Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Schoolmaster & the Acre Boys

Samuel A. Chase
An interesting obit appeared in the Lowell Sun of 1904.  It was that of local businessman, Mr. Samuel A. Chase.  Mr. Chase had been ill for 4 weeks, but had retained his senses to the end, even being able to list those who should be pall bearers at his funeral.  Details, that we may conceive to be morbid, were not uncommon at this time.  What was more interesting was what appeared in the rest of the article.  There were reminiscences from local tradesmen and city leaders speaking of his work with finances.  But the most touching comments were by those who knew him when he first came to Lowell- his boys, more specifically his Irish boys.

Samuel Chase left his home in Haverhill, Mass and came to early Lowell in 1853.  He procured a position as teacher at the Mann School, which was opened in 1844 on Lewis Street, mostly for the Irish who lived in the Acre.  At this point in Lowell’s history several attempts had been made to have a sort of parochial school off and on with only minimal success.  There were further attempts at “Irish Schools” where the priests had some say over the hiring of teachers and approval of texts.  This agreement between church and city lasted several years until it again evolved into public schools we know today.  The Mann School maintained a very high population of Irish boys from the Acre.  Many of the Acre girls left the Mann School in 1852 when the Sisters of Notre Dame opened a school for girls, which would become Notre Dame Academy.
The fame or infamy of the Irish boys was well known throughout the city and needless to say the young Mr. Chase when he took the position of teacher at the Mann School.  The reputation of the school was described as “tumultuous.”  To say the Irish boys of the Acre were known for their rowdiness would be an understatement.  More than one new teacher’s career was crushed after his experience at the Mann School.  Discipline had to be swift and severe. 
But the boys met their match in Samuel Chase, not through power and might, but by looking beyond their rough exteriors and seeing their potential.  Mr. Chase was a man of slight build.  He was not many years older than some of his own students.  He became their friend and they often returned after leaving the school to seek his advice.  Each year the school committee “examined” the schools.  On more than one occasion the “Acre boys” of the Mann were pointed out as exceeding the expectations of the superintendent and committee, even noting “they were not naturally inferior to other scholars.” He was a great proponent of music in the schools and included musical presentations for the committee and families who visited.  In 1869 the program for the committee included Johnny Whalen’s, “Finnegan’s Wake.”  And a “broth of an Irish boy,” Charlie McCue sang “No Irish Need Apply.”  Miss Ellen Bagley sang “The Drunkard’s Child” in a most excellent manner.  Eventually Chase was made principal of the school.  A later visit by the Committee noted how the students looked upon their school master with admiration.  His motto for his students was “Onward and Upward.”
He made it a point to visit the homes of his students in the Acre, and when needed he gave in Christian charity.  Upon his passing someone noted, he was “without pretence to a superior culture and in a school composed of foreign extractions most of whom are unrefined and poor, has gained a place so exalted .”  It went on to say, “Around the humble hearthstones of his pupils’ homes, humble benedictions are pronounced upon his name.”  “He won the hearts of the wild, untamed Acre boys and remained their friend.”  Many of those who graduated from the Mann under his tutelage and became the businessmen and politicians of the early 1900s credited him for their success.
His obituary closed with, “Such was Samuel A. Chase, the Acre schoolmaster, and as he now passes forth into darkness alone, the prayerful well wishes of thousands accompany him.”
Rest in peace, Mr. Chase.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Holy Week at St. Pat's - 1890

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.)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

April 6, 1822- Our Story Begins

SPECIAL EDITION!-  Over the last 2 weeks I've had a flood of emails from folks willing to share their stories or asking for a little guidance.  Bob Rafferty, creator of the video Made in Lowell, wished to mark this day, the anniversary of Hugh Cummiskey's arrival in Lowell with a special posting.

What is the most important day of the year to an Irishman from Lowell? No, there isn’t a punch line… unless you answered St. Patrick’s Day? If you did, then the joke is on you. Today, April 6th is the most important day in the history of the Irish of Lowell for it is the day that the first Irish set foot here. 

            Lowell was a much different place in 1822. For a start, it was named East Chelmsford. Most of the town was still covered by woods, swamp, and farmland. The Chelmsford Historical Commission has a lovely compendium of maps on their website ( and this one from 1821 paints a clear picture of the land that Hugh Cummiskey and his thirty men arrived at on April 6th, one hundred and ninety two years ago today:

Hugh Cummiskey was a man’s man. In his early 20’s he departed his home in County Tyrone, Northern Island to come to America. He made his home in Boston where he met his wife Rose, and ran work crews on jobs that changed the face of Boston. Early records show him working on a project to help flatten Beacon Hill for the construction on the State House; a project that employed a horse drawn railroad to take the debris removed from the hill and use it to backfill a swamp and create Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. In 1822, Cummiskey and 30 Irish laborers walked from Charlestown, MA to East Chelmsford, where they arrived on April 6th and were met by Mr. Kirk Boott, agent to the Merrimack Manufacturing Company. Boott and Cummiskey drafted a deal to widen and modify the canals that powered the Company’s mills. Take a moment and go back to that map. How many roads do you see? How many homes?  Buildings?  Establishments? You’ll observe mainly open farmland along a bend in the Merrimack River, and the 27 miles between Charlestown and Lowell was much the same. So imagine the walk that those 31 Irishmen took that day. They walked the edge of the Old Middlesex Canal, which had been built to move goods from the East Chelmsford (now Lowell) area to the seaport of Boston. The walk would have been dusty, and the men would have to be completely equipped with their own provisions. However, none of them were daunted by this.

