Guest ColumnistRestored grave of early New Haven pastor recalls the pioneer urban Irish Catholics of Connecticut

A new gravestone in front of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut now reminds passersby that the pastor who completed the monumental building in 1874, Rev. Patrick A. Murphy, has for more than 130 years been buried there all along. Murphy came from the early generations of urban Irish Catholics in Connecticut whose hard work built the faith in a sometimes hostile environment and was himself an important formative influence on Venerable Servant of God Michael J. McGivney, who could become the first canonized American diocesan priest.

Murphy died five years after dedicating the church, in May 1879, three weeks short of his 34th birthday. To honor his achievement, as reported in the diocesan Connecticut Catholic, “his remains…were interred in the yard in front of the church, which will ever be to his memory a perpetual monument.” Yet earth, weeds, and eventually pavement compromised the monument’s perpetuity.

So earlier this winter, St. Mary’s current pastor, Rev. Joseph P. Allen, OP, finding opportunity in a repaving project, restored his predecessor’s grave. He commissioned and placed a replica of the original marker he had found in the church basement, with its inscription, now bright gold against black marble: “In your charity pray for Rev. P. A. Murphy. R.I.P.” A wrought iron gate again marks a small enclosure between the central and right stairways up to the church. “Even if there is only one grave, it is still a cemetery,” Allen says. “I wanted to recover the sense that this is holy ground.”

St. Mary’s, New Haven has seen nearly 200 years of American history. The parish, formed as Christ Church in 1832, fourteen years after Congregationalism was disestablished as the Connecticut state religion, is the oldest Catholic congregation in New Haven and second oldest in Connecticut. The huge, High Victorian Gothic 1874 church was an Irish Catholic intrusion on Yankee Hillhouse Avenue, home to the city’s best society, including the Yale University president and other Yale officials. The New York Times in 1879 reported that an “aristocratic avenue” had been “blemished by a Roman Church edifice… an eye-sore, an annoyance and injury to the neighboring residents.”

Servant of God Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists, supported the parish in its early days as missioner, fundraiser, and preacher at the cornerstone ceremony in September 1870. In 1991 Yale College sophomore Christian Prince died on St. Mary’s steps, his murder exacerbating racial tensions nationally. And in St. Mary’s basement in 1882, its assistant pastor, 29 year old Father McGivney, founded the Knights of Columbus.

St. Mary’s had been McGivney’s first assignment after ordination and Murphy had been the pastor for whom McGivney served his first year as a priest 1878-9. He made a considerable impact on him, according to Rev. Gabriel O'Donnell, OP, postulator of McGivney’s cause. “They made a great team.” McGivney is now buried in the church, his tomb a site of prayer and pilgrimage. (I am a parishioner myself.)

Who was this Father Murphy? We glimpse his life in archival fragments. He was born Patrick Aloysius, June 8, 1845 in Saggart, County Dublin in Ireland and baptized there nine days later. His father, Patrick, died about 1850 and in 1853 his mother, Margaret, with young Patrick and an older sister and younger brother, came to America and settled in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where her elder brother, John Flood, who had preceded them, took them into the house he owned.

Bridgeport, via convenient steamboat from New York, was a natural choice for Irish emigres escaping the Hunger of those years and looking for factory employment, as Claire Puzarne of Ireland's Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University, told me. The Museum opened in October 2012 in Hamden, Connecticut and tells the story of the Hunger in a state whose population was utterly transformed by the Irish immigrants who became the workforce for Connecticut’s development into an industrial powerhouse. John Flood in 1860 worked at a factory that made carriage springs and axles.

Rev. Peter A. Smith was the family’s pastor at St. Mary’s, East Bridgeport, an industrial neighborhood of factories and tenements across the Pequonnock River from downtown. When he arrived in 1857 to become the first pastor, Smith also became a second father and mentor to twelve-year-old Patrick, training him as altar boy, taking him into his rectory to live, and arranging for a Classical education with one of the several school teachers in the city. Young Murphy had a talent for Greek and Latin (and would enjoy reading Classics the rest of his life) as well as mathematics.

When Hartford Bishop Francis P. McFarland visited Bridgeport in May 1861 to confer Confirmation, Smith mentioned Murphy, now 16, to him as “a very promising boy” and wrote once in August and again in early September (facetiously fearing, during those first months of the Civil War, “that my letter must have fallen into the hands of some [abolitionist, pro-Union] “Vigilance Committee” who may have mistook it for some “Suspicious document.””) asking for a seminary place for young Murphy as schools opened that fall.

