Friday, October 28, 2011

The Rites of Fall in the Acre

Google Image

People have asked me if what I shared last week was all true.  Certainly!  And it becomes truer each time I recall it.  I also want to share that I am totally inept with technology.  To all of you who have shared comments or asked questions, I would like to respond, but I keep getting messages that since I don't operate this blog, I cannot post comments or responses.  (Needless to say I'm confused.)  If you wish to contact me directly, email me at

Let me continue with my reminiscences of growing up on the corner of Broadway and Walker.  I truly believe I was given a gift of being brought up in the right place at the right time the Acre of the late 1950s  One of the first rites of Fall was the hanging of the storm windows.  Now anyone under the age of 55 will have no idea of what I speak.  In the cellar of the tenement I was brought up in were stored the 14 storm windows that had to be put up when the leaves changed, and taken down when the lilac buds showed.  These windows weighed as much as a full grown adult and had to be lugged up the stairs and brought outside for cleaning.  Our apartment, like most of the time, had no central heat- just a space heater and the kitchen stove.  Having ice form on the inside of the windows was no foreign occurrence.  Back to the storm windows.

My father would take out his wooden, 6 ft step ladder.  The one that listed at a 45 degree angle.  As he said, it was in perfect condition, why get a new one.  With a mouthful of 8 wood screws per window, he'd climb the ladder.  I would also climb the ladder doing a flying Wallendas routine of holding the window against the house and standing on the opposite side of the ladder from my Dad.  Misters Black and Decker had not invented the portable screwdriver yet, so good old Dad, with lightning speed would attach the windows.  This was also the time that I learned how religious my father was as he called out to "Jesus Christ Almighty" so many times. 

You knew it was really Fall when my mother would hang up the Indian corn.  You don't see a lot of that now.  Many houses today have blow up figures, strings of orange lights, and plastic pumpkins on the doorsteps.  My folks would never waste money by putting a pumpkin on the step.  We'd open it up and roast the seeds in the oven.  My aunt would make pumpkin pies.  But my mother used the same Indian corn for years.  the sad part was that birds, rain, and the years got to the corn, and each year she hung it up it looked more like she was hanging up just the cob minus the kernels.  She often bragged how many years she kept the same corn with the faded bow.

Another rite of Fall was walking by Waugh Street and waiting for the horse chestnuts to fall.  Before the blight which wiped out many of these beauties, Waugh Street was chestnut tree lined and became our own little "run the gauntlet."  A horse chestnut is covered with hard spikes.  When it falls from the tree it resembles a medieval torture instrument.  The trick was to run under the trees before being brained by the spiked bowling balls.  It was most fun on a windy day to see who could collect the most chestnuts without suffering a concussion.

But the best rite of Fall was Halloween itself.  I don't remember buying a costume.  I think I was a hobo from ages 5 to 11.  When I turned 12, I revolted and was a vampire.  I thought I was cool with a cape and blood dripping from my mouth.  That's when I learned not to use red Magic Marker as fake blood.  It was also a let down when a friend pointed at me and said vampires never wore glasses.  So I took them off , and then looked like a blind vampire tripping on stairs and walking into doors.  That was my last year of trick or treating.

What I remember most is getting my paper, orange, trick or treat bag from Greens in downtown Lowell.  I think it cost a nickel.  It was nothing more than an orange paper shopping bag, but by night's end it would hold a bounty of cavity producing treats.  My Dad was often given the chore of walking with us.  It often became a history of the Acre lesson.  Being an Acre Boy himself he'd tell me this is where he helped light the gas lanterns when he was a kid.  Or this is where the Keyes sisters lived and he'd run errands for them.  We'd walk by Lovejoy's mansion where UMass is now.  Everyone knew it was haunted, and I'd walk a little closer to him.  He's pretend to see ghosts in the broken windows.  One year right in front of Lovejoys it started raining, hard, and my little trick or treat bag got soaking wet and broke.  I was in a panic.  Do I stop and pick up my candy, or do I let the ghosts drag us in to Lovejoys basement and my mother would never see us again?  I did what any 6 year old would do.  I cried.  My father said another prayer to Jesus Christ Almighty, put as much candy into my little hobo hands as could fit, picked me up, and walked me home.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Samhain, Halloween, and other things

Thanks to Thomas Cahill's book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, we're all aware how our ancestors were personally responsible from keeping the Western Hemisphere from spinning back into the primordial abyss.  Well that isn't exactly what he says, but that's my take on it.  I am always aghast when those who share our Celtic heritage are unaware of the Irish roots of Halloween.  The Irish brought Halloween to the Americas.  The Celtic calendar ends at this time of year.  The season was a celebration of harvest and a time to prepare for bringing things in- closure.  And so it also became a time for the dead.  Large bonfires would be lit and animals and humans alike would walk by them as a type of cleansing.  The spirits of ancestors would be recalled with food being placed out for them.  Of course when the Church stepped in, the old went out.  Sort of.  All Saints Day and All Souls Day were to replace the old ways, even though they never completely disappeared.

