Wednesday, October 31, 2012
The Passing of Good Father John
In a close-knit community like the Acre, it’s not surprising that the news spread so quickly. Father John O’Brien was dead. It was Saturday night October 31, 1874, the day before All Saints Day. In preparation, the aged Pastor was hearing confessions in the Church since 2 o’clock. Four hours later, he told the people waiting in line that he would return shortly. At age 74, he was known for his energy. He removed the purple stole, kissed it, and left it behind in the confessional. He made his way to the rectory where he sat down to eat with the other priests. He reached to his head, said he was ill, and collapsed. In just 2 minutes he had passed, but not before he was given the last rites of the Church.
People began gathering in front of the rectory not wanting to believe the news. The shockwaves reached across the City. The man who led the parish for 26 years was gone. John O’Brien was able to look beyond the petty grievances that divided the Irish community of Lowell. He took St Patrick’s from being a small wooden, broken, church to a solid, granite edifice that stood out to the rest of the city. The image of building a church was more than structural, but spiritual as well. He was building a community. The man was not without faults. He was known for speaking his mind and what could be a gruff exterior. Still, he was much beloved.
The body was dressed in a black chasuble and place in the front parlor of the rectory. By Sunday, the crowds filled the streets all wanting a view of the remains. Members of the O’Connell Literary Society stood guard throughout the wake. Meanwhile the Sisters of Notre Dame were draping the altar in black crepe. From each column of the Church hung banners were scripture passages such as, “Well done good and faithful servant.” The monument in front of the Church, under which were the remains of his brother, Fr. Timothy, was also draped in black.
All clergy members of Lowell’s churches were sent invitations to the funeral. The procession to the Church began at 9 o’clock and took an hour to get to Suffolk Street. The St. Patrick’s Coronet band led through the streets and the city and were joined by all the parish societies. At Merrimack Street they were joined by the city officials. At 10 o’clock the Office of the Dead was chanted. Dies iræ! Dies illa. Solvet sæclum in favilla: Teste David cum Sibylla! (The day of wrath, that day. Will dissolve the world in ashes. As foretold by David and the sibyl!)
The sanctuary overflowed with Bishops and clergy. The church was filled to capacity. It spilled out to the church yard and crowded the streets for blocks on end. The services took over two hours. Six pall bearers were chosen from the parish list. The remains were carried down the steps and laid next to those of his brother, together once again.
Knowing that his end was nearing, the man who had planned so many projects throughout his Pastorship, Good Father John, as he was known to his people, foresaw the need to choose his successor. On the altar that day, along with the other clergy members, was the next Pastor of St. Patrick’s, Fr. Michael O’Brien, his nephew.
As I write this I realize it has been almost 137 years to the minute that Good Father John died. Coincidence? Requiescat in pace.