Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Ecce Lignum Crucis: Behold the Wood of the Cross, 1900

Interior, St Patrick Church, c. 1900
Included in the parish archives are a few issues of a small magazine printed monthly by the parish called The Calendar.  It gives interesting insight to the workings of the community and the way people worshipped at the turn of the century.  Reading through the journal reminds one how little and how much things have changed in the last century.
The April 1900 issue focused on the rites and rituals of Holy Week.  It was assumed every adult would show up for each of the liturgies.  It began with the procession of palms around the church on Palm Sunday, continued with daily Mass and Tenebrae on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and the Triddum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday services.   If one attended each of the expected liturgies it could amount to 10 or more hours in church.  A special note was made to the male parishioners.  The parish priests had addressed certain male congregants about not fully participating in the ceremonies.  They often stood down the back of the church or even outside the doors.  The writer advised that males show follow the good example of the women by being more active participants.   He continued that men should be taking the leadership role here and to not allow the women to outdo the men in piety.  Warning was also given to some of the faithful who were arriving late and leaving early.  Their comings and goings had been duly noted by the priests. 
The Catholic bookstores were well stocked with small prayer books that contained all the prayers for each of the services.  The price was a mere 50 cents and each parishioner was encouraged to bring his/her copy to church each day.  Parishioners were also encouraged to bring their Protestant friends to services, but wait to answer their questions until later.  The writer knew with certainty that many Protestants were just waiting for a personal invite to attend one of the services.  It was the Catholic’s duty to remind their Protestant friends to keep silence and to forego answering questions until they are outside. 
The tradition of visiting 7 churches on Holy Thursday was expected of Catholics.  Each church would decorate an altar of repose where the Blessed Sacrament would remain overnight. Men from the Holy Name Society would keep vigil until dawn when the Good Friday prayers would begin.   It became an unspoken tradition that each church would try to outdo the other with a bit of extravagance.  The faithful were reminded when visiting not to just look at the flowers and candles, but remember that this was an opportunity for prayer.  The writer also noted that some had begun taking carriages form church to church and that walking was the preferred way of traveling on such a sacred night.  And not to forget that visitors should always approach the altar on 2 knees on such an occasion.
A last entry reminded parishioners that they were honored to have a piece of the True Cross imbedded in the altar stone of the main altar.  It was an honor not given to many churches and was installed with other relics when the altar was dedicated in 1854.  Its presence made being at St Patrick’s during the Triduum take on a special meaning.  (Note: the altar of which the writer speaks is the altar presently located in the lower church.  It once was in the upper church, but relocated after the fire of 1904.)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Bells of St. Patrick's

It had been two year but many in the crowd recalled the fire of 1904.  That night crowds stood there and watched as the fire consumed the steeple.  As the wood and slate burned away only the metal bars that held up the tower kept it upright.  Soon the tower began to lean.  The cross that surmounted the steeple began to topple.  All stepped back as the bells glowed red with the heat and fell to their descent.  Some in the crowd claimed they could hear the last of their peels as the hot metal toppled to the ground.  And yet, just two years later in January of 1906 the new chimes of St Patrick Parish were to be dedicated.
Months prior to the dedication service of January, 1906 Father William O’Brien, pastor of St Patrick’s, Mr. M J Johnson, church organist, and Mr. William Goodwin, a well know chimes expert (and father of the late John Goodwin) traveled to Troy, New York to the Meneely Bell Company to commission a new set of chimes.  They made repeated visits during the casting and were present at the final tuning of the bells.  Mr. Kehn of the Meneely Company guaranteed that they would be among the finest set of chimes in the country.  The previous set of bells were 17 in number, and to be honest, were difficult to play, and, as listeners noted, the quality of tone just was not there. 
The 11 bells were delivered and set in carriages ready to be installed in the tower.  The formal dedication was to be on Sunday, January 21, 1906.  Each bell was inscribed with the name of a saint; Patrick, Immaculate Conception, Michael, Sacred Heart, Mary, Joseph, Anne, Bridget, Peter, Lawrence and Francis.  The combined weight was over 30,000 pounds.  Patrick, the bell with the deepest tone, weighs 3600 pounds. 
Fr. Walsh was the curate on the day of the dedication; he shared with the congregation how he was an altar boy at the dedication of the bells in 1854.  On this day the bell Patrick was located within the sanctuary surrounded by greenery and candles awaiting its baptism.  A brief history of the church was cast onto the bell commemorating the date of the church fire and rebuilding.  The remainder of the bells were arranged in the front yard of the church so that passersby could inspect them.  According to ancient rites, the bell would be sprinkled with water and given a Christian name since it would sing out to God.  The ceremony began with Solemn Vespers.  The De Profundis was sung asking God’s mercy upon the crowd and then the christening began.  The sermon was preached by Fr. Dorgan of the Immaculate Church.  He spoke of how the bells of St Patrick’s once rang in times of danger in the times of hatred by the Know Nothings in the 1850s.  Now they ring out as the church triumphant. 
Note: The original bell that hung in the 1831 church was located a few years ago.  When the church was dismantled in the 1850s, it was moved to the firehouse on Mammoth Road.  From there it remained on private property where it is today.  The present set of 11 bells is played by a system of straps and chains that pull clippers to strike the bells.  A winding staircase with 53 stairs rises to where a wooden stand is displayed where the bells are struck. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Day We Celebrate - 2013

