Tourist in Your Own Town

About ten years ago, there was an annual program called “Be a Tourist in Your Own Town” organized by the Lowell Historic Board, Greater Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitor Bureau, National Park Service, and others. It was a franchise-type operation like the various “First Night” celebrations around the country. I mention this because yesterday I had a “tourist-in-your-own-town” experience at the Irish history event presented by the Lowell Historical Society at St Patrick Church in the Acre. Historian and teacher Dave McKean, who grew up in the Acre in the 1950s and ’60s, was featured with his new book Lowell Irish.

I said to my friend Bob Martin, the legendary singer-songwriter from Lowell, that the program was something you’d go to see if you were traveling, in Europe maybe. Bob agreed. He has been in Lowell pretty much his whole life and told me his grandmother had been a parishioner at St Patrick, but he had never been inside the grand church until we stepped into the lower church yesterday. There was a funeral in the main church, so the group of about 75 people who gathered to listen to Dave McKean’s talk had to wait to go upstairs to see the renovated cathedral-like sacred space.

Dave (with added commentary by his co-conspirator in Irish-American digging, Walter Hickey) took us through the story of the Irish arriving and settling in Lowell, beginning in the 1820s with the early canal-diggers from the Boston area led by Hugh Cummiskey. We heard a lot about the building and formation of the church and parish, including the French-speaking nuns based in Cincinnati who were the only order of religious sisters willing to staff the burgeoning Irish-American community in Lowell. Their daily writings in journals now archived at the mother ship for the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur provided essential reports on day to day life among the early Irish. Dave described the founding of the parish schools, the fires, the take-command pastors, the tough period in the 1970s when the church and Acre were beset by crime and arson, and the comeback of the parish by sheer will of the community with the help of some generous, anonymous friends. One of my memories of St Pat’s is going to 12 o’clock Sunday Mass (my mother did not like early Mass times) when John Kiley would play the organ with enormous pipes—the same John Kiley who played the organ for the Red Sox at Fenway Park.

The level of detail embodied in Dave and Walter is extraordinary. Their command of the Irish story here makes history come alive, to use a cliche. The two of them reminded me of a term I first heard from a folklorist who had interviewed an elderly woman in Lowell who was a repository for the songs and stories of her ethnic group. She called herself a “memory worker,” and that’s what guys and women like Dave and Walter have committed to be. They do this because they are natural teachers, intellectually curious to the max, and passionate about keeping faith with those who have gone before. They take it as a mission. There’s no other way to say it. And even with all they have done, Dave says that the Irish Americans can do a better job assembling and preserving the story of what they have done as individuals and a group.

The restored church deserves a post on its own. The multi-million dollar preservation project has returned the interior to its profound beauty. People pay money to visit churches of this quality in Europe and elsewhere. All of us were gratified to be in the middle of a scenic vista contained in four walls and a roof. The paintings and stained-glass are brilliant and moving for their color and content. Dave described how a young art restorer used thousands of cotton balls soaked in a solution that allowed him to wipe decades of grime off the murals. The intricate design of the capitals on the columns was revealed. Look for a squirrel among the saints and angels. The craftsmanship in the woodwork is a tribute to the original carvers and cabinetmakers. The vast interior has the kind of volume that is humbling. You are reminded of your place in the universe whether or not you are religious in any specific way. The congregation today is pluralistic with seventh generation Irish and newcomer Burmese as well as Latino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and more.

Just as Bob and I walked out of the granite landmark one of the huge bells in the tower rang, sending a note across the neighborhood. Then another rang out.