“His teachers speak highly of him as possessing more than ordinary talents and his moral character is unimpeachable. He has a pretty fair knowledge of Latin together with a smattering of Greek,” Smith wrote. “I have done for him all that I could or can do. I now leave him to your discretion… He is the first presented by the Bridgeporters and they, having contributed their quota towards the “Seminary fund,” will naturally be expecting that their first candidate will be favorably considered.”

McFarland agreed to accede to this friendly pressure and on October 8, 1861, Murphy entered St. Charles College, near what is now Ellicott City, Maryland, a college seminary conducted by the Sulpicians. He placed into the school’s fourth year and did the last three of the six year program. The Hartford archdiocesan archives still hold the quarterly accounts of his seminary expenses, a few dollars for books, clothes, sundries, and a draft of Murphy’s promise eventually to reimburse his bishop. Money mattered; to operate in Maryland during the Civil War was financially stressful, as letters to Bishop McFarland from seminary officials make clear.

Nineteenth century Catholic seminaries created a world apart for their seminarians and Murphy studied Classics while Federal troops occupied Howard County, Maryland under President Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus there.

Murphy’s final report from St. Charles graded him first in his class in all subjects in spring 1864. In the fall, he continued with the Sulpicians at St. Mary’s Theological Seminary in Baltimore for two years of philosophy and two of theology and training in priestly practicalities.

For Patrick Murphy, if priesthood was a “sacrifice,” it was also a rich opportunity to escape manual labor and develop his intellectual gifts. His mother worked as a domestic the rest of her life and both older sister and younger brother worked for carriage and gun manufacturers in Bridgeport the rest of theirs. Even so, these siblings would live lives much longer than his.

He remained a brilliant student, according to the annual reports of St. Mary’s vice-president, Joseph Paul Dubreul, SS. In June 1868, Dubreul wrote McFarland that Murphy was ready for ordination, with a dispensation as to age (he would be just 23; canon law formally required 25). “Mr. Murphy is in point of character, piety, and virtue, disposition, talents, and success, beyond exceptional. His much varied abilities, when developed and improved by experience, will qualify him for any office in the church, and will always be, I hope, enhanced by modesty. As a preacher, he will be conspicuous among both the remarkable and fruitful ones. I expect him to be an ornament in your diocese and honor to his “alma mater.”  Mr. Murphy was preparing to take a Master’s in Theology, but was advised to stop, lest it might affect seriously his health.” This was not fulsome praise, in the manner of public oratory of the time: the seminarian assessments are frank and often quite negative. Yet, if Murphy was seen as a future bishop, he was also recognized as potentially a sickly man. He was ordained in the chapel of St. Mary’s Seminary, June 30, 1868 by Baltimore Archbishop Martin Spalding for the diocese of Hartford.

Murphy’s first assignment after ordination was to St. Mary’s, Norwalk, a city to the west of Bridgeport along the shore of Connecticut, and this reunited him with his mentor Father Smith, who had now been pastor since 1862. When Smith traveled to Europe in summer 1871 he left Murphy in charge. He wrote to Bishop McFarland in August 1871 from Lurgan, Ireland, on a trip to County Armagh whence his family had emigrated, as had McFarland’s. Previously on the trip he had seen the recent aftermath of the Commune: “I have been to Paris and saw some of the devastations caused by the infamous Communes and really think that unfortunate because the city has not yet seen the last of it.” He will return within two months, “when I hope to find my good people of Norwalk much improved under the judicious guidance of Father Murphy and his zealous Passionist assistant.”

More in Guest Columnist

Murphy served in Norwalk until April 1872 when he was appointed, still 26, to the prestigious pastorate of St. Mary’s, New Haven. He found the construction of a new church at a standstill.

The monumentality of St. Mary’s architecture was a statement. Rev. Edward J. O’Brien,  pastor for 21 years when Murphy succeeded him and someone who had done much to build Catholicism institutionally in the city, had wanted St. Mary’s to be New Haven’s finest church. But if Catholics were to build in a fine New Haven neighborhood, they felt pressure to build something worthy and show that they belonged. And that cost money and anxiety.

William Downes suggested a lot on Hillhouse Avenue and fronted the purchase in June 1868 for O’Brien, who was tired of confronting opposition. Downes was well placed to mediate, as member of a prominent New Haven Catholic family, thought the only Catholic lawyer in the city at the time, a Yale Law graduate in 1862, and well respected as the city clerk, an office to which he had been repeatedly elected. This William was uncle to the Alfred Downes whose legal guardian Father McGivney famously volunteered in court to become when his financially ruined family faced breakup.

The St. Mary’s building committee hired a prominent Irish-American architect from Providence, Rhode Island, James Murphy, who was beginning a distinguished career designing churches that would see him appointed Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1885.

