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Irish built Fitchburg’s “shanty cathedral”

Posted By March 15, 2012 | 1:01 pm | Lead Story #1, Local
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By Patricia O’Connell
CFP Correspondent

FITCHBURG – Local historian Anne O’Connor spoke about the city’s “Founding Ethnicities” during a recent meeting of the Fitchburg History Club.
Much of Ms. O’Connor’s talk centered on the Catholic churches, built by the immigrants. A large portion of the evening was devoted to the Irish, who established the original St. Bernard Parish on Water Street.
Ms. O’Connor also offered the audience little-known and forgotten facts about some of the other churches founded by the French and the Italians.
St. Bernard was Fitchburg’s first Catholic parish. Ms. O’Connor explained how the Irish traveled here to work on the railroad. In general, they were not welcomed by the protestant Yankees.
“It wasn’t pretty,” she said.
The Irish settled in an area known as “The Patch,” which was the neighborhood close to St. Bernard. It was also near the railroad.
These immigrants lived in what Ms. O’Connor described as “shanties,” which, she explained, were primitive hut-like structures. An entire family, and often boarders as well, would crowd into a shanty, she said.
The shanties would also play a role in helping to establish the faith in Fitchburg.
Although the Irish, whom Ms. O’Connor described as “not your average Yankees” weren’t always treated well, they were needed to work on the railroads and in the city’s factories. They arrived at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Ms. O’Connor said so many Irish settled in Fitchburg that they “basically established a Catholic center” in the Water Street neighborhood.
She showed the audience a picture she took while standing on Summer Street, which is across the railroad tracks from Water Street. She pointed out St. Bernard Church, with its tall steeple, as well as the old girls’ school.
As the Irish prospered, they abandoned the shanties. The empty shanties then were recycled to construct the very first Catholic church in Fitchburg, according to Ms. O’Connor.
This fact was also confirmed in a book titled “Around the World in Fitchburg,” an account of the city’s immigration written by Doris Kirkpatrick. Ms. O’Connor referenced this book several times during her talk.
The first church in Fitchburg, built from shanties, pre-dates the brick St. Bernard on Water Street. This more primitive structure was built by Father Matthew Gibson, the first pastor of St. Bernard. His parish was known as “Shanty Cathedral.”
“I built the first church in Fitchburg – it was called Shanty Cathedral – on the very spot where I afterwards built my house, south of St Bernard’s Church,” Father Gibson wrote in an excerpt of a letter published in Ms. Kirkpatrick’s book.
Ms. O’Connor stressed that Shanty Cathedral was not exclusively Irish, as other ethnic groups had trickled into the city.
She also showed another picture of St. Bernard’s former high altar, which several people in the audience remembered.
“I remember when they painted it,” she said about the church, which was her family’s home parish. One of her relatives, she recalled, was not pleased with the visual changes to St. Bernard.
Ms. O’Connor then jumped to what’s known as “West Fitchburg,” where the Irish also settled.
They established the former Sacred Heart Parish, which Ms. O’Connor noted is close to the British American club, and pointed out that she thought this was ironic.
“They (the Irish) came from this really dominant culture where England had them under her thumb,” she said.
She said her maternal relatives, the Markhams, were some of the earliest Irish settlers. They brought their faith with them to America, having Masses in their home prior to the construction of St. Bernard.
Ms. O’Connor was puzzled why Sacred Heart Parish had a school named St. John’s. She said a fire destroyed the school.
The Italians followed the Irish into Fitchburg, noted Ms. O’Connor. The biggest waves of Italians, escaping poverty in their homeland, arrived in Fitchburg between 1880 and 1920. They also settled in the Water Street area, and worked as stone cutters, cobblers and small business owners.
She said St. Anthony Parish was established after a large group of Italians migrated from Clinton. Prior to that, Fitchburg’s Italian-Americans worshiped at St. Bernard. “As the population grew they were able to go off and build their own churches,” she stated.
Originally, St. Anthony was a wood-sided church, according to Ms. O’Connor. The current brick exterior was added later.
Ms. O’Connor also had pictures of a religious procession of young ladies walking past the church, as well as a recent picture of the parish’s current Madonna della Cava festival.
“Now they have Masses in African,” she said.
The next Catholic group  Ms. O’Connor spoke about was the French Canadians. She said they came here to find work. She said many settled in South Fitchburg and established St. Francis Parish. She said they also built St. Joseph Parish in the city’s Cleghorn section.
The parish now has a large parking lot across the street from its rear entrance. But, in the early 1900s it was flooded every winter and turned into a big skating rink. Ms. O’Connor also had a picture of this rink dated 1929, which a few in the audience also remembered.