Friday, December 30, 2011


What would 2 red blooded American males do on a day off?  Why go cemetery hunting of course!  Walter Hickey and I (along with my daughter, Cait) took off to find more of Clan Cummiskey.  First we drove to St Francis de Sales Church in Charlestown.  How the good people of Charlestown negotiate the hills I'll never know.  On top of that, most of the parking is residential only.  The cemetery is usually locked, but the folks at the Catholic Cemetery Assoc made the contact to St Francis to have it open.  Sometimes in doing research you find folks don't open their doors too wide, but not in this case.  I am really grateful for their cooperation.  Once we climbed the hill there was the church sexton waiting for us.  He could tell Walter and Cait were out of breath (not myself since I am in tip top condition).  He smiled when he informed us the cemetery is on the other side of the hill.  So what goes up, must go down, and then back up. 

Our quest was to find James Cummiskey.  All evidence says that James might have been Hugh's brother.  The entrance to the Cemetery has a beautiful Celtic cross that is at the head of the field of stones.  Looking over it we knew we had a daunting task to find James.  The saints must have been guiding us for exactly where we stood was James Cummiskey.  The stone was slate with the traditional willow pattern.  He's buried there with his wife, both "from the parish of Dromore, County Tyrone."

The Cemetery is is in back of the church.  It is wonderfully maintained with respect for those who rest there.  Originally, it was the encampment for the "Brits" during the Battle of Bunker Hill.  As someone who has spent a lot of time in old burial grounds, this place was a gold mine.  Almost all the stones are upright and legible.  One of the first items we noticed was the varied types of slate used compared to our area.  There went very light to dark grey tones.  The next point of interest was the style of carving.  You can actually tell the carver since each developed his own style.  The Charlestown carvers carved their lettering much deeper than the carvers in Lowell, such as Warren and Day.  One line repeated itself on a number of stones A Cary Fecit (A Cary made this.)  A good number of the stones had the identical icon of IHS with some decoration under.  This was obvious as stone after stone appeared the same, but then the carver used some very unique stenciling not seen anywhere in our area.  The sunburst was another motif used throughout the cemetery.  One stone I've never seen before was a lamb on slate material.  The carving needed to do such, had to be made by an expert hand.  I had a personal interest in finding any shamrock stones on slate.  To this date St Pat's appears to be the only such examples anywhere on either side of the Atlantic.

The trip down to the car was a lot easier than the way up. With time on our hands we made our way to North Cambridge Catholic Cemetery to find another Cummiskey, Captain Hugh.  Like St Pat's, Cambridge tells a story.  The Cemetery is a heavy mix of old stones next to new.  The mid-nineteenth century Irish names evolve into Italian and then a mix.  Where to begin?  I stopped the car, looked to my right, and there he was.  Providence once again pointed the way.  The grave is that of boat captain Hugh Cummiskey.  He makes quite a name for himself in guiding boats through the harbor and shipping.  Another native of Tyrone, was he a cousin?  Research cannot tell us anymore- yet.  But in this journey surprising things have turned up.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Nollaig Chridheil (Merry Christmas)

One of my areas of interest is ancient Celtic poetry, especially from the monastic period.  There is a beauty that transcends time, theologies, and culture.     As we celebrate Christmas, I'd like to send you a beautiful thought for this season written by an anonymous, 9th century monk.  To close, I'd like to leave you with a bit of music from my visit to the Belfast Museum in August.  Peace

I have news for you:
The stag bells, winter snows, summer has gone
Wind high and cold, the sun low, short its course
The sea running high.
Deep red the bracken; its shape is lost;
The wild goose has raised its accustomed cry,
cold has seized the birds' wings;
season of ice, this is my news.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

An Acre Christmas Memory

The icicles had to be placed just right

Some of my friends had those new sparkling aluminum tree with the color wheel that spun around.  Their ornaments were the fancy, Styrofoam ones wrapped in colored silk thread.  Not us, we had old fashioned glass ornaments, some 10, 15, or 20 years old.  There were delicate glass strawberries , enormous red balls, beautifully painted shapes that mirrored the colored lights.  We had some very old ones from memere’s.  I especially remember a little cloth Santa that had its place on the tree.  The icicles.  We had dozens of these hard plastic white icicles that were placed ever so gingerly on the tips of the branches.  Then came the tinsel.  They don’t even sell tinsel any more.  I think it was one of the causes of global warming.  My mother bought boxes of it.  I would throw gobs of it at the tree.  In frustration my mother would tell me to leave as she went about adding her piece de resistance.  Every individual strand had to be placed just right.  In my memory I can see it now the entire tree shimmering and shining, the tinsel making the tree look like an ice glazed wonder.  The star we used was another ancient piece dating from WWII period.  It was white with a slight outline in red.  When a bulb was inserted in the base the glow was soft and tranquil and set the perfect image of peace on earth, goodwill towards men.  All of that was so until the cat ate a piece of tinsel and we had to pull it out of her rear, or until my mother would topple into the tree as she was trying to perfect her already perfect tree.

