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1841 St. Patrick's Day March of Irish Workers in Towanda, re-enacted

Sunday, March 13, 2016, we commemorate a historic event of great significance to our parish.   Prior to the 11 am Mass, children of the parish are presenting a brief skit and parade inside the church.  This is a re-enactment of the Irish workers' march down Main Street in Towanda, on St. Patrick's Day, 1841.

In 1841, the religious climate in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was very uncomfortable, particularly for the Irish Immigrants who had been recruited to come to the area to do the back-breaking work of hand-digging the North Branch Extension of the Pennsylvania Canal.  During this time in Philadelphia (our Diocese at the time), a political group called the "No Nothings" was working extremely hard to prevent Irish immigration as well as any possible citizenship for them.  These immigrants were people who believed that they were coming to America for a better life and for religious freedom--something they had been deprived of in their homeland.  The "No Nothing" movement had gone so far as to burn to the ground roman Catholic churches in Philadelphia.

Imagine coming from your home across the sea to be welcomed with such an attitude of prejudice and that level of violence, not only toward individuals, but also to target the churches so central to their Catholic faith.  The Irish Catholics in the towanda area had long been convening for Mass at a home in towanda--Mother "Ma" Slanin's boarding house--located downtown, beside the present Presbyterian church.

To celebrate St. Patrick's Day in 1841, they decided to share with the community a witness to their faith and Irish Catholic identity.  Wearing emblematic colors and led by Colonel David M. Bull, they proceeded to march down Main Street carrying the tools of their trade demonstrating their economic strength, and singing a hymn of St. Patrick to witness to their firm faith and Irish heritage..

A bold and courageous statement was made that day which was instrumental in the construction, that very same year, of the first Catholic church in Bradford County, to be named SS Peter & Paul Church.

Later in 1841, Father John V. O'Reilly hired a local carpenter, John Morris, to build the wooden church, aided and assisted by the Irish workers.  That year Bishop Kennrick was Bishop of the Philadelphia Diocese, including Towanda; coming here in 1845 for the dedication of SS Petr & Paul Church, the Bishop made note in his diary that this church "was built during the time of the church burnings in Philadelphia."

Although that wooden structure has now been replaced by a brick church building, it remains a testament to the faith and courage of the first families who established our parish, and their descendants and the many othere who came after, who continued to build and sustain SS Peter & Paul Parish until now.

We are grateful to the students who participate in this re-enactment, with costumes and guidance from their teachers; to Dick Meredith for scripting the skit; to musicians teaching the St. Patrick's Hymn refrain; to Henry Farley for the historical details; to the Irish workers who made all this possible; and thanks be to God for the gift of faith transmitted to us thus through our ancestors.

 

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