lincoln, Nebraska, where my wife entered into a fellowship at the University of Nebraska.”
A few years later, Mike and his wife, who is a local endodontist, returned to New England, where he continued his work with stints at Mercy Hospital and at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover, New Hampshire. By 2018, he had climbed the ladder in the field to becoming a director of inpatient adult medicine, pulmonary medicine, thoracic surgery, and respiratory care at Wentworth-Douglass.
“I had great opportunities afforded to me in healthcare,” he said. “I was on a track to become a vice president.”
But that seemingly unstoppable and rising career trajectory did not fill him with joy and contentment. Mike knew his true calling was in a classroom.
“I just made the call. I made a leap. I went into teaching and began working at Traip Academy in Kittery.”
His smile was wide, and the void almost full. Almost.
“While I was teaching in the public schools, there was something missing because it simply wasn’t allowed,” said Mike. “I had been looking for opportunities to teach in a Christian school and one morning I woke up and the first thought that came to my mind was: check the diocesan website to see if there are any opportunities.”
Right there, in bold type, while looking to form a plan for the future, was God’s invitation to come back to where it all began.
“There before me was the opportunity to continue teaching but to teach with Jesus in my classroom,” said Mike. “It was tearful to say the least because it makes you realize just how much God knows what we need and when we need it.”
His performance as math and science teacher at St. James in his first year on the faculty has matched the level of success that he had found every step of the way.
“When we interviewed him, it was clear to the interviewing committee that he would be an amazing teacher and a great asset to the school. We were not wrong,” said Nancy Naimey, principal of St. James. “He has a deep faith and is committed to making sure the students understand the curriculum goals in relation to their faith.”
“My education at UNE was in biological sciences, so it was natural for me to just teach science,” said Mike. “Math is quickly becoming a favorite class of mine as it is satisfying to teach because when students have success it is instantaneous, and you can actually see the look of satisfaction on their faces.”
“He will explain anything you don’t understand again. He makes jokes in class when we are learning so it keeps me on my toes,” said Addison DiCianni, a sixth grader. “He is so positive.”
“I like Mr. P. because he is so positive and kind and he makes your day better,” said Logan LeBlanc, another sixth grader. “He knows what he is talking about when he comes to science and math, and we are learning a lot from him.”
“If you are struggling, he starts with something easier and then moves into things that are more difficult. He meets every student’s needs,” said Mitali Singh, an eighth grader.
“He makes it fun for you, so it is more enjoyable to learn,” said Brynn Wilkinson, a seventh-grader.
To educate the children occupying the same seats he did and to walk the same halls where he served as the school’s first student council president is almost too much for Mike to comprehend some days.
“I can smell that ‘school scent’ that only a building of this age can provide. There is history in every layer of paint and in every teacher’s desk. My desk is an original, a double leaf desk that was likely used by a Good Shepherd Sister or a brother who taught at St. Louis High School. Walking back through those front doors that are perched so high up above the walkway was emotional. It was as if a calling was being answered.”
In the coming years, Mike plans to discern whether becoming a member of the diaconate is another calling, but one path that needs no further consideration is the one that led him back to St. James.
“I would like to be here for a long time! There is a rich history of education here, and it continues today because of the devotion of staff to a principle of our faith: recognizing that Jesus is the ultimate teacher within our walls. We are all part of a greater cause and that is to educate students in the teachings of Christ and to make them followers to their very best ability. There is no single blessing at St. James. Just a collection of answered prayers.”