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."


  1. Excellent as usual, Dave. The coincidence of this topic is too much...Karen and I have spent the last couple of days reading the Boston BEE and NY FREEMAN'S JOURNAL: & CATHOLIC REGISTER, and other records for the 1843 events leading to the dissolution of the 1836 school agreement.

    great article


  2. Enjoyed this very much. My ancestors were among the dissenters at St. Peter's.

    1. Greetings, I have records for John & Mary Roane's children's burials, if you don't have this info already. Dave