            As a teen, a few friends and I got the bright idea that we were going to walk to Boston. Having ridden the commuter rail line to North Station, we considered the train tracks to be the most direct root so we filled our backpacks with bottled water and sandwiches and set out in early morning for a fun filled day in Boston. We hopped on to the train tracks at Red Bridge, behind E. A. Wilson’s workyard on Broadway, and off we went.  About 7 or 8 hours later we found ourselves at North Station…EXHAUSTED. We immediately bought train tickets home to Lowell, and slept the entire ride. We weren’t nearly the men that Hugh and his workers were.

Upon arrival in Lowell after their 27 mile trip (a marathon is only 26.2 miles) over rough terrain, Hugh and his men went immediately to work on the canals which would power the mills that made Lowell become the second largest city in Massachusetts. Employing the methods he had gained experience on in Boston, Hugh would lead his men to use the fill from the Suffolk canal to backfill swampland in Lowell… and if you’re reading this from an apartment in the Market Mills… that swampland was where your apartment building stands today…thanks to Hugh.   

Hugh brought water to the water powered mills of the American Industrial Revolution. He brought land were there was once swamp. His sweat anointed the land beneath the State’s Capitol building. And he was instrumental in bringing about the infrastructure of early Irish community in Lowell. So today, as you go about your day, lift a glass to those early Irish pioneers, and the man that led them here: Mr. Hugh Cummiskey.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Mrs. Castle & the Know-Nothings

The Philadelphia Know Nothing Riot, 1848
“I know nothing.”  When a member of the Native American Party was asked about this semi-secret political group that was based on American nativism and anti-Catholic bigotry, that was to be his response.  “I know nothing.”  New England in the 1850s was fertile ground for such a group.  Too many immigrants.  Too many Catholics.  They infiltrated every level of government and Lowell was no exception.  Members of the Know-Nothings felt it their duty to purge America of foreign, especially Catholic, influence. 
Reading through the few accounts of life that exist of life in this period there is a story that keeps popping up.  It tells of when the Know-Nothings were in power and made themselves known in Lowell.  The year was 1854 and tensions were tight.  The Know-Nothings were known to make visits to convents and demand entry to see what atrocities they could find.  The Sisters of Notre Dame spent the nights in vigil waiting for the alarm to be sounded.  Men spent the night in the church tower keeping their eyes on Lowell Street for the mobs to be crossing the bridge which would lead them to the church and the convent.
It was a June night when their fears became reality.  According to one account that has been passed down to us, the crowd with guns and bayonets advanced upon the convent in martial order, followed by the mob yelling, shrieking and brandishing clubs and road tools.
On came the frenzied force, their shouts filling the air and penetrating the convent walls to the great terror of the sisters. The roar of the mob signified no mercy to the noble women whose lives were dedicated to mercy, and there seemed to be no hope. But in the meantime the news had reached a Catholic woman whose life was of less value lo her than her religion.
The woman in question was Mrs. Julia Castle (Cassell), wife of Henry Castles.  Putting a large rock in an apron, she called upon the neighboring wives, mothers, and sisters to follow her example, and soon full fifty women were massed in front of the convent gate, led by the dauntless Mrs. Castle. There they stood, shoulder to shoulder, right in the teeth of the advancing horde, each one firmly resolved lo let the infuriated Know-Nothings trample over her body ere the gates should be forced and the sacrilege consummated.
Leading the military company was a burly policeman, whose sworn duty was to preserve peace and order. He was some thirty yards in advance of the rest, his zeal in the cause having quickened his steps. When he pompously ordered the woman to make off and clear the way, instead of being obeyed as he expected, he found himself in the grasp of a pair of stout Irish arms, and felt himself lifted bodily ore the ground. The canal was nearby, but before the approaching mob could come up he was seized by the scruff of the neck and the seat of his trousers, and was flung into the slimy depths. The crowd halted in amazement at the audacity of the thing, and then, by one of those instantaneous impulses which sometimes turn the current of events and shapes history, the mind of the mob was diverted from its infamous purpose.  The sight of the half drowned wretch as he floundered and splashed in the reeking water ere he crawled up the banks, changed the yells of rage to shrieks of laughter, and gave men time to take a second thought of what they were contemplating. When old Mrs. Castle, her straggling grey locks unconfined, bade them come on and get treated to more drinks of the same tap, they turned about and slunk home. Had the convent been burned there would have been a bloody retaliation that night, and many who participated would have never seen the light of another day.
Stories tend to snowball.  They grow with each telling.  The above narrative was part of Mrs. Castle’s death notice when she passed away in 1887.  So did it happen?  There is an eyewitness who swears to her account.  There are other accounts; one written by a Sister of Notre Dame, and then the actual newspaper account from the period.  One can imagine Mrs. Castle telling her story year after year; her grandchildren sitting on her lap.  And with each telling, the story grows.
So what’s your story?