Thursday, December 27, 2012

Shopping in the Acre - 1850s

Even by the early 1830s, the Irish who settled in the Acre had established businesses and shops to supply their daily needs.  Anything you needed was right there, just a few blocks away.  The Lowell City Directories hosts dozens of shops and craftsmen within the different neighborhoods, including the Acre.  Some of the businesses may seem foreign to us today and have disappeared from our vernacular.  Many of the Irish businesses were located along Merrimack Street near Suffolk and along Lowell Street, now Market Street.  The following businesses were listed in various Directories from the 1850s.  Imagine carrying your Saturday shopping lists as you walked the Acre in the 1850s.

Patrick Cummiskey was very likely a relative of Hugh.  The shop is listed in the same vicinity of Hugh's, though Hugh had stopped selling liquor. 
Coopers were quite necessary and would have been found in most towns and cities.  Pretty much everything you had was stored in a barrel.  Remember most homes did not have closets and cabinets in this period so barrels were used for storage.
West Indies Dry Goods stores were the 7 Eleven of the day.  They had a little bit of everything and could be found on many street corners.  The Directories have long lists of stores throughout the city. 
Not everyone owned a horse but if you did, it needed shoes.  Once again, the Directories have long lists of horseshoers located throughout the city.  Like today, people could rent a horse for a short trip.  Burke must have been like a Hertz Rent A Car or Town Fair Tire.

Up until one point in the 19th century, shoes were not bought with a left or a right, merely a square toe.  Boots were not only fashionable as Mr. Sullivan states in his ad, but a necessity since horses were the norm and left their droppings everywhere.  Soon Humphrey O'Sullivan will come along and create an invention that turn the industry on its "heel."
Reading newspapers of the period, it becomes apparent that the Irish are repeatedly being branded as the purveyors of spirits.  Again and again, one reads how the Irish operate most of the rum shops of the city.  There are mentions in the same period as these ads of Irish cellars, illegal rum shops located in basements of homes and tenements.  The police logs quite blatantly lists arrests of "Irish drunks."

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Snow – 1913

St Patrick Church, 1930s
The storm hit as folks made their way about the City whether it was to church or visit family and friends.  The bitter winds caused man, woman, and child, to bundle up doubly against its cold bite.  Men in their great coats and women in the capes held each other closely so as not to fall.  Worse than the snow or wind was the glaze of ice that lay beneath.  Horses had a hard time keeping their footing and more than one fell trying to pull carriages through the streets.
But that did not stop the faithful who made their way to the churches.  St Patrick’s was no exception.  Nearly every Mass was filled to capacity.  The 13 bells in the steeple rang in the feast of the Nativity.  Monsignor O’Brien was the lead celebrant at the 9:30 with 5 other priests acting as deacons and sub-deacons.  Many in the crowd kept the tradition of making their way back to the church of the fathers and grandfathers despite the inclement weather.  Within the church every incandescent light was lit and every candle on the altar glowed in its brass candelabra giving all inside a sense of warmth.  The entire altar was bedecked with laurel and holly making the white marble barely visible.  Garland was strung from the height of the ceiling to the columns in the sanctuary.  A mammoth task it must have been.  On each column hung an evergreen wreath with a scarlet ribbon.  The procession into the church comprised over 80 choir members in cassock and surplice under the direction of Bother Linus.  The school children also sang carols accompanied by the Sisters of Notre Dame.  The walls of the church vibrated with Mr. Johnson’s rendition of Adeste Fideles on the organ.  The congregation sung out loud and strong.  Later that afternoon the church was completely filled once again for solemn vespers with many standing in the aisles.  The faith of the people was evident.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Christmas in the Acre - 1890s

