“A Brief History of St Patrick Church” by Jim Peters

Frequent contributor Jim Peters offers the following about St Patrick’s Church in Lowell:

I believed that this would be an easy assignment.  I mean, a great deal has been written on St. Patrick’s Church, right?  So it cannot be that difficult to catalogue it in a chronologically correct way.  Was I wrong.  The problem is, that when something has extensive writings about it, it is just that much more critical that you get it right.  So I first must thank local St. Patrick’s Church wizard, David McKean.  David does not state that he is Irish, in fact he plays up his Irish and other ancestry’s, but if you need to know something about the subject of St. Patrick’s David is the person to talk to or see.  So I would like to thank David before I start because I could never have started without his comments.   I know that you usually add your thanks near the end of the article, but I could not have written the article without speaking to David first.  So I thank him first.  It seems the right thing to do.

    We all know the Lowell story.  Francis Cabot Lowell was fishing for a way to bring the plans for the textile looms from England to New England “across the pond.”  He could not take notes with him, so he memorized every screw, widget, and string on the loom and carried them with him in his head, to Waltham, where there was a light power source in the dam there.  Not “light power,” but a moderately powerful water dam to turn the waterwheel which would later be necessary to power the looms.  However, as power sources go, this was an inadequate power source for the types of manufacturing that the Boston Associates had in mind.  So, Francis Cabot Lowell made use of his time overseeing the manufacture of all of the parts of the loom that he had stored in his fabulous brain, and oversaw the completion of the first American-made piece of industrial espionage, the cotton mill.
    His mill worked.  He was written up in the history books.  He and his friends, most of whom would found Lowell, Massachusetts as an industrial capitol, saw their invention work.   It was powered in Waltham, but it was clear that more power was going to be needed if the project was to be successful.  So Nathan Appleton and Kirk Boott, and others scoped out a river in Chelmsford for their power source.  The river was the Merrimack, which meant, in native tongue, “the Strong Place.”  There was a thirty one foot dip in the river starting above the falls and draining  near what was then an island, called “Duck Island.”  It was on these falls that the fortunes of the original dreamers lie.  Mr. Lowell would not live to see his city  built.  He died shortly after testing the working loom.
    That is the story that we learned in high school here in Lowell.  Outside Lowell High School in 1969, the year that I moved here from Chicago, Illinois, there was a small train railing for an early train commemorating the opening of the Boston to Lowell Railroad.  The first train in the nation, and I believe it to be the first train station on earth.  Nothing was written anywhere about the mills and the canals that became part of the larger Lowell “experiment.”
    Labor was a major catch at this time.  The mill owners built their mills and lined up a group of women and girls to run the mills during hours of operation.  They took care to take these women off of the farm and give them a comfortable bed to lie in and a room to live in.  They also took care to make certain that all of these girls had a place of worship, and even required attendance at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church on Sunday mornings by the mill girls.  They did not take into account the role that the alternate religions would play.  They had no mosques, no temples, and certainly no Catholic churches in their perfect little town of Lowell.  By 1826, Lowell would become incorporated as a town and by 1836, it would become a city.  For the first few years, Lowell’s Catholic population did not have a church that was theirs.  In 1831, that changed.  In that year, the Archdiocese of Boston send a priest named Father O’Brien to the city on a monthly basis to cater to the needs of the burgeoning Catholic population.  Sadly, once per month was not enough to really take care of those complex needs.  As the numbers of Catholics died on the job, or through diseases like cholera, no one was there to bury them.  Father O’Brien did the best that he could.
    In 1831, St. Patrick’s Church was built.  It was a fairly solid wooden structure, built by the Irish immigrants who worked as caretakers of the Protestant houses being built throughout the town.  It was theorized that one source of the wood for the church was the stacks of wood left throughout the acre of land that Kirk Boott had given them and which they used to build shanties.  It was said that there were some fights between the Irish and the Yankees; that the women often put small stones in their aprons to help the Irish fight off the attacks of the Yankees; and it is known that there were plans to build the church, although no deeds are in the Registry of Deeds which pertain to the building of this chapel.  We do not really have any proof that the church was built except for the building standing now, and  except for the writing down of some rudimentary facts on pieces of paper which date back to the time.  We do not know, for certain, that the church was built with legal pieces of wood, or with wood that was supposed to be used to build the canals.
    The origins of the structure indicate that most of the wood used to build the first chapel was legally purchased by the Irish who, would make it their duty to oversee the building of the new church.  While their shanties were not well built, their church was…and as time passed it became a stronger and more beautiful edifice.