While the tree was the focus of our decorating frenzy there were other additions to our attempts of making our Christmas Wonderland.  Probably the first sign of the season to appear would be the wreath on the door.  Today’s Martha Stewart hyper stylized self important frou frou wreaths paled in comparison by what hung on the doors along

Broadway Street
.  There were the white tissue paper wreaths that were made from bent coat hangers with dozens of tiny torn pieces of tissue wrapped around the form.  The good Sisters at Saint Patrick School began the project early in the season.  By early December students brought them home in many stages of completion.  Some homes displayed full rich wreaths that must have taken a tree’s worth of tissue paper to fill.  Other looked half done and hung sadly from a nail.  The worst tragedy is if we had a wet snow and then dozens of toilet paper wreaths met their doom.  On other doorways wreaths were made of folded computer cards (which was accompanied by the infamous folded TV Guide Christmas tree that matched).  Of course there was the economical plastic wreath that barring a nuclear explosion could last in a state of preservation into the next millennium.  One of my mother’s pride and joys was the gold sprayed pine cone wreath made by my Aunt Nita.  It was by far the largest and most luxurious of wreaths in the neighborhood.  It lasted many years and even though each year one or another of the pine cones would fall off or disintegrate it hung until it breathed its last many years later.

It seemed almost every family put electric candles in the windows.  The meaning of this ancient sign of welcome may have been unknown to the residents of the Acre but the effect it made on the snow-covered streets was spectacular.  Almost everyone used orange or red.  That may have been one of those unwritten rules of Christmas that was enforced by peer pressure.  Those who could afford it may even have a 3 candle candolier.  Soon followed the 5, then 7 candle condoliers showed up in windows  Even in the 1960s people tried to outdo their neighbor.  There were always the renegades who used blue or white lights, or even God forbid multi-colored lights!  The ladies of the tenement neighborhood would remark that while everyone in the block had orange Mrs. So-and-so wanted to defy standards and put green bulbs in her electric candles.  Soon enough the malcontent would do her penance and change her bulbs to the right color.  Peace was restored to the Acre. 

Stamps must have been far cheaper in that era because the Christmas card was a major decorating item in that period.  The mailman often made two trips to the mailboxes and even worked on the Sunday before Christmas.  Lord knows who sent all those cards, but we received dozens if not many dozens of Christmas cards.  I had no idea who many of the cards were sent by.  They were cousins of cousins and then there was the frantic, “Oh my God I didn’t send one to them!!!”  This was followed by a mad dash to the mail box in front of Dostaler’s Market.  With tape in hand my sister and I would line every door jamb with the season’s greetings.  “Be sure the horizontal cards were along the top and the verticals went along the side.”  It was a contest with my cousins who had the most cards hanging.

In between the living room and the “good” room was always displayed the red paper tissue folded bell.  These were inexpensive items that were picked up easily at the local Woolworth’s, Kressge’s, or Green’s. Other items of d├ęcor included an illuminated Santa with a bubble light in his hand.   Again, I have no recollection where the item came from or why poor Santa carried a bubbling light bulb in his hand but the Santa was used as a night light on the kitchen table during the season.  My sister had the Frosty the Snowman light.  With a blue bulb inserted in the back it was just like a real snowman, that in your dreams may come alive and march through the house.  I never liked that figure.  My mother also bought 4 Santa Claus mugs from Stuart’s Department Store on

Market Street
.  As the years passed the poor Santas lost their paint until finally he looked like a victim of the plague.  Advent calendars were opened daily revealing little pictures as the big day approached.  Every now and then my mother would one that when the window was opened there was a Bible verse.  Why would someone put Bible verses on Advent calendars?  The meaning was lost on an 8 year old boy.

Friday, December 9, 2011

An Acre Christmas Memory - Part III

The Santa from Green's (right).  The Santa on the left is from my memere's tree, circa, 1900s.

I would sit next to that tree and watch Santa Claus on channel 9.  The New Hampshire local station had this guys named Gus Lemire.  He would read letters sent in by kids, and read the list of what they wanted.  For some unknown reason, even though I never sent Santa a letter I would sit there and listen to this guy read letter after letter hoping somehow in his infinite wisdom Santa would know just what I wanted, and he would say my name on tv.  If only once, just once it would happen.  But alas it never did. 

