Friday, February 2, 2018

A Few Vagabonds and Scoundrels

One wonders what Father John O’Brien, of patent medicine fame, expected when he accepted the call to Lowell.  Previous to arriving in the city he and his brother Timothy were stationed in Virginia.  There the two men became widely known for their work among the small, Southern, Catholic community.  The two brothers’ reputations grew as being spiritual and leaders of the Irish community who had settled in the Richmond, VA area to dig canals.  It was in Richmond that they were responsible for building St. Peter’s Cathedral, still there today.

Fr. John arrived in Lowell in 1848 but obviously held his former parishioners quite dear.  The priest also worked in the town of Martinsburg, VA, and that is where he met the McSherry family.  Richard McSherry’s father had emigrated from Ireland in the late 18th century.  Richard McSherry became a doctor and was one of the 50 Irish Catholic families in Martinsburg.  The McSherrys were also wealthy landowners and slave owners.  Dr. McSherry’s daughter, Cecelia, remained a friend of Fr. O’Brien as evidenced by a 4 page handwritten letter which was just discovered a few weeks ago.

The letter, written by Fr. O’Brien, was written in January of 1850.  He writes that the teachers in the school had erected a Christmas tree.  This is one of the earliest accounts of this new traditions.  They would not be popular for several decades.  He goes on to tell of hearing 180 confessions before Christmas and receiving $149 as an offering.  He does say that some members of the congregation had organized a sleigh ride and questions the money spent on such an event.

He further says that he had never “had charge of a more pious people,” but continues by saying “there are more than a sufficient number to give us a bad name.”  It was at that time that riots broke out within the Irish community of Lowell.  He continues by adding that “a few scoundrels and vagabonds will bring disgrace on a community by their lawless deeds.”  The riots of 1849 continued for several days with bricks and rocks being thrown and having the city constables called out.  He credits Fr. Theobold Mathew, the Irish Temperance priest, who was visiting Lowell with helping to quell the riots.  He finishes his letter by applauding the fact a young woman who had left the church returned and “had given up her Protestantism.” 

The letter actual opens by asking Miss McSherry about her health and telling her not to overdo things.  Cecelia McSherry would live 5 more years and die at the age of 39.

The letter gives us a glimpse into the everyday lives of the Irish community, their trials and hardships.  It is a rare artifacts where the Irish themselves speak of what was going on around them rather than their Yankee counterparts.


  1. How did you find out about the letter? What's the backstory?

    1. Rosemary, could you contact me through my email? Thanks.

  2. Well, I found it on ebay. And if my wife finds out what I paid it won't be pretty!

  3. A very nice find !!! well worth the money, and for a 'bonus' a very nice Lowell Letterhead with a view from Belvidere.