Thursday, June 27, 2013

Dedication- July 3, 1831

From: Irish Catholic Genesis
of Lowell, by G. O'Dwyer
The town of Lowell was a busy place that July of 1831.  Preparations were in place for festivities to celebrate the 4th.  The Mechanic Phalanx was preparing a grand meal along with a reading of the Declaration of Independence.  Other citizens were in deep discussions debating if Belvidere should be annexed to Lowell.  Reverend Edson was preparing his homily for Sunday.  The doings of President Andrew Jackson and talk of temperance were popular topics heard in the streets.  The shops along Merrimack and Lowell Streets were busy with buyers making their purchases before closing for the Sabbath on the 3rd.
In the Acre things were just as busy.  For a year the neighborhood had been watching the progress of the first Catholic church to be built in the city, and only the third in Massachusetts.  The agent for the Corporation, Kirk Boott, had donated a parcel of land on which to build.  Just weeks before a series of riots broke out along Lowell Street with some Yankees calling to burn down the church.  Others called for calm.  Michael Connelly had overseen the foundation and construction with frequent check-ins with Bishop Fenwick.  The two would later have a number of discussions about payment for labors rendered.  Slowly, but surely, the 70’x40’ wooden church rose.  The tower surmounted by a golden orb and cross was in stark contrast to the surrounding shanties.   At this point there were about 500 people living in the Paddy Camps.  Already it had gotten a reputation for being rather seedy with its make-shift cabins and pigs running between the alleys that passed for streets.  The little church had outgrown itself even before it opened. 
The Bishop, along with Rev. Dr O’Flaherty, the well known orator, arrived the day before having taken a carriage from Boston.  The two would spend the night at the Stone Tavern near the falls.  The weather that day of July 3rd of 1831 was unusually hot, but that did not deter the crowds.  Over one hundred singers from the Cathedral choir came by stage to provide the music for the Mass.  Edward Kitts, the shoemaker, Miss Catherine Hogan, a teacher in the Irish School, and Mr. Hector, all of Lowell, also accompanied the Boston choir.  The pastor assigned to the new Catholic Church was John Mahoney, who had been serving the Lowell community for several years and had just been informed that he would not be returning to his previous post as pastor in Salem.  When Fr. Mahoney arrived a few years before to celebrate the first Mass, some of the Irish wept to hear their mother tongue being spoken.
Many of those in attendance for the dedication were likely among the first pioneers who traveled from Charlestown to build the foundations for the mills and widen the canals.  There was Cummiskey, Murray, McManus, Smith, Green, Fitzpatrick- all of them surely vying for a front pew.  The pews would be auctioned off at a later date to help defray the cost of building extensions to the church just 2 years later.  The church could not hold the crowds that showed up.  It was filled to overflowing with the open area around Fenwick Street packed with spectators as well.  Some reported that the crowd surpassed two or three thousand.  Considering the entire population of Lowell was about 7,000 at this time, it must have been quite a crowd.  The Bishop claimed the church under the patronage of Saint Patrick and anointed the altar with sacred oils.  Reverend O’Flaherty chose his sermon from the Book of Chronicles. “I have chosen this place to be a house of sacrifice and prayer.”   O’Flaherty was well known throughout the area as a gifted speaker and thus many Protestants attended just to hear his address.
The heat persisted through the afternoon when the priests and Bishop chanted evening Vespers.  The Bishop also confirmed 29 individuals.  The church still crowded to overflowing.  The event was recorded in newspapers across the state and even the country.  It was remarked that the church was one of the finest buildings in the city and represented things to come for the Irish and the Town of Lowell.  Surprisingly the only mention of the event in the Lowell newspapers is a single sentence in the Lowell Mercury, “The Catholic Church recently erected in this town was consecrated last Sabbath with appropriate services.”  The Irish were here to stay.
The Parish has a single remaining artifact from that original church.  When the wooden structure was dismantled to make way for the present structure the lead construction man was given a piece of the cross that topped the tower of the church.  Luckily a thoughtful collector returned the item to the church where it is in safe keeping.  We are always looking for pieces of our past that fills in the jigsaw puzzle of our story.  Can you help us? Family photos, business advertisements, graduation diplomas, musical programs, newspaper articles, class pictures, school uniforms, First Communion certificates…….  All tell a part of the story of the Acre.  So many have told us of what they thought was worthless, yet could tell us so much.  A picture can be worth a thousand words.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Desiree's Passing