Lowell 100 Yrs
The Sisters of Notre Dame, who still staff St Patrick School, faithfully kept a journal of daily activities from 1852 until 1958.  The Annals, as the volumes were referred to, were daily accounts of Masses attended, rosaries recited, and happenings within the school.  By custom the writers remained unnamed, though there are hints of authorship periodically.  One thread that runs throughout the decades was the visits made by the “mission angel.”  This was the Sisters’ way of saying who was being transferred, very often with little or no notice.  This fictional entry is a combination of facts gathered from the Annals of the Sisters recorded in the 19th century. 
The Portress has been busy today.  Many come to the door begging food for their children.  Our pantry is not heavily loaded, but we spare what we can.  As Mother Superior says one never knows when it is the Christ Child who is knocking at the door.  Many of the boarding students have gone home to celebrate Christmas with their families.  Those who remain behind are invited to dine with us in the Sisters’ refectory.  You can tell the students are not used to our custom of dining in silence.  I look at up them and see them looking rather uncomfortable while one of the Sisters reads the lives of the Saints as we eat our meal of soup and bread.  The fast before Christmas has begun meaning no meat until the holy day.  It was only a few years ago that I was a student like them, sitting in the same seats looking at the Sisters wondering if I had the call.
I sit here in the Sisters’ dormitory; our beds separated by a simple white sheet.  Already I hear the snores coming from Sister Fidelia’s bed.  On the other side are the rasping coughs coming from young Sister Lourdes.  Dr. Green says he cannot do much more for her.  I am fortunate to have a window that looks out into the convent gardens.  A number of years ago Mother Desiree, may she rest in peace, had a tall brick wall surround the entire school and convent property.  At the same time we were forbidden to join the parishioners in sitting with the congregation.  An opening was made between the convent and the church.  We were to sit behind this wall to attend Mass and all other liturgical functions.  Our Mother General feels this separation will help us focus on our devotions.  One of the priests comes to the opening to distribute Communion.  Looking at the bare trees and mounting snow can make one doubt her call.  Though we are not allowed to have personal conversations I have heard stories of Sisters who have returned to their families.  They have walked right out the door.  But my guardian placed me with the Sisters when I was a young girl, and the Sisters have become my family. 
After morning Mass the church doors were closed, and we were allowed to decorate the church for the Christmas feast.  Garland was strung from the ceiling to the altar.  Wreaths were hung on every column.  There are 22.  I counted them.  Some of the older women from the parish were allowed to help us.  It was nice to speak with someone new.  The best part of today was that I was given the chore of setting up the manger in our chapel.  It is a most beautiful place.  It was recently completed, designed by the famous Patrick Keely.  The colors are pink and blue and very uplifting.  Not as grand as the parish church, but it is where we spend many hours of the day reciting the Divine Office, rosaries, and being in the presence of our Eucharistic Lord.
But my heart is heavy this Christmas Eve.  I sit here waiting to hear the bells of the steeple ring in Christmas.  It is the custom of many, some as far away as across the river and into the city center, to wait until they hear the bells ring before they make their way to midnight Mass.  I sit here holding the little note that the Mission Angel has left on my pillow.  I leave to go to our academy in Roxbury right after Christmas.  I must say good bye to this place that has been my home as long as I can remember.  I recall the words of our foundress, Julie Billard.  “Ah qu’il est bon, le bon Dieu.” (How good the good God is.) 
The bells break the silence of this cold December darkness.  They ring out calling me.  Silent Night, Holy Night.

Sister Needs a Roof

Last week the wife and I went to visit our alma mater, St. Patrick School.  We both attended St. Pat’s through the 60s in what was then called the “new” school.  The Sisters drove into Lowell daily in a station wagon with 8 nuns crowded in, complete with habit and black briefcases.  St. Pat’s was also my first teaching assignment once I got my certification.  I loved the place as a child, as a new teacher, and now as an alumnus.  Sr. Joanne Sullivan is the current principal.  She is one of the Sisters of Notre Dame who currently staff the school as they have for the last 160 years.  Mother Desiree began with 5 Sisters in 1852.  Sr. Joanne works with 7 Sisters and a very devoted lay staff.  The work that Mother Desiree began those many decades ago continues with Sr. Joanne, to teach the new people who make the Acre their home. 