A trip to the downtown Santa would have to suffice.  The Bon Marche had a very nice Santa and they had all those Christmas trees lit up on the overhang along Merrimack Street.  They also had the large manger in the storefront.  This was at a time when no one was afraid of mentioning what Christmas was all about.  The other Santa at Pollards was quite nice too.  There were other Santas scattered throughout downtown, but these were the cheapo knockoffs.  Instead of a throne and images of the North Pole.  They sat on a kitchen chair and had wrapping paper as a backdrop.  I was no country bumpkin.  I knew the real Santa was just too busy to come to Lowell and these were his helpers.  One particular visit stands in mind.  It was the first year we had a car, a 2 door, blue, 1951 Ford.  My dad parked on Lee Street and as I was trying to get out the driver’s side door.  My dad closed the door and hit me square on the head.  I flew back and landed on the seat.  You would have thought I had committed a crime.  Perhaps I had passed out for just a moment, but when my wits were once again about me, my father was yelling to get out of the car and stop my whining.  The first stop was St. Joseph’s Shrine Gift Shop.  Located in the basement under the church, my mother felt obliged to buy a religious gift for the Sisters who taught my sister and me.  Why my mother thought nuns wanted something holy was beyond me, but I was assured she knew what she was doing.  Every year was the same thing stationary with a religious image on it.  The only choice that had to be made was what image to include.  The Miraculous Medal was always a big hit with the nun crowd, but of course Saint Jude was always a safe choice.  My mother felt it her yearly duty to explain that the good Sisters were never able to actually keep their stationary since they were under a vow of poverty and had to give their gift to Mother Superior.  I wondered what was the sense of even buying the gift in the first place if that was all true. 

Now it was time to see Santa and present my list to him.  The anxiety was almost too much.  What would he say?  Was I a good boy?  Could he see through me and tell I was lying everytime I nodded my head?  Did he really have a list?  Does he really check it twice? After presenting my petitions, all he’d say is. “We’ll see.”  We’ll see?  What the heck is that all about, I want commitment.  You should know by now which list I am on.  You just can’t get Santa helpers like you used to.

We’d stroll the downtown area looking at the displays in store windows and green lighted garlands that stretched across Merrimack and Central Streets.  When we got to Greens’ 5 & 10 soda fountain we all took a seat.  My folks got a coffee, but my sister and I got hot chocolate.  Then I saw the sign on the wall- a free plastic Santa to whoever ordered a hot chocolate.  I wanted one in the worst way.  The waitress with the big pink hankie with holly pinned to her uniform, was a friend of my mother’s, brought over 2 plastic Santa ornaments.  I was ecstatic.  It was like mega bucks and the Irish lottery rolled into one. As soon as we got into the house the Santa was given a proud placement on the tree.  I’m proud to say he still manages to do so today more than 50 years later.  Before getting back in the car we would walk over to the manger in front of City Hall.  The fifures were life sized.  The camels stood as tall as an adult and the feeling you got there made you think of the first Christmas night.  Often we stood there in silence, the smell of hay wafting in the cold night air.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Christmas Memory - Part II

I wrote this little Christmas story as a gift for my kids (or was it really for me?).  That same year my wife gave them family recipes photocopied from their grandmothers' own cards and habdwritten in her own.  I'm not sure if they appreciated it, but maybe someday they will feel called to write their own.  For those looking for more on Lowell's irish past, do not be concerned.  Plans are already in the making for another series of the most recent research.  So I offer to you part 2 of 4.  May you take the time to create your own memories.