Poverty predestined her to a life of servitude.  It wasn’t until she was 27 that she would be able to fulfill her dream of entering the convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Her given name was Mathilde Erculisse.  She was born May 18, 1815 in Elouges, Belgium.  Even as a novice, her potential was recognized by her superiors.  Once she took the habit, she was known as Sister Desiree.  She went about her duties faithfully, but had an inner desire to serve God as a missionary, possibly in the new fields of the Americas.  In 1845 she made the long trans-Atlantic journey and ended up at the convent of the Sisters in Cincinnati, Ohio.  At first her duties were simple- sewing for the Sisters and being in charge of the clothes room.  Once she was assigned to a classroom she found her calling.  Desiree recognized that the condition of the poorest of the poor whom she served would not improve without education.  She gathered children, young women, and mothers into Sodalities that taught basic necessities while instilling the values of the Church.

Because of her efforts she was invited to open a new foundation among the Irish in Lowell.  Father Timothy O’Brien had sought a teaching order of Sisters to open a school for the swelling numbers of Irish children who lived in the Acre section of the mill city.  He had asked several different teaching orders to take on the task, but only the French speaking Sisters of Notre Dame would come.   Five sisters left Cincinnati by coach and made the difficult journey to a convent in Boston.  When the little group arrived in Lowell they were met by enthusiastic crowds.  Visitors arrived unannounced day and night to meet them.  They went to work immediately and opened their little school, first with 150 students and within days, over 300. The space that served as classrooms by day served as the Sisters’ dormitory by night.   In a short time Desiree opened a kindergarten for the children who wandered the streets as their parents worked.  The Sisters led night classes for women and girls who spent their days in the mills and as housekeepers.  Desiree also opened a small hospital for those who were not able to be part of the Corporation Hospital sponsored by the mills.  The caliber of the teaching at the Academy she instituted was such that wealthy Boston merchants sent their daughters to Lowell to be educated.  Having paying boarders allowed Desiree to afford educating the poor who would not be able to have such an opportunity.  On the weekends the Sisters taught religious education classes in the surrounding towns.  Within 25 years she had built a school for children, a convent for the Sisters, Notre Dame Academy for older girls, and grounds where cows and chickens were kept.  The food was often given to the poor who made their way to the convent door seeking a meal.  It was Desiree’s order that no person be turned away in case it was Christ calling at the door.
By 1879, her life’s work was coming to an end.  Just weeks before, she and the Sisters worked tirelessly to host clergy and guests for the Consecration ceremony of St. Patrick Church.  While the guests feasted, the nuns cooked, cleaned, and served, eating their meals in a crowded back room away from the festivities.  In October of 1879, a cry of one in agony broke the Grand Silence that the Sisters kept from sunset until dawn. The cries came from Mother Desiree’s room.  The doctor was called and opiates were given to calm the pains.  The Sisters gathered in small groups in the hallways kneeling and reciting the psalms of lamentations and the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary.  For days, a line of priests and Superiors from other convents made their way to the convent to say their farewells.  Acre residents knew her as Good Mother Desiree.  This woman with a strong French accent was like a mother to every child put under her protection.  A vigil was kept outside

Death of St. Julie
the convent by Catholics and Protestants alike.  A favorite priest of Mother Desiree, Father Bapst, saw her final agonies were upon her and began the Last Rites, anointing her hands and soles of her feet as a sign she would not walk this earth again.  Frequently her lips would utter shorts prayers such as, “Jesus, my Jesus.”  It was in the evening of October 16, 1879 that the bell began to toll announcing to all in the convent, in the school, in the streets, across the Acre and the City that the bride had returned to her bridegroom.  The cries of the mourners could be heard from outside the convent.