Lowell's Acre neighborhood has been the root of so many different groups that have made their way to Lowell to begin their American experience.  The Irish were certainly the first to make their home here, but not the last.  For a number of years we've hosted a walk through the same streets and paths that those early Irish ambled from home to work and back again.  Braving the last of winter's winds, today's pilgrims found their way, as did their forebearers, to St. Patrick's Church where they walked those same steps recounting along the way the stories of our common past. 

Later in the afternoon the annual Irish concert and memorial Mass brought those who consider St Patrick's home to close out this year's celebration.  Ginny Corcoran and choir brought back many fond memories with their rendition of old time favorites.

The tower of St Patrick's is a landmark in the city.  Not many know of the 11 bells in the tower.  To add to today's celebration, Joe Connor's from Albany, NY, came to share his talents as a professional bell ringer.  Passersby stopped to look up at the tower as the bells rang out through the city.  We're most grateful to Joe for making the trip from his home and then climbing the 53 steps up to the tower to announce the Saint's Day.

View a YouTube video of Joe playing Danny Boy in the tower at St. Patrick's

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Acre Forum & Anam Cara Awards

Dr. Brian Mitchell , author of The Paddy Camps, was the featured speaker of the 2013 Acre Forum held at Middlesex Community College.  Dr. Mitchell spoke about the early roots of the Irish presence in Lowell and how it devoloped into a unique experiment of immigration.  Those early canal diggers turned into a burden and a boon to Lowell's founding fathers.  Many thanks to the AOH for their support.  If you missed the event Lowell National Park will be uploading the talk onto YouTube.

Marking 30 years of celebrating Irish culture is not a small milestone.  We also recognize that we could not do it alone.  Throughout the decades there have been those who have shared their time, treasures, and talents with us.  In Irish such a person is referred to as Anam Cara,  soul friend.  The list of nominees was lengthy.  There have been so many that deserve recognition.  This year's honorees are (pictured l to r): Dr. Brian Mitchell for his work, The Paddy Camps, Walter Hickey for his continuing research on the Lowell Irish story, Donna Reidy for her work in recognizing unmarked Irish graves in St Patrick Cemetery, Dick Howe for his assistance in locating deeds of early Irish landowners and including Irish history in his blog site, and The Irish Partnership Center, UMass Lowell, for their dedication and continued support for the archaeological digs at St. Pat's and Tyrone, N. Ireland. Honorees were Victoria Denoon, Dr. Frank Talty (not present) & Dr. Steve McCarthy (not present).  Irish Cultural Comm. member Dave McKean, on right.  The Committee hopes to continue these Awards in the future.  

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Irish Cultural Week - 2013

Fr Art Coyle, Fr Doc Conway, Fr Tom Powers
Maybe it was the weather.  Maybe it was because 3 of the Archdioces's finest priests came home.  Or maybe it was the spirit of the season.  But this year's attendance was greater than in the past few years.  Some came to pray, some to celebrate, some to stand with family and friends to say "we remember."  A culture can only be maintained if there are those who are ready to carry it on.

Garrett Sheehan, Chairperson

Flag Raising at City Hall
March to City Hall
Erin Cables welcomes the crowd

Laying the wreath at the Irish Monument

Friday, March 8, 2013

An Acre Memory - St Patrick's Day

Reunion Booklet, 1955
Saint Patrick’s Day is really one of my favorite holidays. Sure there’s the big three: Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter. Even Halloween and Valentine’s Day have their good points. But March 17th is something special. Once, when landing at Logan, a young business woman who was visiting Boston for the first time, randomly turned to me and asked what it was about St. Patrick’s Day and Americans. Some might say it’s the search for identity. Others might say it’s about the craic. Others might think of it as the Irish form of “Festivus for the rest of us” (a la Seinfeld). Today my family celebrates far differently than my parent’s time. My wife and I took a trip down memory lane and reminisced on how the day was celebrated when we were kids in the 1960s.

Growing up when and where I did in Lowell’s Acre almost made St Patrick’s Day a holy day of obligation. This wasn’t just a religious holy day, it was cultural as well. Much like Advent prepares us for Christmas or Lent for Easter, once the calendar turned to March, arrangements began. Certain foods had to be prepared, special songs were rehearsed and every item of green clothing had to be readied. At Saint Patrick School, the annual reunion show was planned weeks in advance. The show goes back to the late nineteenth century, if not earlier. Records show that the Parish would have entertainments of various sorts put on by the different societies, grade school children, and parishioners. The Parish Archives has copies of programs going back almost 100 years.
Reunion Booklet, 1920
When I was attending St Patrick’s, about half the class had Irish surnames. Most of the students were half Irish and half something else, like myself. A few had no Irish in them, but still were required to sing, “Galway Bay.” A friend of mine, with whom I am still friends these many decades later, surprised me when I asked if he remembered the old songs. He confessed that he despised having to wear the green and to this day can’t stand the sound of “Oh the Days of the Kerry Dancing.” I still do not understand that.

