Friday, February 3, 2012

The Archives of Saint Patrick Parish

St. Patrick Church, ca 1880
Decades ago when I was a mere youth, St. Pat’s celebrated its 150th anniversary.  At the time I was teaching in the parish school.  Committees were formed for social, religious, and historical events.  On a Saturday afternoon the school hall had a reunion of former parishioners and a small photo exhibit.  Out of curiosity I took a walk over and that was the beginning of a small worm that began crawling around inside my head.
There spread out on cafeteria tables were photos, certificates, ribbons, and booklets.  It was a time line of the one hundred fifty years of the people who made up Saint Patrick’s.  It was the first time many of these object had been exhibited.  Almost all were private possessions from families who could trace their beginnings to the Acre.  When the gathering was over the items were returned to their owners and some into the refuse pile (from which I dove in to rescue items).  Little importance was placed on preservation.
Saint Pat’s is proud of its position of being the oldest Catholic Church in the city and the Merrimack Valley.  It is also one of the oldest in the Archdiocese and New England.  With this proud pedigree one wonders why there was never a collection that would tell the story of what happened here.  But there wasn’t.  Why?  Probably the best answer is that Saint Pat’s in its entire history is a working class parish.  The goal was to support and serve the people who were arriving and settling in the Acre.  History was secondary.
I’ve read time and again of important historical works becoming missing from museums and major universities only to turn up in some historian’s home.  There’s a little switch in some academics where they feel they must protect the item and steal it.  I must admit the little devil sitting on my shoulder as I was viewing the exhibit was saying, “Take it.  It’s ok.”  Catholic guilt kept me from committing theft, but I knew something had to be done.
Soon after, we started the Archives of St Patrick Parish.  We now have hundreds of photos, booklets, and all types of artifacts that have been collected over the years.  Most have been donated by families who want to see the items preserved.  Too often I hear of items being discarded by family members who don’t recognize their significance.  Then there are items I wish I could find.  Parish records speak of a portrait of Father James McDermott, now lost to time.  Then there’s Father O’Brien’s vestment collection that was imported from Europe and saved from the fire of 1904.  The reliquaries, monstrance, and tapestry that were given to the church and mentioned frequently in documents have not been seen in decades.
Our most recent acquisition actually came from Ebay!  The Archives now has a stereo card of the church from the late 1870s or early 1880s.  This makes it the oldest known photo of the church.  A stereo card was a photo taken with a special device and 2 pictures were placed side by side.  When viewed with a mechanism it gave a 3-D effect to the viewer, much like your View Master when you were young.  It is a real find and gives us insight into the neighborhood almost 150 years ago. 
I know that many of you out there have your roots in the Acre and St. Pats.  That photo of Grandpa might be more than just that.  It might show us the houses and layout of Adams St.  The ribbon you kept from Nana with the medal of Mary might be a “premium” given out by the Sisters.  You never know.  Look around.  Drop us a line.  Save some history.

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