If my memory serves me correctly at some point my mother was barred from the quest of getting the tree.  Since we had no car, as did most in that neighborhood, it was a traipse to the several neighborhood dealers.  Somehow we always picked the weekend when snow and the temperature had fallen to the point of frostbite.  My mother demanded the perfect tree.  Not too short, not too tall.  Not too narrow, not too full.  A skimpy tree meant there weren’t enough branches to hang the ornaments.  A tree too full wouldn’t allow the ornaments to hang just right.  After my mother commanding my father to try this tree and that, and then back to this tree and finally deciding on that one, only to find someone had bought it, there was an unspoken decision my father would play hunter-gatherer and get the tree himself.  And so, wearing double layers of socks, a pair of woolen leggings, the mandatory hat with earflaps pulled down and strapped under the chin, accompanied by the god-awful black rubber boots with the gazillion impossible buckles, we would leave the safety of the primeval cave and enter the world of the Christmas Tree Man. 
Now finding a tree was not a matter of shape or form to my father, but being the son of a Scotsman, was all about the price.  I truly believe in the whole time we lived in the Acre we never paid more than $3 for a tree and more likely $2.  Ahh, it was a dance that was performed between my father and Tree Man.  Banging the tree stump on the ground to proclaim the needles falling off.  The shaking of the head at how poor a selection Tree Man had.  The proverbial question of, “Is this all you have?”  Many times this was enough for Tree Man to give in and acquiesce to the Great White Tree Hunter.  But every now and then Tree Man held his ground.  That’s when my dad would pull out the big guns.  I think subconsciously my dad hoped he could pull off this coup-du-gras.  It had to be timed perfectly.  The hand gestures, facial expressions.  When Tree Man did not bite my Dad’s bait of “I’ll give you 2 bucks for this one,” my father would shake his head and say “Come on David, let’s go.”  I would lower my head and follow a few steps behind.  Inevitably just as we were leaving his lot, Tree Man would call out, “Wait!”  Though Tree Man couldn’t see it my father’s face would beam.  The hunt.  Now the kill.  With my Dad taking the lead, we would carry our catch down Broadway Street
hill.  I taking two steps to his every one.  The crunch of the snow beneath our boots helped keep the rhythm to our steps.  As the door opened to our house Dad would again tell the story of how once again Tree Man dared to take him on, and the victory of getting a two dollar and fifty cent tree.  To complete the annual expedition my mother would proclaim once again that she had no idea where was she going to hang the ornaments on such a skimpy tree. 

 Once the tree was brought home it had to be put into its stand, which consisted of a green metal bowl in which water would be poured to keep the tree moist.  Three red metal legs had to be attached to keep the stand steady.  A degree in engineering was needed to assemble the device.  Only the most delicate of maneuvers would hold the legs together in such a state to put the stump in the tree without it falling apart.  Placing of the tree was also of major concern.  “Move it to the right.  More.  More.  Too much.  Left.  I said left.  Put it back where it was.”  The Commanding Officer, my mother, would bark out the orders never content believing that turning it just the right way would make the difference.  There was an unwritten rule in the house that the tree had to “stand” for 24 hours.  It was the belief a lot like “no swimming for one full hour after eating before going in the water.”  If you decorated the tree before that time the needles would fall, and Christmas would be ruined forever and all time. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

An Acre Christmas Memory - Part I

A Christmas Memory
by David McKean

When the skies turn grey and dry leaves do their winter dance, thoughts return of another time.  A time of simple pleasures and innocent wishes.  They come to me like Dicken’s ghost of Christmas past, haunting in a way that invites you to return.  Sometimes it is the notes of a song that lives in the recesses of my mind.  Other times a whiff of cinnamon or an orange peel.  My soul has passed through five decades and four Christmases.  Each leaving its impression upon me and building in my collective memory.  How much is true and how much is dream has become blurred over time.  The expectations  of a young boy becomes the memories of an aging man.  Christmas.  Just the word makes me think of putting on black rubber boots with those impossible metal clips before going outside into snow mounds made by the passing plows.

The tenement I grew up in was located at
761 Broadway Street
in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Weeks before the holiday preparations began.  Dostaler’s Market next door would start stocking walnuts and Gorton (pork scrap sold in cardboard tubs), would once again be found in the cooler where the meats were kept.  In the back large pieces of beef would hang where Paul the butcher would cut the meat to the various needs of the neighborhood mothers.  The Dostalers’ sons would be busy delivering the groceries to the neighborhood.  Cans of SS Pierce vegetables would fly off the shelf.  Don’t forget the Bradt’s crackers and be sure to include some bread that would be left out to stale for the stuffing.  Mr. “Ovie” (Ovid Dostaler) was a kind soul who along with his wife would offer credit to his patrons.  To a six year old the sight of the glass enclosed wooden case filled with penny candy was a feast awaiting.  Armed with the nickel my memere gave me for carrying her laundry I would have to choose between the peach pits, which were such a bargain at three for a penny, or maybe a black licorice record, which was as strip of rich chewy delight with the little red bead at the center at the end.  But oh there were so many other choices, squirrel nuts, mint juleps, malt balls, flying saucer, which we used to give make-believe communion to each other.  Don’t forget the candy necklaces, wax bottles filled with sugar water, and straws filled with colored sugars which would make our tongues turn colors.  God only knows the chemicals we ingested.  If I was dutiful perhaps I saved 2 nickels and was able to get a package of Stoddard’s Twins, better known as black moons.  Two delicious, decadent, delightful, delicacies of chocolate cake with icing equal to the nectar of the gods inbetween.   But I digress. 

