Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Man Who Built Dreams - Patrick Keely

When Father John O’Brien was assigned the pastorate of Saint Patrick Parish he knew the assignment would not be an easy one. The previous pastor had lasted about a year and asked to be removed. Let's just say life in the Acre was not easy for him.  It was 1848 and the famine Irish were filling the tenements and hovels of Lowell’s Acre neighborhood. Just a few doors down from St. Pat’s could be found St. Mary’s church. Was there really a need for two churches within yards from each other, or were other things going on within the tight knit, but often divided, community? What he found when he arrived in Lowell was not good. Those who remained at St Pat’s were very much the poorest of the poor. The neighborhood was riddled with tenements and shanties. The odors of open garbage and sewers permeated the mishmash of what was supposed to be streets, but looked more like  alleys. Most dwellings were overcrowded with more new people arriving daily. On top of all this the church was in poor condition. Though less than 20 years old there were problems with the building and with a growing population, Father John, as he was lovingly known to his congregation, knew he needed to do something grand to unite his people and give them a vision of what could be done.

He came up with a plan, actually several plans. He would eventually build a school for the neighborhood children. Education would lead the Irish into the mainstream. He also would want something done about health care; a place where the sick could go to be cared for. But his piece de resistance would be a new church. Not another small wooden one, but one that would announce to Lowell and the growing anti-Irish bigots that they were here to stay. He would build the grandest building Lowell could claim. There was only one man whom he could entrust to do the job- the Irish born architect, Patrick Charles Keely.

Courtesy: The Keely Society
Coincidentally, or was it, both men were born in County Tipperary, but it was Keely’s growing reputation as an ecclesiastical architect and builder that fostered his reputation. By the end of his life he would design over 600 churches and hundreds more rectories, schools, and municipal building up and down the east coast and west to Indiana. He was especially well known in the Archdiocese of Boston as the designer of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. At the time he visited Lowell, he was also working on the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, New York. The two churches look amazingly similar with mild differences. This was a method employed by Keely as his popularity grew. Each church had its own unique style while maintaining a basic set of plans. This saved the parish money by using and reusing design plans with minimal changes. Keely would have left the plans with the church. In St Pat’s case these went missing decades ago. We are told that Keely made at least one visit to the Acre site, and the Sisters of Notre Dame employed him to draw up plans for their own school which needed expansion. In the spring of 1870, he designed a new chapel for the Sisters at the cost of $5000.
The Messenger, 1907
St. Patrick’s was not the only Keely building in Lowell. He also designed St Michael’s, St. Peter’s, St Joseph's extension, and the Immaculate Conception. Keely also offered a package deal bringing other artisans with him. For example, the murals in St Pat’s were done by Gustav Kinkelin. The altars were designed by the Joseph Sibbel Studio. When St. Pat’s suffered fire damage in 1904, Keely’s firm was once again called in to repair and improve the church structure. His son in law, James Houghton, had taken over the business and completed the renovations, employing local workers and quarry men when needed.

Keely’s Irish birth; his strong Catholic faith; his practice of hiring locals; and his reputation for honesty made him the first choice for many parishes and bishops. He is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY with a rather plain marker with just his last name to mark his resting place. He worked right up to the end, still refining plans and details until his death in 1879.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A History Mystery- the O'Brien Monument

O'Brien Monument, circa 1880
There are lots of little mysteries when doing a history of Lowell’s Irish.  Such as, why didn’t Hugh Cummiskey have a headstone?  Or, what happened to the tapestry that hung in the rectory until about a dozen years ago and simply walked away?  Even, what happened to Stephen Castles after he shot a boy on Lowell Street in 1849?  Some answers will never be found.  Others might have their solution with readers of this blog!
Right now I’m trying to figure out what was on the O’Brien monument in front of St. Patrick Church.  Oh, I don’t mean the granite slab that is their today, but the original monument.  When Rev. Timothy O’Brien, the brother of Pastor John O’Brien, passed away in October of 1855 the sense of loss to the community was great.  It was immediately decided to bury Timothy in the front yard of the newly constructed church.  Within a year an upright granite monument was erected over the grave.  Soon Father Timothy was joined by his brother, John, in 1874. The last to be interred under the monument was their nephew, Fr. Michael O’Brien, in 1900. 
The few photos that survive show the monument was a good size.  How were the bodies placed under the monument?  One small reference uses the word “vault.”  Were there stairs leading down?  A tunnel from the basement of the church to the vault?  There are no records to let us know. 
The last photo we have of the monument is from 1946.  It’s a graduation photo.  How many families took First Communion, Confirmation, May Procession, or graduation photos at this same spot?  Yet no others survive.  Our photo shows the obelisk had marble inserts.  There appears to be a Chi Rho symbol and the words Ioannes O’Brien.  The rest of the tablet is filled with unintelligible text.   What did it say?  What did it look like?
At some time around 1956 the monument was taken down.  The pastor at the time, Msgr. Hyder, made the decision believing that its age made it unsafe.  Not all parishioners agreed with him and questioned other motives.  When it was proposed that it be moved or even petitioned of by one parishioner to buy it, they were all refused.  Before anyone knew about it, the monument was ground into rubble and replaced by the current stone.  Those who can recall the monument are fewer than before.  And, so far, no one has added to its story. 
My earliest memory was that the stone was used by newspaper boys to sell the Sun on Sunday mornings after Mass.  They would stack their papers on the stone and stand on it calling out to those leaving the church to get their papers here.  Today few know it is the final resting place of three men who are responsible for much of the story of Lowell’s Irish.  It needs a good cleaning, and there are always plans to do some sort of landscaping or improvements.  Someday.
If you have any info on the O’Brien or have a story to share drop us a line.  We need to hear from you.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Cemetery Tour - 2013

Many thanks to those who turned out for this year's tour.  We had about 55 guests.  Many thanks to the volunteers who prepared the graves.  And the same goes to Nick Logan, manager of the cemetery for lifting some stones and having the office open for us.  Nick also allowed us in the chapel to see the beautiful restoration of the vaulted ceiling and lighting,

Donna Reedy and the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians continued their tradition of dedicating another stone in memory of those who have unmarked graves. 

