Bring Out Your Dead ~ Walter Hickey Writes in “LowellIrish”

Lowell historian and Lowell Historical Society genealogist Walter Hickey is not only an avid and meticulous researcher, he is a great story teller. Check out this cross post from Dave McKean’s LowellIrish blog:

Friday, July 27, 2012


Source: St Patrick Cemetery (c1920s)

I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that Walter was reincarnated from the 19th century.  For one, he just knows too much first-hand information about that period.  He is able to quote people who have been dead for 150 years.  He knows intimate facts about people that no one else knows, unless you were there.  And then there is that odd 19th century wit when you aren’t sure if you should smile or take the person seriously.  That’s some pretty strong evidence.  Then you read today’s piece written by Walter and it pretty much closes the case.  One must question where on earth he gets these great stories.

Some visitors to St Patrick’s are savvy enough to question why there were two catholic churches within yards of each other. Fr. McDermott was pastor of St. Pat’s, but then buys a church and opens St. Mary’s, just a few doors down in the 1840s.  One might say the reason was that the old, wooden St. Pat’s could no longer accommodate the growing numbers of Irish Catholics streaming into the Acre especially at the height of the potato famine.  There’s some truth in this, but the story goes much deeper.  Read on.  (D. McKean)

In the 1850’s undertakers were appointed by the Mayor and Board of Alderman. This was an official city position.My original intent was a brief write-up on Terrence Hanavor.  Thanks to the on line availability and indexing of the DAILY CITIZEN, I stumbled across another story.  As to Terrence Hanavor, well known to most of our ancestors, he will have to wait for another day.

Our cast:

Michael Roach – undertaker and sexton of St. Patrick’s Church
Rev. John O’Brien — Pastor of St. Patrick’s Church; in charge of St. Patrick’s Cemetery
Rev. James T. McDermott –  Pastor of St. Mary’s Church
James Farley (Farrelly) –  Sexton of St. Mary’s Church 
Note: His real name is Farley, but he is more often cited as Farrelly in various accounts.  Farrelly will be used throughout.
John McEvoy  –  Attorney and Organist at St. Patrick’s Church

The story begins with a petition presented to the City Council on March 24, 1857 requesting the appointment of James Farrelly as undertaker.  The following week the Mayor and Alderman voted to remove Michael Roach from the office of undertaker and appointed James Farrelly in his place.  Farrelly’s appointed was backed by Father James T. McDermott, pastor of St. Mary’s Church.   This set the stage for some fireworks as Roach was Father John O’Brien’s man, and it was understood that he would not allow any undertaker into the Catholic burying ground except Roach.  Father O’Brien was pastor of St. Patrick’s Church and in charge of the cemetery more often referred to as the Catholic Burying Ground..

Although officially removed from office, Roach did not go quietly, probably with encouragement from Rev. O’Brien.  On April 13, he was arraigned in the Lowell Police Court for continuing to act as undertaker after he had been removed from office.  The case was continued to May 4th for examination.    More than a week after his removal, he made returns of five burials to the Superintendent of Burials.  Michael seems to entertain an equal contempt for the city fathers and the English language.  He puts down the various diseases of those he attended as “Water on the brean,” “consomtion,” “hooping coff” and “yellow ganders.”  As a result, Michael was arrested by the police on April 27 on a charge of officiating without authority. In early May, the City Solicitor was directed to apply to the Supreme Judicial Court for an injunction to restrain Michael Roach from serving as undertaker.

After several continuances, his trial was to be in early July.  However, that was not to be.  According to the Daily Citizen and News of July 7, 1857 “The contest whether Michel Roach shall act as undertaker or not, without consent or appointment of the city authorities, has been finally settled.  An injunction has been served on Roach from a higher power than earthly courts, and another has done the job for him that he had done for so many others.  Michael died on Saturday last, of dysentery at the age of sixty-five.  Death has ended the controversy; and as he was superseded in office by one of his own blood and race, we suppose there will be no further endeavor on the part of his friends to keep up an ill feeling.”

That was wishful thinking!

Following the death of Roach, Rev. O’Brien and others petitioned for the appointment of one Patrick Smith as undertaker.  Smith was appointed but Farrelly retained his position.  As a result, there were now two undertakers to tend to the Catholic burials: McDermott’s man, Farrelly, and O’Brien’s man, Smith.

McDermott’s congregation numbered about 800 while O’Brien’s was about 5000.  The two priests had a long-standing bitter personal feud which was amplified by the preference of the Catholic population for burial by Farrelly!  O’Brien was incensed and in March 1858,  he denounced from the pulpit all who would employ Farrelly as being unworthy of the name of Christians and further declared that he would deny ‘christian burial’ to any corpse whom Farrelly would carry to the grave. By August, 1858, Catholics continued to prefer Farrelly over Smith despite the denunciation and threats from O’Brien.  As Rev. O’Brien was the Bishop’s agent for the sale of cemetery lots, he refused to sell lots to any who employed Farrelly as  undertaker, and he filed suit against Farrelly for trespass in burying the dead in the lots they had purchased.

On October 5, 1858, the CITIZEN reported that the court decided against Father O’Brien, and “the waters of bitterness closed over the head of his reverence.”  However, this is not quite the end of the story….. Farrelly was defended by John McEvoy, an attorney who coincidentally just happened to be the organist at St. Patrick’s church!  Father O’Brien summarily discharged him from his position in the church!  He was FIRED!!


On November 5, 1858, the Daily Citizen and News reported the appointment of McEvoy as a Justice of the Peace, with the comment, “All Right, saving the presence of his reverence who shut the doors of the organ against the new “Squire”.