Years later I learned that Mr. Ovie was often the voice of Santa on the telephone.  With the constant threat of Santa not coming to our home that year, my mother would swear she would call Santa if we did not behave.  Since our apartment was on the first floor and the Dostalers lived on the second floor across the street, Mr. Ovie could see directly into out kitchen.  Upon my mother’s cue the phone would ring and Santa would begin the litany of faults my mother had previously snitched.  Santa even knew what we were wearing and where we were standing.  There really was a Santa!  We were convinced and well into junior high I knew that though my peers laughed at the absurdity of such a folly, he did exist.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Thanksgiving Memory OR Turkey Day in the Acre

Freedom From Want by Norman Rockwell

I predict in a very short time we will be celebrating a new holiday called HallowThanksmas.  It will be a combination of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.  Children will tear into festively wrapped boxes of turkeys stuffed with candy.  Right now the week before Thanksgiving, in my neighborhood there are 5 houses decorated with twinkling lights and blow up Santas.  Nearby is a house with a witch on the doorstep and the remnants of a jack o lantern leftover from last month.  Remember when Thanksgiving was its own day and not the day before Black Friday?  Thanksgiving held a different connotation than it does now. 
I grew up on the corner of Broadway and Walker Streets in the Acre section of Lowell.  The block I grew up on was a set of tenements all connected with concrete paved space in between.  Without knowing it, we may have grown up poor, using today’s standards.  We didn’t have a car for many years, but neither did a lot of people.  Many of my friends wore hand me downs.  Mine were from my cousin Armand.  I never fell for my mother’s trick of trying to get me to wear my sister’s old mittens.  The oversized jars of peanut butter and big blocks of cheese should have been a giveaway.  But when it came to holidays, my parents spent no expense.
When I hear folks spin yarns of Thanksgivings of long ago, they’re infused with images of moms wearing aprons, wiping hair away from their foreheads with flour covered hands.  My mother was no Martha Stewart.  Her kitchen philosophy consisted of if it came from a can or a box, it was homemade.  We would be dismissed from school early on the day before, and my mother would have my sister and me walk from St. Pat’s School to downtown Lowell to buy some supplies.  We’d go to Kresge’s and Woolworths to buy bridge mix, a blend of chocolate covered peanuts, raising, and caramels.  (Do they even make that anymore?)  Thanksgiving was also when peach blossoms would appear.  Those wonderful salmon shaded sweets filled with peanut butter.  I recall one year carrying the goodies into the kitchen after making the 1.5 mile track from downtown (How often and easily we made that walk without even thinking about it!) only to find my father sitting at the kitchen table.  Why was Dad home so early?  Over supper they told us he had been laid off yet again from Raytheon, but we’d still have a good Thanksgiving.
The night before my mother, being French Canadian, would begin her stuffing.  The smell of sage brings me back to those days.  I loved looking at the bright yellow box with the turkey on front. The next step was the washing of the bird.  Because neither of my parents had much of a culinary background, they both hated the chore with the slippery leviathan once landing on the floor.  The house would be spotlessly clean, even to the point of the winter curtains being hung.  There was an excitement and an air of anticipation.  Stores closed their doors early.  Folks went home, and stayed there.  This was a day for family.
By the time I woke on Thanksgiving morn the house was already abuzz.  Every pot and pan was put into use.  My job was to set the table with the fine paper tablecloth and napkins we picked up at the 5 & 10 the day before.  The good china, the set my parents bought in 1953 that had a gold crown to commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, was taken out.  The silver, which was used twice a year had to be cleaned.  It sounds fancy, but these were the only pieces of value my folks owned, and besides, it was a holiday. 
All stores were closed, except one, the packie (for those of you outside the Merrimack Valley it’s the liquor store).  If you knew the right people you would go to the package store and even though the law said there should be no liquor sales, you could buy what you needed.  In my house it was the smallest bottle of brandy you could get.  It was for the eggnog, you understand.  It was a necessity.  My mother, who never drank, would have her one shot of eggnog and brandy as she cooked.  Within minutes she would declare the house too hot and open all the windows.  Weighing 90 something pounds and under 5 feet, that one little nip would make her tipsy, or so she thought.
