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.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Fr. John's Medicine - Good for the Whole Family

Tradition has it that Father John O'Brien was taken ill in 1855.  He made his way to the pharmacy of Carleton and Hovey on Merrimack Street to get something for relief.  He was given a tonic that was composed of cod liver oil and had a licorice taste.   Unlike many other medicines of its time, the prescription contained no alcohol.  It worked so well for the priest that he began recommending folks to visit the apothecary and ask for "Father John's Medicine" - a legend was born.
Soon the shop was packaging the medicine for sale.  Father John was given a small stipend for using his name and picture. It was agreed that anyone Father John sent to the shop personally would not have to pay for the medicine.  The pastor was always looking after his flock.
Within 50 years the medicine was known far and wide.  Early literature claimed it worked on "consumption, grip, croup, whooping cough, and other diseases of the throat."  Pamphlets given   to customers stated, "All disease is due to a run-down condition of the body, unhealthy tissue, blood poisoned with impurities, and general weakness."  Guarantees were made by the manufacturer of its restorative powers.  The potion was pedaled in numerous countries.  Pharmacies built huge displays in their windows advertising the product.
The factory building, which still stands on Market Street, was a model of production.    Every process from manufacturing, to bottling, to packaging, to advertising was done in that one spot.  Freight cars pulled in back of the building to ship cartons to parts unknown. A second factory was built in Montreal, Canada.
For many years the company was overseen by the Donehue family.   The generosity of the management to its employees was well known, even so far as keeping workers long past the need to, just so an employee could have a job. In the he 1970s the company was sold.  The building was made  into an elderly housing complex, and the product no longer  made its home in Lowell.  This was not the end of the medicine company.
It is still produced today by the Oakhurst Company in New York, and can be found on drugstore shelves in the local area.   The recipe remains the same except for one ingredient the government said must be included.  The brown-orange bottle with the trusting face of Father John O'Brien has been a sign of assurance to people for over 150 years.  
Our Parish Archives has a nice collection of Fr. John's items donated by Lucien Villandry when the factory closed.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Father John

Little did Father John O'Brien realize when he arrived in Lowell in 1848, the impact that he and those that would follow him would have on the mill city of Lowell, Massachusetts.  Father John was a man of vision.  It was the time of massive Irish immigration with each newcomer seeking employment and a new life.  The good pastor understood the balance that was needed for these people who were caught between two worlds, the need to retain their own identity as Irish men and women, and that of identifying themselves as Americans.  It was during his pastorship that the Irish became an active and prominent factor in Lowell's population.

Father John O'Brien was born in Ballina, County, Tipperary, along the River Shannon. He was trained for the priesthood at Maynooth and came to America after his ordination.  He served in Virginia and Newburyport, MA before coming to Lowell.

His assignment to Lowell was a rather strategic move on the part of Archbishop Fitzpatrick. Lowell had already proven itself a dilemma for the Archbishop.  There had been outbursts of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish demonstrations in the past.  The Irish also fought among themselves within the city which had not helped matters.  A few years previous the Irish population splintered into a second group that founded St. Peter's Church.  To make matters worse the group, which remained at St. Patrick's, split again over the leadership of the current pastor, Father McDermott.  It seemed Father McDermott had let some personal issues get in the way of his leadership.  Trying to take matters into his own hands he caused the breakup of a school agreement that had been made with the City Council.

When Father John O'Brien arrived he found Father McDermott the pastor of St. Mary's, just
two blocks away, and a broken physically and spiritually, St. Patrick's.  His predecessor, Father
Hilary Tucker, had even gone so far as to request a leave of absence from the Bishop spending less than a year at St Patrick’s.  He claimed illness, but recovered miraculously once removed.  Rather than counting on the negatives, Father John focused on the positive factors he had going for him.  Now that many of the dissenters were either at St. Peter's or St. Mary's, the Irish who were coming to St. Patrick's were looking for leadership.  They found that in Father John O'Brien and his older brother who was to join him in 1851, Father Timothy O'Brien. It was through their combined talents that the growing Irish numbers would find identity in Lowell.