Walter Hickey presented the new research on St. Peter's Cemetery that once competed with St. Pat's for burials.  Through a located purchase book and countless hours of research the names of many of those who were interred in St Peter's are now available to future generations of those seeking ancestral information

One of our missions at Lowell Irish is to preserve the story of those who have gone before us.  Your participation in our tours will help keep their memories alive. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

One Family's Story

Eileen Loucraft gives us this week's entry.  Many of you know Eileen from her excellent blog; Lowell Doughboys and more  She lends her expertise to many projects, including the work at St. Patrick's Cemetery.  Her research as a genealogist uncovered this family gem. One wonders how many others encountered similar experiences.  (If you have a story, please share it with us.  We're always looking for guest bloggers.)
My husband’s first known Irish ancestor on his mother’s side that made it to Lowell was a 2nd great uncle named John Neilon (1828-1907). We know this because a family letter written by his son, Edward J. Neilon (1871-1957) of the Fitchburg Historical Society to his first cousin once removed, Nancy Rouine (1901-1975) in 1953. This letter is a genealogical treasure trove of information. I’ll retell some of the highlights.
The Brig St. John
The Naylon (Neilon) family was living in Killaton in county Clare in Ireland during the Great Famine. The first Neilon to leave for America was Mary Neilon, the oldest child of Edmund “Neddy” Naylon and Mary Sheedy. In 1849 she boarded the Brig St. John in Galway. It was a true coffin ship. On October 7, 1849 it crashed near Minot Light near Cohasset, Massachusetts. Mary was not one of the survivors.

 There are many stories of the tragedy but Edward Rowe Snow in his book “Great Storms and Shipwrecks of New England” tells it best:

“The brig had been at sea for 33 days and was struggling to make Boston in a great storm. Minot Light was not lit that night. If it had been this wreck may not have occurred. In darkness the ship drifted south until it hit Grumpus rock and eventually went to pieces battered by the storm. At daylight crowds had gathered at the Glades house on Cohasset shore watching the doomed immigrants slide off the upturned hull to their deaths. Their screams plainly heard at the Glades house. With 30 foot waves no relief boat could be launched.

The cowardly Capt. Oliver managed to get the long boat launched. Although the long boat could carry 24 he only allowed 11 to get into the boat. The boat managed to get to shore. He refused the long boat to return for more. About noon the next day the wind going down, some citizens got a boat launched and as they heard no sound from the brig concluded that all were drowned and passed it to help the brig Kathleen in trouble further out. No other effort was made to assist the St. John’s passengers.

At that period, Ireland was experiencing one of its widespread famines and the British government was dumping the half starved victims on to the United States. Any old hulk was considered fit to carry Irish immigrants. Henry Thoreau, the Concord philosopher, wrote that he visited the wreck the day afterward and examines one of the brig’s largest timbers that had floated ashore and pushed his umbrella clear through it, it was so rotten.

Several harrowing events occurred for days after the wreck. The day after the wreck, an Irish woman appeared at the little cemetery near the shore and gazed at a long trench just dug. Beside the trench were 26 boxes containing the bodies of that many which had floated ashore. This woman stated that she had left her baby in Ireland with her sister who was expected to have come over on the St. John. To please her the tops were pried off of several of the boxes, and in one was the body of the sister with the baby resting on her breast. This mother died three days later from grief.”

Although the number and names of the dead are not certain the number of dead was around 99. Forty five Irish immigrants were buried in a mass grave in Central Cemetery in Cohasset. In 1914 the Massachusetts Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Ladies Auxiliary erected a Celtic cross to serve as a memorial to all the victims of the tragedy. Over 15,000 people attended the dedication. The picture below is my mother in law, Theresa Loucraft visiting the cross in 2003. She is Mary Naylon’s second grand niece and she lived in Lowell her entire life.
A few months after Mary was given up for lost, her brother John walked from Clare to Galway and boarded another coffin ship that was headed to New York. His mother pleaded with him not to go. It was a long rough voyage. Exhausted when he arrived in New York, he crawled into the hold of a sailing ship and settled down on some bags of flour, fell asleep and awoke in Boston. How he ended up in Lowell is a mystery. He married twice and his first wife is buried at St. Patrick’s Cemetery. He lived in Lowell for a time but moved to Fitchburg, MA for work and spent the rest of his life there.

 Soon his other siblings make the journey across the pond to Lowell. His brother Martin and sisters Nora, Katherine, Margaret, Susan and Nance and at some point his mother. Most of the sisters marry Irish men and stay in Lowell - Martin Maguire, William Hallissey, Mike Lynch, Scollins and Patrick Rabbit. His sister Nance married an Englishman named Slater and moved to Australia when gold was discovered there. His only brother, Martin Neilon marries Margaret O’Brien and became the sexton at Sacred Heart parish.

 Lowell families that descend from this line include Rouine (Rouine’s Drug Store on Gorham Street), Higgins (Higgins Brother’s Funeral Parlors), Sullivan (Sullivan Brother’s Printers), Tucker and McLaughlin and many more!