My mother was from a family of 13 kids, my dad from 7 kids.  We had family, lots of them.  Sometimes too many, now too few.  In hindsight, it’s interesting that the 2 families never met.  They would alternate holidays.  (Was there something going on I was blind to?)  The Macy’s parade would start off, often with a bagpipe band.  Maybe because with a last name like McKean, but the whole family would stop to hear them play Scotland the Brave.  When it was done everyone would return to their given task.  One by one the family members arrived.  Just as the Underdog balloon would come into view my mother would call me to the kitchen, tell me to bundle up, and bring 2 dinners to my memere and pepere who lived down the street.  I’d whine.  She’s command.  I’d plead to see Underdog; she’d take a shot of eggnog.  Their house was 4 doors down, but I’d turn it into the Long March.  Memere would open the door, I’d put the dishes on the table and attempt to run out.  Underdog was on his way.  In her thick accent, she’d say thank you a million times, but I was too busy to hear or even give her five minutes of my time.  I regret that.
Back at the ranch people were just sitting down at the table and I’d squeeze in.  Then began the beautiful tradition of Grace.  My mother would ask for someone to begin.  Silence.  My mother would look at my father.  Dad would begin, “Jesus Christ almighty.”  Before you think he began the prayer, no, that was his response to anything.  Then my mother would command me to begin.  It was the same scenario every year until adulthood.  Being a product of parochial education, I knew what to say.  What I wanted to say was, “Over the lips and past the tongue….  But that would have gotten me a hit on the noggin.  Instead I began, “Bless us O lord and these thy gifts….”  This was followed by the lifting of glasses.  Most families had wine, we had cranberry juice.  Without getting into it, my mother didn’t allow wine (just her stash of eggnog).  We had all the traditional foods most American families had, along with my mother’s specialties.  Celery with cream cheese, pickles, and pickled onions.  Haute cuisine, Acre style.   Like most families the meal would be done within 8 minutes.  Then men would retire to the TV room, the women to the task of scrubbing and cleaning.
My dad was not a giant TV sports fan, but he was on Thanksgiving.  He’d have me take my place by the TV to turn the channel.  My father’s philosophy was that children were made to change TV channels, since these were the days before remote.  Thankfully there were fewer channels.  Since he imbibed tryptophan, he would soon be asleep. If I dared changed the channel, he would immediately awaken and want the game back.
The meal was not done until dessert was served.  My mother’s theory was that there should be as many desserts on the table as you had guests.  The table would be laden with apple pie (from Table Talk), pecan pie (from Aunt Cis), mince pie (from Table Talk), pumpkin pie (from Aunt Cis).  The one creation of my mother’s was the mandatory Jello.  She’s stand there with plates of wiggling Jello, holding it like she won a Betty Crocker medal.  If you didn’t put a blob of it next to your pie, she’d be heartily disappointed.  After the meal Ma would put the fruit bowl on the table.  My mother wasn’t much of a nutritionist and we didn’t have a lot of fruit, but this was not for eating, it was for show.  Everyone knew you needed a fruit bowl on the table.  That was accompanied by nuts, not shelled, but with the shells.  Then the contest of where the nutcracker was would begin.
One by one folks would leave with a paper plate filled with enough food for a few days, including jello.  Dad would be back to sleep; he did that a lot.  Ma would be in the kitchen cleaning up, but next to her was her eggnog.  Quiet would descend on the house. 
As the years passed, fewer people come over.  We all went our separate ways, even losing contact with some.  Soon my parents were the grandparents sitting at my wife’s and my table.  We kept some of the old ways, but started some of our own.  Now there are even fewer at the table.  As the gray hairs on my head multiply I think more of those days.  The nice part is that I still have cousins whom I love dearly and have reconnected with others over the past year or two. 
Be thankful.  Give the day its due.  “Bless us O Lord….”