Image from Google

I attended Saint Patrick School under the instruction of the good Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.  Now it's become the fad for former Catholic school students to gather and tell horror stories of the torture chambers that the schools kept in their basements.  One friend claims his nuns performed lobotomies on students who refused to wear their uniforms to school.  Another claims one of his nuns packed heat.  They are apocryphal stories at best.  You will never hear such stories from me since I hold those women in the highest regards.

When I was in first grade my nun was Sister Julie Barbarian (a false name was used to protect the guilty).  Our classroom was in the school basement since Sister had 52 students, no exaggeration.  There was no aid in the class or break for an art or music teacher to come in.  She was stuck with us, which may have lead to the encounter I tell.  It was Halloween.  Being good Catholic boys and girls we were told to dress as our patron saint and be ready to parade around the school.  As I was ready with my sister to walk the 1.5 miles to school (today that would be child abuse).  I informed my mother I needed to dress as Saint David.  "When?" she asked.  "Now!" I replied, "Today is Halloween."  My mother took a copy of the Lowell Sun and folded it into a bizarre lump and informed me it was a crown.  I was going as King David.  I'm grateful she did not give me a loincloth and sling shot and go as young David fighting Goliath.

When I got to school there was St Francis, Saint Anthony, Saint Ann....  It looked like the hosts of heaven descended on Adams Street wearing their fathers' robes and mothers' bedsheets.  Sister looked ecstatic as we walked in.  She pointed at the folded Lowell Sun sitting on my head.  "What's that?"  she asked with her black habit looking much like a witch's outfit.  "It's a crown.  I'm King David."  I thought she would comment on how creative my crown was.  Instead she gave some sort of theology lesson that David was not a saint since the Messiah had not yet arrived and how could I be a saint if the gates of heaven had not been opened yet..............  My eyes glazed over as she went on quoting scripture, I think.  Her last words were, "Take it off."  I was crushed, until the kid after me walked by, we'll call him the sacrificial lamb.  He had on a Woolworth's skeleton costume compete with plastic mask.  You could see her take a deep breath.  "I'm a skeleton," came the muffled voice from behind the mask.  I've heard that certain sounds can break glass, and that the blasts of trumpets felled Jericho's walls.  The sound that came out of Sister's mouth was akin to that.  Her final words were, "Take it off."  "I can't," said the skeleton mask.  "You can't or you won't?" asked the good Sister, now looking more like a witch.  "I don't have anything underneath here," retorted the skeleton.  While the rest of the class paraded around the school ,Skeleton Boy and King David stayed in the classroom eating candy corn. 

Sister Julie is now counted among the saints.  The whereabouts of Skeleton Boy remains unknown.

Sunday, October 16, 2011



Are you thinking of a unique gift for someone who may be interested in Lowell's Irish past? 

The Cross and the Shamrock: the art and history of Saint Patrick Cemetery

and From Erin to the Acre: a photo history of Lowell's early Irish

have been reissued and are available for a limited time.  All proceeds from the books will go directly to the restoration fund of St. Patrick Cemetery.  Those who have visited the cemetery know the beauty of the shamrock slate stones that make St. Pat's truly unique.  Profits from the books will go to help restore the stones which are in need of restoration.  The gift is twofold.  Not only will you learn of Lowell's pioneer Irish past, but also know that you have helped preserve our common heritage. 
The Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians is managing the sales. 

The books are $10.00 each and your check should be made out to 
LAOH Cemetery Restorations and mailed to:

LAOH Div 1 Lowell
c/o Donna Reidy
PO Box 266
Pelham, NH 03076

EXTRA! EXTRA!- Those who purchase the book and add a small donation of their choosing will also receive a 5 x 7 parchment certificate acknowledging the contribution for help in preserving our heritage for future generations.  (Please state the name to be inscribed on the certificate.)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Costello Monument, St. Patrick Cemetery

I met Kim a few months ago at an Open Doors event.  She came bouncing into St. Pat's Church with more energy than anyone should have at that time of the morning.  That's also when I realized what a unique individual she really is.  Kim is the assistant administartor at the Lowell Historic Board and works with Steve Stowell.  We've crossed paths a few times since then, and each time she amazes me with her talents.  Which brings me to this week's topic, the Costello Monument.  Most folks who drive by assume it is a mausoleum, not so.  Saint Patrick's has no mausoleum.  As the predominant landmark of the cemetery you might be interested in more of its background and architecture (Kim's forte).  So I invited Kim to be a guest blogger.  (Any other "volunteers"?)

