Holyoke's Irish Heart
Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell, a Bronx man, con-celebrated Mass with Father Francis Sullivan, parish priest, and Father Cullen, a Welsh priest of Irish stock who came to Holyoke on a visit a few years ago and decided that he had found his calling.
Back in the day, it was Father Patrick Harkins who for 44 years not only looked after his community’s spiritual needs but saw that the children were educated as well.
In 1868, Harkins invited the Sisters of Notre Dame to open a school for girls. Nineteen Sisters took care of 509 students. In 1872, Father Harkins opened a school for boys. The Sisters of Providence took charge of the school in 1876, and also, at Father Harkins’ urging, established an institution of charity, a hospital and an Orphans’ Home in Holyoke.
Harkins, the good nuns and other clergy saw to it that the children of immigrants were well prepared to take their place as citizens of America – good Catholic citizens.
“On my father’s side, he had three first cousins who were priests – Father Sullivan, Father George Friel, and Father Charles Friel. On my mother’s side, six were priests and three were nuns. And even in my generation you had a huge amount of Irish that became priests and nuns,” Bob Loughrey says.
Education and the church became the stepping stones to future success for the Irish in Holyoke and in other places across America. “At least 80 percent of elementary school teachers in Holyoke were Irish girls. My aunt Florence and Ellen Walsh were schoolteachers. The school door was open to them where other places were not,” Bob says.
That tradition continues. The Irish still have a presence in the school system, as they do in the political life of Holyoke. This year’s parade grand marshal Chris Patton Zacoc, an educator in Holyoke’s public schools for 35 years, was the subject of Amongst Schoolchildren, a bestselling book by Tracy Kidder, who spent a year monitoring Patton in her classroom.
At the mass, the bishop can barely contain himself when the organ acts up and every beautifully sung hymn ends on a long mournful note because of trapped air in the pipes. Grinning, he thanks the choir “and the leprechaun in the organ.”
At the J.F.K. Award dinner, humor abounds as Mayor Mike Sullivan, who in an alternative universe would be a stand-up comedian, gives a good old-fashioned ribbing to honoree Joe Loughrey, a boyhood pal. Meanwhile, my sister Honora, friend Irene, and I enjoy sitting around the dinner table with Kateri Walsh, who chairs the Ambassador Committee, her husband Dan, a former Marine, and sons Chris, Daniel and Bennett.
Chris regales us with stories of his trip to Ireland as Daniel tries to get a word in on the finer points of Irish culture, and Bennett, a lieutenant colonel, just back from his third tour in Iraq, tells us what the Shannon stop-off means to the American troops coming and going to Afghanistan and Iraq.