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Bishop's Problem

Benedict Fenwick had a problem.  The growing parish in Lowell was comprised of upstarts and trouble makers.  Being the second Bishop of Boston, he had to maintain a delicate balance.  He represented the Catholic presence in Yankee Boston.  While courting the Brahmins of Boston, he needed to meet the needs of the ever growing Irish population that stretched from the deep woods and Indian strongholds of Maine, down the to the mill towns springing up along New England rivers, over to the choked streets of Charlestown, and to the fishing villages of the Atlantic.  All of this with a handful of priests.  It meant a different life from his upbringing.
Bishop Fenwick

The Benedict family was one of the great families of Maryland, founded as a sort of refuge for Catholics.  Because of persecutions against Catholics, his family left England and became major landholders in the colony.  He could have had a life of ease, but chose the seminary, namely the Jesuits.  Soon he was a professor at Georgetown and later a leading prelate in New York City.  He was assigned to help heal divisions in South Carolina.  Probably because of the success he had there, upon the return of Bishop Cheverus to France, Fenwick was elevated to the rank of Bishop.  Donning the purple robes of his status, his ecclesiastical ring and cross, he left to encounter the trials of his life.
He was now the prelate for one of the major dioceses in the United States, but he also knew of Boston’s past.  Christmas, at one time, was banned and still was not fashionable at Fenwick’s time.  Bonfires and burning the Pope’s effigy was still being practiced on the fifth of November, though not as violently as in the previous century.  The trees that filled Boston Common once held the bodies of his fellow Jesuits in Boston’s earliest Puritan era.  Though many of these practices were no longer observed, there was an underlying bias against anything Papist, and with the growing number of Catholics, Boston was on edge.   
In 1831, Lowell was his pride and joy.  The Corporations gave land for a church and later a cemetery.  The numbers justified a full time priest, Father Mahoney.  The church was dedicated in July of that year with imposing ceremonies.  Regular reports were coming in.  While the offertory collections weren’t great, Fenwick had hopes.  A major challenge faced Fenwick when the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown was burnt by an anti-Catholic mob in 1834.  Just days later, news arrived that the Catholic Burial Ground in Lowell was desecrated.

Things go from bad to worse.  The new pastor that Fenwick appoints to Lowell does not seem to be performing his duties.  Though just a few years old, St Patrick Church is too small for the numbers.  Expansions are planned, but the carpenters refuse to work.  Funds that were promised to fund the work do not show up.  He sends priests to Lowell to investigate allegations.  The response is not good.  No money.  Rowdy parishioners.  Priest not showing up for Mass!  There’s trouble in the mill city. 
Fenwick makes several trips by train and stage to check on conditions.  Fenwick recommends that the priest “goes on a spiritual retreat.” Parishioners threaten him with withholding the collections if their priest is replaced.  Fenwick wants the work on the church done.  He writes in his diary that he is afraid Lowell will not make it.  His stomach is upset.  He decides to raise funds by selling pews with disappointing results.  He replaces the pastor even after the threats of some of the more affluent parishioners.  (This same priest returns to Lowell months later, and Fenwick reports the priest is no longer one of his flock.)  They literally board up the church.  The new cleric, Father McDermott, awaits a welcoming committee at the train station that never shows.  He walks to the church and finds he is barred from entering.  He physically removes the boards.  Fenwick has a headache.

We’re fortunate that we have Bishop Fenwick’s actual words to tell us what was going on.  While you could see it as a 19th century soap opera, it reminds us they really lived.  It personalizes the people whose lives have influenced where we live.  It’s important to remember that they were human with hopes and fears, times of laughter, days of woe.  And headaches.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Samuel Murray

In the last 2 years more research has been done regarding Lowell's Irish pioneers than in the past 2 decades.  I'm honored to be playing a small part in it, but I'm just the guy who collects all the stories and data the real historians are gathering.  Needless to say my laptop's desktop is covered with files.  There are dozens of dozens of them.  I need a better filing system.

Over the last months, we've found out much about the life of Hugh Cummiskey, his family, Father McDermott, and other prominent names.  We sometimes forget how tough life was back then.  The name of Hugh has come down through the generations as Lowell's premier Irishman, but certainly he was not alone.  A friend of Hugh was Samuel Murray.  Murray was 7 years younger then Hugh.  There was a strong bond between the two.  Maybe the strongest link was they were both Tyrone men, but it is assumed Hugh brought over many workers from his home County.  One story back in Ireland was that anyone wishing to come to America would go to the Cummiskeys in hopes of making a connection across the Atlantic. 

The two men were close enough they the went into business together running a West Indies Dry Goods store on Merrimack Street.  It would be compared to a modern variety store today.  He was probably quite successful since he later branched out and opened his own store.  Success meant he now how the ability to ask Margaret Holland to marry him, and in the cold of winter 1833 the two went to Saint Pat's Church and were married.  He takes the step to become a citizen in his new adopted homeland.   Life is good for the newlyweds and Samuel, along with his best friend Hugh Cummiskey, are among the first constables in Lowell.  The two men must have been held in the highest regard by their peers and the Town Fathers.  They would have to patrol the Acre, settle small disputes, and keep the peace.  The reputation of the community was on their shoulders.  Hugh and his protege were on their way up the social and economic ladders.  But the Fates must have their way, and Samuel Murray at the age of 39 dies, leaving his young wife alone and in debt.  His will shows that he owed money to several creditors.  The document gives us a glimpse into the life of an up and coming middle class Irishman in Lowell.  Among his possessions were sheets and pillowcases, candlesticks, 3 tablecloths, 1 cane, 5 vests and 1 great coat, window curtains, and 2 looking glasses (mirrors).  The list goes on, followed by creditors.