The show was the big event of the season. The Sisters would walk the entire student body, about 400 kids, from the School to Market Street to Prescott to Merrimack and to the Auditorium. We walked 2 by 2 the full 2.4 miles. The show was always at 7 pm on March 16th. If one can imagine the entire Lowell Memorial Auditorium was completely sold out year after year. I’m not sure if it is even there today, but behind the maroon curtain and stage was seating for the entire school chorus dressed in white shirts with green ribbons for girls and ties for boys. The Sisters, wearing a single green ribbon pinned to their habit, stood guard to ensure no shenanigans would besmirch the good name of Saint Patrick School.

The show began the same each year with the pipes and drums of Clan McPherson Band from Lawrence. The drum major in his tall bearskin hat would lead the pipers in with his silver baton flashing in the spot light. The bass drummer wearing the leopard pelt would twirl his drum sticks. You could feel the vibrations of the drum beats, not only physically, but in your very soul. The pipers would all lift their pipes and march into the hall playing “Scotland the Brave.” For you purists, remember we’re all Celts.
School Children Prepare for Show, 1950s
Singers would sing songs from the auld sod like “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” or “It’s a Great Day for the Irish.” The audience would frequently chime right in with the singers, after all these were the songs we were raised on. Little did most of us know that many of those Bing Crosby favorites were not from the auld sod and were not even written by Irish-Americans. The genre at the turn of the century was an appeal for Irish type vaudeville music and every musician, no matter the background, penned Irish sounding tunes. Those became the standards heard in every Irish-American home. But the music did its job; it joined the crowd into one communal voice.

Part of the entertainment of the night was seeing the first and second graders do a little song and dance on the stage. What would really tear up Nana and the crowd was that the girls wore little shamrock print skirts with aprons and dust caps. The boys wore green, silk pantaloons with a cummerbund. We had to go on stage and act out Mick McGilligan’s Ball. I remember this well, because I still have my pantaloons. I stole them. But my clearest recollection is how silk pantaloons, that were homemade using a loose elastic band to hold them up, can very easily slide down as you dance around a stage. And, how funny it is to see a 6 year old holding up his silk, green pantaloons in front of hundreds and hundreds of people. Yes, I’m speaking from experience.

The high point of the evening were the Irish step dancers. Step dancing had been a tradition at St Pat’s School for decades. My mother-in-law attended St Pats and took lessons back in the 1920s. When my time came around, it was common for boys and girls to go to the school hall each Saturday with their ghillies (soft shoes) and brogues (hard shoes) and Jim Madden would put them through their routines. Jim was a task master, but his mother (from Ireland) was a bit more brutal. When my own kids took part in competitions, at their first feis (competition) who was there but Jim Madden, a bit older, but still with perfect posture. The crowd at the auditorium always listened to see if the girls made their clicks with their hard shoes. Their green dresses with simple gold braiding seem plain compared to today’s outfits. (One of my daughter’s dresses cost $1500 and had to be imported from Ireland.) At that time, dancers could wear their medals won at feisana (competitions) and to see the medals all lift and fall to the beat of the music was part of the thrill.
Brenda in Step Dance Costume on Suffolk Street
At the end of the evening the pastor would always walk out and declare the news every schoolchild had been waiting to hear- there would be no school the next day. That did not mean you could sleep in the next morning. Mass was at 9 am, not just Mass, but Solemn High Mass. The celebrant wore the gold cope with the embroidered image of Patrick on the back. The opening song was “Hail Glorious Apostle Selected by God” and the closing would be “Hail Glorious St Patrick, Dear Saint of Our Isle.” Every seat in the church was filled. It was like Christmas when folks you hadn’t seen all year would show up. They were coming home.

And then there was the feast, or so some say. Personally I can’t stand corned beef. I want to be very careful here when we talk about corned beef. Every Irish American talks about the sainted grandmother’s recipe for corned beef and cabbage she carried off the boat from Ireland. The debate about this can cause whole families to stop speaking to each other. Corned beef is not the most traditional of dishes in Ireland. At the time of our ancestors beef was pretty expensive. When they came to America beef was more accessible and corned beef fit right into their price range. So maybe Nana’s recipe isn’t so Irish. In my house, corned beef was served, but it was more likely to be a boiled ham shoulder with cabbage, turnips, and boiled potatoes. Hey the Irish have great humor, literature, music, and poetry. No one ever said they had haute cuisine. Then there’s the debate over soda bread. With caraway seeds or without? With raisins or currants? Let’s not forget the green beer too. To round off this Irish meal, my French mother would make cupcakes with green frosting, and then remind me that St Joseph Day was only 2 days away.