    Father O’Brien had his work cut out for him.  At first, he could only come out once a month.  Soon, he moved up here from Boston and handled the needs of the poor Irish in life and death situations.  One of the first problems was with education.  The boys were going to public schools which taught Anglican values instead of Catholic ones.  The girls were spirited to their own schools run by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who taught only young girls and young women.  The man of the house was as likely to have nothing to do with helping their daughters and sons, because the Irish way was to have little of parenting substance for the father to do, except pass their wages to the wife {Paddy Camps}.  From a schooling standpoint, children needed an Exit Public School Education pass to go to work {Ibid.}  Girls not being educated in the schools of the Anglicans could not pass the exam that would get them that pass.
    After Father William O’Brien left, in 1836,  he was replaced by Father E.J. McCool.  Father McCool would be replaced by one of Father William O’Brien’s brothers,  The O’Briens were driven by their dedication to their parishioners.  “For the O’Briens, community leadership was a logical extension of their role at St. Patrick’s.” {ibid}  When some of the newer famine-driven Irish stepped up with the O’Briens, “new loyalty could be shaped.” {Ibid}
    The Irish were becoming a political force to be reckoned with, and Benjamin Butler, the wealthy Lowellian, Civil War hero, and to be Governor used the new Irish to firm up his hold on Lowell’s citizenry.
For their part, the Irish immigrants now wanted to be accepted by “Yankee Lowell.”  Meanwhile, Lowell’s officials were turning to a policy of institutionalization.  Father O’Brien was replaced by Father Tucker who appealed to the Irish by importing Gaelic-speaking priests. {ibid.}  The Know Nothing Party dropped out of institutionalization, and the Irish used the vacuum to build their community at the church.
    Lowell was growing.  By 1855 the census was 37,490 persons.  By 1860, 65% of the work force was male.  There was a push in the 1850’s to educate the Irish with the Yankees in order to further defiine the “Lowell Experiment.”  “Lowell’s elected Yankee officials still believed in the link between learning and patriotism.” {Ibid. Page 116}  This also served to keep the Irish in line, and it was noted that the Irish turned against public schools, which was not a huge surprise.
    Other factors were happening in Lowell that would define the parishes, including St. Peter’s and St. Mary’s.  At St. Peter’s a small boy would grow up to be one of the most powerful Cardinals in Catholic American history.  His name was William O’Connell.  He would become the powerful Archbishop of Boston, the man that film maker Otto Preminger memorialized in the 1950 era movie, “The Cardinal.”    Political leaders of the day included those who dubbed the Archbishop with the moniker “#1.”  O’Connell would lose some of his influence when it was found that he fabricated autobiographical material.
    St. Patrick’s members took over businesses downtown, became cogs in the ‘Lowell Experiment,’ and moved into education and other civil positions.  In 1853, the new stone building, which the Yankees claimed was built out of pilfered granite from the canals, was consecrated.  Why consecration took so long was anybody’s guess.  {Wikipedia}
    Around this period, Catholics became members of the Knights of Labor, a strong labor union.  Cardinal Corrigan, the Archbishop of New York, stood up to the Knights and condemned them.  In the meantime, Catholics were taking their place in political circles.  In the 1910’s, the Governor of Massachusetts was a Catholic; his name was David R. Walsh. {Ibid.}  Dozens of State Representatives in Massachusetts, members of the State Senate, and even a Congressman were Catholics.  When a visitor remarked how lovely the cobblestones in Scully Square looked, Irish-American who was also  a Presidential sister strongly stated,
“Those aren’t cobblestones but the skulls of Irish laborers.”  {A Nation of Immigrants” John F. Kennedy; Harper and Row Publishers}
    By 1904 the interior of the church was gutted by a large fire, and tests to check the stone walls integrity were conducted.  The steeple had come crashing down.  Later, the steeple would rise like a phoenix from the fire, but at that point, things appeared to be fairly bleak.  On Novmber 18, 1906, Cardinal O’Connell said The very beauties of this majestic temple are but reminders to us of our indebtedness to our fathers who labored and who died here, an indebtedness which we can cancel in only one way, by fidelity to all the high principles of our holy faith  which we may profess without aught of the hindrances so common to them. (Dedication Sermon)
    Today, Catholics face further challenges as they work on collaboratives.  St. Patrick’s will become tied to St. Margaret’s and the Church of the Holy Family in Lowell.  One pastor will officiate over all three parishes.  St. Patrick’s will play a large role in making the collaborative work.  Its days of leadership, fidelity, and passion are not over.  Only time will tell how we incorporate this multi-ligual church which is dedicated to the immigrants, into our lives.   It amazes me that President John F. Kennedy could take the time out of his schedule to write a major book on immigration while performing the duties of the President of the United States.  The fact is that he wrote this book in 1957 and 1958, before his presidency.  He extolled the role of the immigrant in our society.  He established the importance of immigration to this nation.  It was not a barnburner then and will not be a barnburner now, but it is worth reading so go to your local library and ask for it.  It will make the fight for human justice in Lowell’s St. Patrick’s Parish that much more understandable.