In the last two weeks, thousands of Chicagolanders celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. Many took part in local parades, while others celebrated wherever they could. Irish and non-Irish people throughout the city and suburbs found many creative ways to celebrate this occasion. Some dressed in green, painted parts of themselves green, drank green beer, watched the Chicago River dyed green, gobbled down Irish soda bread and feasted in cabbage and corned beef (though it’s more of an American tradition than Irish).
My St. Patrick’s Day celebration included mass at Chicago’s Old St. Patrick’s Church. I wanted to experience a hint of Irish heritage at mass. Instead, I experienced much more than expected. The “hint of Irish” experience I sought turned into grand dose of cultural appreciation.
From the moment I walked into the church, I could feel a great sense of Irish heritage. Live Irish music filled the air as Irish dancers accompanied the pastor, Fr. Thomas Hurley, into the church. A touch of Gaelic language and wonderful music only improved the already pleasant experience.
During the homily, Fr. Hurley took us down memory lane by giving us a snapshot version of the rich heritage the church is built upon. It was founded and built in 1846 by Irish immigrants, most of whom escaped the famine in Ireland that killed over 1 million lives. The church was one of only a few buildings that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, making it the oldest public building in Chicago. In 1912, Thomas A. O’Shaughnessy spent the next ten years designing and making the beautiful stained-glass windows while painting all the Celtic designs throughout its interior.
Because of expressway construction and families moving to other neighborhoods, the church began quickly falling into decline. At one point, it was almost demolished. O’Shaughnessy’s beautiful painted Celtic designs were eventually painted over, and by 1983 it had only 4 registered parishioners.
Its new pastor at the time, Fr. John Wall, brought in a team of artisans to restore the church’s interior. They carefully stripped away layers of paint until finally discovering O’Shaughnessy’s work. The paintings were restored and a massive effort to attract more parishioners began. Today, Old St. Pat’s, as many know it as, has thousands of parishioners. In addition, hundreds of visitors like me make periodic visits.
“Since its dedication on Christmas morning in 1856, Old St. Patrick’s has been a sacred site embodying the dreams and aspirations of hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans. In few neighborhoods have the bricks and mortar mattered so much.
- Ellen Skerrett, Editor of At the Crossroads: Old St. Patrick’s and the Chicago Irish
Fr. Hurley continued with his dose of heritage by pointing out that 2013 is the year of “The Gathering” in Ireland. Throughout the rest of this year, Ireland is reaching out to the more than 70 million people worldwide who claim Irish ancestry. It is encouraging them to “come home,” “gather” and reconnect with their ancestry. No doubt it fuels economic and political agenda, but just think about it. Ulterior motives aside, it’s still a noble idea to stress the importance of heritage by encouraging people to reconnect with their ancestry.
Nearly three to four generations have gone by since the birth of Old St. Pat’s, and I would guess to say most of today’s Chicagoans with Irish decent knows little about their heritage. Many of today’s generation probably have little knowledge of what their great or great-great grandparents underwent during the famine.
Fortunately, writers like Mary Pat Kelly, author of "Galway Bay," join the likes of Fr. Hurley by promoting their heritage. Galway Bay is one particular book that every Chicago Irish should read. Moreover, it’s one that would behoove any ethnicity.
“. . . so rousingly epic it can’t help but reach readers’ hearts”
- People magazine on Galway Bay
Though fiction, it is a well-researched story about the author’s great-great grandmother, Honora Kelly. The novel tells about her family’s escape from Irelands “Great Starvation” of the 1840’s and how they helped turn Chicago from a frontier town into the City of the Century. American readers of Irish decent will walk away learning that they descended from people forced from their homes who turned their tragedy of exile into triumph. Essentially, it is to the Irish what the novel, “Roots” is to African Americans.
Yesterday’s dose of Irish heritage taught me that the stereotypes of Irish Chicagoans should be re-evaluated by everyone. Rather than subscribe to the notion that dressing green and drowning oneself in pints of Guinness somehow defines St. Patrick’s Day or being Irish; it would behoove us all to learn about the goodness of Irish ancestry in Chicago.
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