Along with that, Kim will be conducting a tour of Old English on November 20th at noon.  Our neighbors share a number of great slate stones that are masterpieces of art and date to Lowell's earliest days.

Costello Chapel
St. Patrick’s Cemetery
                                                By: Kim Zunino
One of the most fascinating structures in the St. Patrick’s Cemetery is the Costello Chapel. This chapel was commissioned by prominent businessman Thomas F. Costello around 1905. With a very successful plumbing fixture business in Lowell, he had the chapel built for his son, Rev. Fr. George A. Costello, who served as the pastor of St. Bridget’s Roman Catholic Church in Lexington until his death in 1915. Thomas Costello passed away in early 1906.
Often mistaken for a mausoleum, the chapel was designed for performing Mass and the only burials are in the Costello family plot in front of the structure.  Designed by the prominent Swiss-American ecclesiastical architect Franz Joseph Untersee, the classically designed chapel was built of stone from the Vermont Marble Company of Proctor, Vermont. The structure has bronze entry gates and a painted copper roof. The interior of the chapel has had some conservation issues, as the marble-covered walls have been failing and pieces have been falling onto the altar and floor of the chapel.
            What makes this chapel so amazing is that it one of only a handful of Guastavino domes left in Massachusetts. Rafael Guastavino was a successful architect and builder in Spain when he immigrated to America in 1881 with his young son, Rafael Jr.  In 1885 Guastavino Sr. patented a type of structural tiling in the U.S. called the “Tile Arch System”, in which interlocking terra cotta tiles and layers of Portland cement combined to create self-supporting arches and domes. The Guastavino Fireproof Company was founded in 1889 and was responsible for designing the tile ceilings of many historic landmarks, including the Boston Public Library, two Vanderbilt family estates, and the ceiling of the Registry Hall on Ellis Island. They are also responsible for designing dome at the Grace Universalist Church (1896) in Lowell, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Another side of Hugh

We know of Hugh the labor leader; Hugh the peace keeper; Hugh as church founder, etc..  You have heard of Hugh the beer brewer (and the subsequent lawsuit against him), but do you know of Hugh the temperance man?  In my never ending quest to know all I can about him, I recently came across an interesting account.  Hugh wore many hats.  One was merchant.  He kept a West Indies Dry Goods store on Merrimack Street.  (A few years ago we had the Cummiskey Alley sign installed to remember Hugh, and since it is an actual street on city maps.)  Like most stores of the period, one of Hugh's best selling items was whiskey.  Each of the stores had their own jugs with the store name labeled on it.  (We have one with "Cummiskey's" on it in our parish archives.)  When the contents were emptied you simply brought it back to the store for a refill.  In the 1840s an anti-liquor movement swept the nation.  It made a big impact in Lowell among Yankees and Irish alike.  An Irish priest named, Fr. Theobald Mathew, was a well known speaker and visited Lowell to give "the pledge" where men and women alike swore they would never touch another drop again.  (Our parish archives has a medallion from one of his visits.)

In the Journal of the American Temperance Union is a brief account of a visitor seeing a gang of men and some type of disturbance outside Hugh's store.  Closer inspection showed it was the store owner, Hugh Cummiskey, having casks of liquor removed from his establishment and "abandoning entirely a traffic which is heretofore given him part of his livelihood."  (I wonder where they brought the evil deamon rum.)  The writer further says Cummiskey is a model to his fellow Catholics and hopes other "will join hands with him in this cause."

Now I feel a little guilty on Saint Patrick's Day when I raise a glass to the man who brought the Irish community to Lowell.

I made note of our parish archives.  We've got a nice collection of items from the parish, schools, and the Acre neighborhood.  It consists of several hundred artifacts, printed materials, prints, and photos.  Every now and then folks drop off items that they think deserve a good home and relate to the story we try to tell.  I remember getting a call from a wonderful woman asking me to look at some items she was going to throw away.  There were great neighborhood photos and the bell that called the kids to school at the turn of the century.  Little finds like this make up our history and need to be preserved.  Do you have anything to share?

We've reached over 3000 hits!  Those interested in preserving Lowell's Irish past are out there.  You hear from me each week.  I'd like to hear from you.  Drop a line.  Tell me a story.  I'm looking for guest bloggers.  Share your family's role in Lowell's Irish past.

On another note the Lowell Historic Board is doing a tour of Old English, Saint Pat's neighboring cemetery on Nov. 20th.  Might be interesting to see who the neighbors are.  I was also thinking of doing a preliminary census before mapping out the slates in Yard 1 on Saturday, October 22.  If you might be interested drop me an email.