Since they were not part of earlier struggles between the Irish factions they could move easily between the circles.  The O'Briens immediately, made their presence known attending functions at St. Peter's and St. Mary's thus ensuring the dominance of St. Patrick's as maintaining the title of "Mother Church" of the Lowell area. Knowing that education was essential to better the living and working conditions, they began by bringing in the Sisters of Notre Dame to open a school for girls in 1852.  They continued this spirit by directing the Sisters to look into health care for the Irish and later opening St. John’s Hospital.

Barely a St. Patrick's Day went by when toasts were not made to the Fathers O'Brien and all the work with which they were credited.  Their job of instilling religious zeal to a group who faced the task of providing for their own immediate needs was not easy.  Their own example served as the best teacher.  Together the O'Briens formed St. Patrick's in the image they had envisioned.   Following the death of Father Timothy, Father John's work had to continue, and he would have a number of years remaining at St. Patrick's before his death in 1879. 

 In front of the church under the granite slab engraved with a Celtic cross lie the remains of three of the Fathers O'Brien.  The parish still lives in their shadow of service and loyalty.  Though the numbers of the community are smaller than they once were, and the buildings do not stretch as far as they once did, St. Patrick's is as much a community devoted to loyalty and service to God and man as it ever was.  In the words of the nineteenth century parish writer, "Ad Majorern Dei Gloriae - To the Greater Glory of God."

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Cummiskey's Brewery

Charlestown, MA 1820
Needless to say Mary Shaw must have regretted the day the new owner of the brewery, a fellow by the name of Hugh Cummiskey, took over the place from Peter Finegan.  Mr. Finegan had offered his brewery for rent or sale. It had a prime location right across the street from the Navy Yard in Charlestown.  The year was 1822 and a very busy time for Cummiskey.  In April he had struck up a deal with Kirk Boot to supply workers for the widening and deepening canals in Lowell.  About this same time he bought the brewery and began offering, “porter, ale, and table beer of superior quality suitable for either draught or bottling.”  He also offered his customers to leave their orders at the Exchange Coffee House and they, “will be immediately attended to.”   He was a busy guy making his way between Charlestown and Lowell keeping tabs on all his projects. 
Brewery Ad, Boston paper, 1824
Let’s get back to Mary.  She owned a couple of acres directly across the street from the brewery.  She allowed a certain John Corey to dig clay on her property to be used for manufacturing bricks.  That is until Hugh Cummiskey dug a trench that would allow waste water from his beer making business to gather in a pit on the Shaw property.  The offensive discharge, which according to Mrs. Shaw was about 90 barrels a week, would become stagnant and permeate the neighborhood.  It became so bad that the board of health ordered her to fill in the area.  It cost her $83 to have the work done. Mary became the plaintiff in a case against Hugh that went all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Court.  The jury ordered Hugh to pay $100 to Mrs. Shaw to pay her back for filling in the drainage pit and money lost. 
By 1825 Hugh signed a contract to help level the hills of Boston and do some digging along Causeway Street.  The group of 20 laborers that walked with him to Lowell in 1822 now was part of the growing Paddy Camps of that city, and Hugh was considered a labor and social leader of the group.  He put the brewery up for sale in 1831 and turned his attentions to the place he would call home until his final days.  There, he takes on another task of opening a West Indies Dry Goods Store on Merrimack Street (today a street sign (Cummiskey Alley) still bears his name where the store was) where he sells spirits; that is until he takes the pledge and becomes a temperance man. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Fall Tour 2012

What more can you ask for?  Fall in New England.  Great weather.  And best of all folks to share it with.  There were more Lowell historians there than you can shake a stick at.   Walter and Karen Hickey have been essential in much of new research uncovered about Lowell's first Irish.  Mo Comtois has done an amazing amount of work recording Lowell's Civil War past.  Eileen Loucraft has her own blog about Lowell and World War I.  Kim Zinino from the historic board will be leading a tour of Edson next week.  Mike Lally from the Lowell Cemetery joined us as well this year.  It began with the dedication of markers from the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians Mercy Drive.  This is a project begun by Donna Reidy to remember those who are interred without benefit of a grave marker. There's potential for a Spring tour of the office side of the cemetery if folks are interested.  Let us know.
Walter and Karen preparing the stones for the tour