When we entered the building Sr. Joanne was answering the phone.  That day she was playing secretary and principal.  She still took time to chat with us in between giving hugs to kids and answering parents’ questions.  Talk about multi-tasking.  Those of you who have worked with nuns know where the conversation went next.  Sister asked when I’d be available to help out with a new project she has going to celebrate the school’s 160th anniversary.  You see, this is how schools like St. Pat’s have survived and working with Sisters for many years has engrained something within me.  From whom much was given, much is expected.  Sister knows this very well.  The SNDs have many wonderful schools and they are well known for their high school academies and institutions of higher learning.  Sr. Joanne could have a very nice position anywhere else and make her life much easier.  But no, she and her Sisters have chosen Lowell and the Acre. A number of years ago, the parish found that it could no longer support the school.  The SNDs took on that great task and much of that burden was taken on by Sr. Joanne.  She raises the money.  She writes the grants.  She pays the rent (yes, they pay rent for the building).  She pays the salaries.  She knows the story of each and every family in that school.
In the middle of our chat Sister said, “I need a roof.”  The new school is not so new anymore.  The roof leaks, literally.  So on top of all she does she needs to raise money for a roof.  We try to give back when we can.  I know many alumni and people who share the mission of the school do what they can.  I am humbly and earnestly asking that if any readers, in this season of giving, feel called to help out.  Please do so.  She needs your help.  They need your help.  If you can please do what you can now.  Their need is immediate.  I feel like Bing Crosby in The Bells of Saint Mary’s.  If you can’t give, offer a prayer.  You can contact Sister Joanne at St. Patrick School 311 Adams St.  Lowell, MA 01854.  Or take a look at their website

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Bad Sign December, 1857

Lowell Courier, December 1857
December of 1857 proved to be a rather turbulent time in the city of Lowell, specifically in the Irish neighborhood.  Newspapers across the Northeast were reporting the lawlessness that had been incurring since the recent civic elections.  There were pleas for the Irish to cease their carousing and return to order.  If not, the strong arm of the law should be called out to quell the outbreaks. 
Lowell City Directory, 1856
The Officers of the Peace were reporting ongoing rowdiness, especially along Lowell Street (Market Street).  One officer came face to face with a pistol being held by an Irish rum seller.  Luckily it misfired and the officer’s life was spared.  The troubles seemed to be brewing around the “Irish cellars.”  Rum sellers opened up the basements of their tenements into make-shift, illegal bar rooms.  The Acre was filled with them.  As soon as one was closed, another opened.  The courts were overloaded with cases of illegal sale of spirits.  They lined up before the judge, along with Mrs. Quinn who was running a house of ill fame, but the rum runners were the major problem.  It seemed that there was much jubilation over recent elections that would get out of control and spill into the streets. 
What was the cause?  A look at the previous months might give us a hint.  The Know-Nothing Party had been in power in Lowell, in Massachusetts, and across the country for a number of years. They preached a policy of “Americanism.”  The fear was that foreigners, in this case Irish Catholics, were going to take over the country.  The thought of the Irish becoming part of the political process brought fear to many native born Americans.  With so many Irish in Lowell the fear grew like a cancer.  There were even rumors that the Irish would cast votes illegally in order to get their Democratic candidates into office who would bring an end to the Know-Nothing Party.  The mills had suffered financial set-backs.  Jobs had become scarce with some Irish wishing to return to the native homeland.  Things began turning around.  More and more Irish were becoming active voters and following the Democratic Party.  With the election of Dr. Elisha Huntington, who had been courting the Irish vote, as mayor of Lowell, the Irish saw this as the beginning of the end to their troubles.  To others it meant that rum sellers and foreigners were taking over the city.  To the Irish, even a small victory of a mayor who recognized their presence, was cause for celebration.