Her fellow Sisters bathed her earthly remains and clothed them in the habit of the Order.  Only eight of the 20 plus Sisters were allowed to attend the funeral.  The others remained in the convent.  The altar was heavily draped in black.  The bell in the church tower tolled a half hour before the Requiem Mass began.  At 9 a.m. dozens of clergy surrounded the casket and began the chant of the De Profundis.  Out of the depths I cry under thee, O Lord.  The body was carried up the main aisle flanked by 6 tall candles.   The sobs of the crowds made it difficult to hear the eulogy. 
Carriages awaited outside the church to take clergy to the gravesite.  Newspapers reported that the cortege was one of the longest seen in the City in a long time.  The Sisters of Charity and the children of St. Peter’s orphanage followed the carriages.  The students from the school and Academy, wearing black dresses and white veils, carried floral wreaths.  Several of the City’s temperance societies joined in, along with the different Sodalities of the Blessed Virgin she had founded.  The cortege stretched from Gorham Street to Market Street.  The casket was lowered into the grave in the little plot reserved for the Sisters at the Catholic Burial Ground on the edge of the city.  Once the prayers of committal were finished, many found it difficult to leave.  The afternoon sun was already beginning to fall.  But Desiree was not alone.  On either side of her were Sisters Francis and Rose, two of the other Lowell pioneers from 1852 who had earlier passed onto their rewards.  The Sisters made their way back to the Convent knowing that tomorrow the work that began with the little band of 5 would need to continue.  “Ah, qu’il est bon, le bon Dieu!” (How good the Good God is!)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Couple of Amazing Footnotes!!!

Lowell Sunday Telegram, 1926
After I wrote the blog about Nellie, Kim Zunino sent along a pic of Nellie's home on Lee Street before it was razed.  It's from an old newspaper, so they quality is not the greatest.  Thanks, Kim!

Then I came across a small article that states the song of Seeing Nellie Home was a favorite of the Sisters and the students of Notre Dame Academy.  According to the article, it was a well known fact that on an evening in June of 1858(?), at the first graduation ceremony of Notre Dame Academy, Patrick Gilmore "called on" Ellen O'Neill to escort her home.  And that is where he got the inspiration for the song.  True?  Would a nun lie?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Seeing Nellie Home

From 1835 newspaper story
To friends and family she was Nellie, but her given name was Ellen O’Neill. She lived with her brother and mother in a small house on Lee Street, near the Unitarian Church (currently St. Joseph Shrine). Her parents, Patrick and Mary Jane, were both Irish immigrants, and when they arrived in Lowell Mr. O’Neill opened a copper plating business that made tags for the Merrimack Print Works. They also supplied signs, cards, and invitations to those who required their services. Patrick O’Neill passed away in 1848, leaving his wife to care for the children. She continued the printing business herself and was able to keep their small home on Lee Street.
Merrimack Street runs parallel to Lee Street and in between the two a small alley opened between, with buildings on either side. The back door of the O’Neill home opened directly to the back door of Rugg’s Music store at 99 Merrimack Street. And this is where our story becomes part of the City’s history. A young Irish immigrant cornet player and up and coming band leader by the name of Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore spent much time at Mr. Rugg’s store. Mr. Gilmore was a member of many local bands and led the very popular Salem Cadet Band. Mr. Rugg's store was often the meeting place for the band before they performed in the area, such as their many concerts at Huntington Hall.  At some point the back doors between the music store and the O'Neill home opened at the same time and their eyes met. An American love story began. With the help of Philip Haggerty, a musician himself and the choir director of St. Patrick Church, P. S. Gilmore began to woo the fair Miss O’Neill. Since she was a member of the church’s choir it was reported Mr. Gilmore accompanied her to St. Pat’s and possibly joined the choir.

Google image
Miss Gilmore had an Aunt Dinah who lived across the bridge in Pawtucketville. Being the proper gentleman he was, and wanting to spend as much time as he could with her. P. S. Gilmore accompanied Ellen to the quilting bees held at the Aunt’s home where singing and conversation went late into the night. Seeing the moon cast its reflection on the Merrimack River touched the romantic cords of the young man’s heart.  He must have been quite smitten by her as he wrote When I Saw Sweet Nellie Home. The song may not be quite familiar to today’s audience, but in the last century it was a number one favorite for generations. The tune went through a number of evolutions and different composers have penned their names to it, but it started right here in Lowell.