His young wife has enough to erect a marble stone (not slate like most others) in the Catholic Burial Ground.  Did his friend, Hugh, grieve?  What happened to Margaret, his wife of just 2 years?  Were there no children to grieve?  One wonders if it would have been Samuel Murray's name in the story of Lowell's Irish community   if he lived.  As research continues we find out more about the lives of those who came before us.  They become more than historical figures.  Once again they have a voice.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ora Pro Nobis

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No matter if you consider yourself a survivor of Catholic schools or someone who benefited from such an education, one thing is true- we all loved having holydays of obligation off from school.  After trick or treating you'd fall into a sugar stupor only to be aroused by the alarm to attend the 8:30 children's Mass at St.  Pat's.  This was not an option.  Every grade has its assigned place in church, and every nun sat there like a sentinel guarding her little troop and taking attendance.  All Hallow's Eve was just the intro to All Saints' Day.  Today's liturgies have cute little kids dressed as saints singing, "When the Saints Go Marching In."  Not for us, the bell would ring, the organ would blare the notes of the opening hymn, "For all the Saints, Who From Their Labors Rest."  We'd open up our Pius X hymnals and sing every verse.  That was just the beginning.  We're talking Pre-Vatican II here folks.  Holydays meant they pulled out all the smells and bells the church had to offer.  Being All Saints' Day the chanting of the Litany of the Saints was mandated, in Latin.

Beginning in Grade 3, I believe, Charlie McGrail (Now Father McGrail, a Benedictine monk) taught us Gregorian chant out of little hymnals.  I still own one with its square notes and and various modes.  To this day I can chant the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.  At age 9 I knew more Latin than I do now, but also explains why I did phenomenally well in vocabulary tests throughout my school career.  Truly Mr. McGrail was a gifted musician.  St. Pats has one of the best organs in the city, and when he played, you felt the bass notes inside you.  His music joined earth to heaven.

After the Gospel, the Litany would begin.  The priest would call for the intercession of every saint recorded in the Church calendar, all 1332 of them.  Ok, that's an exaggeration, but when you kneel for that long it feels like it.  Honestly, there was a beauty to the chant.  Sancte Jacobe, Ora pro nobis.  Sancta Matthia, Ora pro nobis.  Sancte Luca, Ora Pro Nobis.  Sancta Anna, Ora pro nobis.  I've attended a Hopi kachina dance, and I've sat in meditation with Buddhist monks.  I've heard the chants from Mt. Athos in Greece and the call of the muezzin at a mosque.  All of them have the same goal- to lift man from his human existence to glimpse into the Great Unknown.

The next day is yet another memorial day in the church calendar-  All Souls' Day.  One of the traditional hymns for that day is a beautiful poem written by an English nun and sung to the tune of an ancient Gaelic tune (Trinity Sunday).  It's called Spirit Seeking Light and Beauty.  Here are the lyrics:
Spirit seeking light and beauty,
Heart that longest for thy rest.
Soul that asketh understanding,
Only thus can you be blest.

Taste and see him, feel and hear him,
Touch and grasp his unseen hand.
God is all that you can long for,
God is all his creatures home.

All this comes back to me because of something I recall and regret.  A good 30+ years ago I was asked to help clean a part of St. Pat's church basement.  At that time, that beautiful space, was no more than storage.  At one time masses had to be held simultaneously in both the upper and lower churches.  That was decades ago.  What I saw hurt the eyes and the soul.  Statues were tipped over.  Pews were broken apart.  The worst is what I saw in a pile.  I picked up what looked like a rag.  It was a chasuble (priest vestment).  This wasn't any chasuble; it was the very old style, black velvet, silver embroidery with a skull and cross bone on the back.  How many All Souls Day Masses or funerals was this a part of?  What stories could it tell?  There it was in a rag pile.  Not far away was a puddle.  But in the puddle was a stack of Gregorian Chant books used by the schola.  These were mammoth books that a group of chanters would stand around and all read out of one book.  They are mostly found in monasteries.  The beautiful notations and lettering were  smudged from being in water.  There wasn't just one, but a stack of them.  The little angel that sat on my left shoulder told me to take them home, but the one on my right said, "Thou shalt not steal."  I wish I listened to that first voice.  I am haunted that I let them stay there, since I learned all of those pieces of our history- our story- were put in the trash.  It was after this incident that I started up our Parish Archives.  A people who choose not to honor their past, have little hope for a future.

Nest week I'll have more to share on research about Hugh and some thoughts about how he ended up in Lowell.

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.)