Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Long Journey Home- Michael O'Brien, 1900

Michael O'Brien 50th Anniv.
Ribbon, 1899,
Archives of St. PatrickParish
The news had spread across the city even before the tolling of the bell.  Father Michael O’Brien, the nephew and successor of Fathers Timothy and John O’Brien, and present pastor of St. Patrick Church was dead.  He had left Lowell weeks prior on a whirlwind trip of Rome and then to spend time with his family in County Tipperary where he was born.  He had left with his cousin, Father William O’Brien, pastor of St. Michael’s Church and a number of other diocesan priests.  While in Paris visiting the Eiffel Tower; he bumped into a fellow Lowellian, a local businessman, where the two greeted each other.  This was just days before his death.  While in Rome he had an audience with the Pope and wrote home that he was about to bring back the Papal Blessing to his parishioners. 
Michael O’Brien was born in 1825 into a large family in the little village of Ballina, Co. Tipperary, Ireland.  His family was well-known for vocations to the priesthood so it was no surprise that young Michael would enter All Hallows College in Dublin.  He envisioned himself in the missionary fields of the States and began his priestly career in the backcountry of New York which was then extended to include Pennsylvania.  Traveling by horse he would make his rounds going from town to town celebrating Mass and performing weddings and baptisms.  Life for the young priest was far from easy often being caught out in violent storms and extreme temperatures.  He related one incident when after traveling for some distance he came upon a town only to find there were no Catholics.  Things turned worse when he found that a gang of men employed to extend the railroad in that part of New York, had no liking for an Irishman, especially an Irish priest.  Fortunately, a Protestant gentleman came upon the scene and tossed the ringleader aside saving the priest.  On another occasion he came upon a shanty where whiskey was being brewed.  In anger at seeing the drunkenness of the railroad workers he promptly broke open casks and spilled the contents on the ground.  He was arrested for the task, but was soon released.  While in Rochester, NY he built St. Patrick’s Church.  There he also built a school and brought in the Christian Brothers to staff it.  It was believed to be one of the first parochial schools in the country.  Father Michael joined his aging uncle, Father John O’Brien in Lowell at St. Patrick’s, and upon his death became pastor.
Father Michael was spending the last few days of his trip anticipating the journey home.  He spent the night in Shallee a crossroads between Killaloe and Nenagh.  Just as he was about to retire he had a bout of apoplexy, what we would call today a stroke.  Several priests including his cousin, Fr. William O’Brien, were with him.  He remained conscious until just before he passed.  They were all shocked due to the fact of the good spirits and health he was in just prior to the attack.
The priest himself and his family were so revered that the road to St. Mary church in Nenagh was lined for 2 miles with those who wanted to pay their respects.  Fr William wanted to bring the body back to Lowell for burial, but American officials required a certificate proving embalming.  None could be found immediately in Ireland and one was sent from London.  The church of St Mary held the body and Masses were said before it was transported to Queenstown and its voyage home on the ship Saxonia.
Michael O'Brien Funeral Invite,
Archives of St. Patrick Parish
Back in Lowell plans were underway for the arrival of the body.  Many storefronts hung wreaths or made displays in their storefronts.  Even prominent Protestant businessmen covered their doors or made tributes.  Fr. Burke had been acting pastor since June and now preparations were up to him. Archbishop Williams would be the main celebrant and then there were all the clergy.  Dignitaries had to be invited and seated accordingly.  There was much discussion and one might imagine heated debate on who would escort the body and act as bearers.  Undertaker O’Donnell and 2 priests went in expectation of the steamer’s arrival.  Due to conditions at sea it was delayed several days and all plans had to be put on hold.  Finally the Saxonia arrived.  The undertaker and priests opened the casket to confirm the remains and instantly made the decision to not have an open casket due to the condition of the body.  The body was brought to a Boston undertaker where they had to be re-embalmed.  They rearranged the vestments he was robed in and closed the casket.
At the Lowell depot, people crowded on both sides of the railroad track making it difficult for the engine to enter the station.  It was agreed that the Cadet Band, founded by the late priest and made up of male youth of the parish accompanied the hearse from Fletcher and down Adam Streets.  The weight of the casket was such it took much effort to take it off the train and into the hearse.  Every society, fraternity, and organization it seemed wanted its place in the cortege to the church.  The altars of the church were draped in black crepe.  The stations of the cross were covered in black with white crosses.  The columns were covered in black with shafts of wheat tied with white bunting.  From the ceiling hung yards of the same material draping down onto the altar.  The outside doorways were also covered.
People pushed and shoved in the doorways as the casket was borne into the church.  The priests intoned the Office of the Dead.  The body lay in state from September 13th to the 17th where a constant vigil of prayers and Masses were said.  Reporters stated that many openly wept as they approached the catafalque on which the heavy metal casket rested.  On the day of the funeral crowds had to be kept back as there was limited space in the church.  The mayor even called off school, a decision that was later publically questioned by a Protestant minister as mixing church and state.  People stood outside the church as early as dawn in hopes of being allowed in for the funeral.  The entire main aisle was reserved for clergy and government officials.  When the doors opened there was a mad rush for the side aisles with many standing 2 or 3 deep in the back of the church.  The windows were kept open so those outside could hear the service.  Floral tributes filled the church and covered the casket, including one from “friends in Ireland.”
At 10 sharp the final Office of the Dead was chanted.  The choir, representing every Catholic parish in the city sang the Pontifical Mass.  A lengthy talk was given by a Bishop and finally the body was escorted out the door and down the front steps of the church that he had called home for much of his life.  As he wished, Father Michael O’Brien was interred in the front yard of the church alongside his uncles John and Timothy.  The De Profundis (Out of the depths I cry unto you, O Lord) was intoned by the clergy and the casket was lowered into the vault.
The Sun reported that without any exaggeration Lowell had never seen a funeral such as this.
Michael, John, and Timothy O’Brien remain today in the shadow of the church, and in the midst of the people, they loved so much.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks again Dave, for this beautifully written and researched description of a piece of Lowell Irish and St. Patrick's Church history. Hope there might be a way to include this essay as part of the renovation of the O'Brien grave in the front of the church.