Father John O’Brien of St Patrick Church married the couple, he 28 years old and she 21, in the rectory on Fenwick Street in May of 1858. The bride’s mother made specially engraved invitations for the nuptials (one was still in existence a century ago). The Gilmores left Lowell to begin a career that brought them much travel and fame. Mrs. O'Neill sold the engraving business the same year and possibly traveled with her daughter.  Gilmore is remembered today, along with John Philip Sousa, as the Father of the American Band. He is best known for his rendition of When Johnny Comes Marching Home. He started the tradition of music on New Year’s Eve in Times Square, the Gilmore's Music Garden later becoming Madison Square Garden, and led the music for the nation's Centennial celebration as well as the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. The list goes on. Nellie accompanied him wherever he went. She remained quiet and often in the background, possibly because of the scars left by smallpox.
And what of the little house on Lee Street? In the 1930s it was decided that it should be torn down. It was in the way of progress of the big stores on Merrimack Street that needed space. A sign attesting to the fact that the building would be demolished was nailed to the front door.  Across the country pleas went out to save the home. Many couples recalled their own days of handholding listening to Seeing Nellie Home. A radio program was created to dramatize the meeting between Patrick and Nellie. A last minute effort went out recommending that the home be turned into a tea room. Surely couples from all over would want to sit in Nellie’s parlor. But time marches on and newer, more modern buildings took the place of the small wooden home.
One of the missions of the Irish Cultural Committee is to help preserve Saint Patrick Church. The Resurrection window was recently restored through generous benefactors. The heating system installed in 1906 finally passed away and had to be totally redone, thanks to benefactors. Many of the small windows in the lower church need repair and stones need re-pointing. The work of the ICC helps support such endeavors. Over a quarter of a million dollars has been donated in the last 35 years. The Patrick Keyes home (the old Cosmo) on Market Street is one of the oldest structures in the city. The future of the building is not good.  Imagine this as an Acre cultural center?  It will more than likely go the way of Nellie’s home, Cardinal O’Connell’s birthplace, the house where Edgar Allen Poe visited, Lucy Larcom’s boardinghouse, and how many others?
Here’s a YouTube video of Johnny Cash’s rendition:

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Spring Tour

Today we met  former mayors, a large number of Demorcrats and a single Republican.   There were shop keepers, plumbers, and real estate agents.  There were clergy and liquor dealers (a lot of them).  They were the Irish at the turn of the century.  They comprised almost half the population of Lowell and let it be known.  Telling their stories reminds us of the struggles of the previous generation.  We are honored to share their lives and preserve them for the next.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Cut in Stone

In the not too distant past Gorham Street was lined with monument companies that serviced the cemeteries of the area.  Advances in technology enabled cutters to create grander works of art than those that were previously done, at first in slate and later in marble.  Vermont was often the source for the granite. Hauled from the pits of places like Barre, Vermont blocks were brought to local dealers to meet the wants of the individual buyers.  Customers could be shown books of designs, or they could work with the individual carvers.  Newspapers would often announce the erection of new monuments in local cemeteries.  Railcars ran right along Gorham Street and brought families to visit grave sites, which was often a weekend outing for many families.  Until the 20th century individual families cut the grass and trimmed whatever landscaping was on a lot.  Visitors recall bringing a picnic lunch to finish off the day before returning to the neighborhoods.  The lawns and trees of the burial ground might provide an alternative to life in the tenement.  It wasn't until the turn of the century that the cemetery took on that duty of cutting the grass with the introduction of "perpetual care.".

John Pinardi of The Lowell Monument Company created many of the works that appear throughout the cemetery.  A number of the high Celtic crosses were his creation.  (He would later be buried in St
. Joseph's Cemetery.)  Often carvers such as Mahan & Meehan signed their work as a sign of pride of what they created and as an advertisement.  Trade cards from the different companies would entice customers to tour the company's yards to view works in progress.  These companies also provided curbing to mark cemetery lots and did work at various businesses throughout the city.  During one period, catalogues, such as Sears and Roebuck, sold markers that would be shipped to the home.  These could be made of marble, granite, or even metal. 

The simple early 19th century slates of Yards 1 & 2 were replaced by marble around the time of the
Civil War.  The marble stones that cover Yard 3 were easier to carve and quite accessible.  But soon the permanence and versatility of granite outshone them all and appear through the rest of the cemetery.  The financial and social conditions of the Irish population had also evolved, and they showed this change by creating these gardens of stones.