Aware of city opposition and parishioner misgivings, Bishop McFarland nevertheless agreed to the building of a church and budgeted it for $120,000, a huge project even scaled back a bit. But soon after the cornerstone was laid in September 1870, fundraising dried up. Father O’Brien’s piety “was not tinged with a commercial spirit, ” as Connecticut Catholic would later put it. Work on the church stopped and the pastorate became too much for O’Brien.

When Murphy arrived in May 1872, he determined to finish the church and instituted planned giving campaigns to fund continued construction. The panic of 1873 and poor financial climate of the later 1870s did not deter him and St. Mary’s Church was dedicated in October 1874. He had completed a “Herculean” task, as the New Haven Evening Register would put it, though he would leave a debt of $165,000 for his successors.

In seven years as pastor of St. Mary’s, Murphy was thought the best Classical scholar in the diocese as well as the best financier. He also took financial charge of St. Bernard’s Cemetery and St. Francis Orphan Asylum in New Haven. In his last years Murphy was serving as secretary of the diocesan synod and conferences and one of five members of the Bishop’s Council. When Hartford Bishop Thomas Galberry died in October 1878 and the seat remained vacant until a few days before Murphy’s death in May 1879, Murphy was a rumored successor.

(Column continues below)

Father Murphy died in the St. Mary’s rectory on May 19, 1879, not yet 34. He had been ill with tuberculosis for two years, the disease priests so often shared with their immigrant congregations, but had been able to do priestly work up through the last two weeks of his life. At his deathbed were his mother and other family, together with many Connecticut priests. Toward the end, his curate Father McGivney read for him the Litany of the Dying.

Three thousand mourners packed St. Mary’s for the funeral on Wednesday May 21, the vigil day of the Ascension. Father McGivney worked on planning the services and appointed Connecticut priests as the two masters of ceremonies. The social service and pious associations that flourished at St. Mary’s with Murphy’s support (as would soon the Knights of Columbus) attended in large groups, as did clergy from all over New England, including a number of his seminary classmates. His younger brother James was among the pall bearers. Bridgeport Catholics were grieved and proud of the first Catholic priest from their city. His boyhood mentor, Father Smith, was not there. He had died at 47 in December 1875.

Murphy was laid in a handsome casket in purple vestments. It had been first thought to bury him below the altar in the chapel in the church basement. But on the morning of the funeral, diocesan administrator Rev. Thomas Walsh and chancellor and cathedral rector Rev. William Harty directed instead a slate and brick vault be constructed in front of the church for his tomb.

Burial in the front of the church was an honor from parish and diocese characteristic of the time. But even then the trend was to clear unkempt graveyards from churches and move burials to rural parklike cemeteries. By restoring Murphy’s grave, Father Allen has reversed that loss of memory and feels a responsibility to preserve Catholic heritage in New Haven as well as that of his Dominican order, who have served at St. Mary’s since missions in the 1850s and officially as pastors since 1886.

Allen is interested also in remains uncovered four years ago in 2011, during construction work at Yale-New Haven Hospital, at the site of the original St. Mary’s, Christ Church, on Davenport Street in another part of the city. The remains became by law the responsibility of Connecticut state archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni (now emeritus) and are being studied by anthropologists.

Bellantoni and twelve colleagues in physical anthropology will report their latest findings on the “Yale-New Haven Four” in St. Louis at the March 2015 meetings of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. There are four adult skeletons of two older and two younger persons, recent immigrants to the US, with signs of the stresses of disease, trauma, low bone density, manual labor, and repetitive movement. Their lives witness Connecticut’s Industrial Revolution, the evidence of their bodies a new contribution to the history of New Haven.
Buried when the cemetery was active 1833 to 1851, they were also among the earliest parishioners of St. Mary’s, who to be Catholics in Connecticut at the time faced Know-Nothing violence, arson, and anti-Irish hatred. When the remains are released from study and a final report completed, which Bellantoni expects to be this year, Father Allen would like to see them reburied ceremoniously in church ground not far from Father Murphy.

In Father Patrick Murphy, God’s providence granted a brilliant talent and then asked it to be surrendered in a martyrdom of charity, rather than developed further. Of all the things he modeled for his curate Michael McGivney, perhaps the most valuable was how a young priest might accept death in his thirties of lung disease, an experience that so many others in all states of life also had to accept. The new old grave at St. Mary’s, New Haven calls back to our memory those urban Irish who built up Connecticut Catholicism, ancestors in the faith even to those of us who are not Irish.

Father Allen feels a spiritual connection to his predecessors as St. Mary’s pastor, each of whom he feels made a contribution with a unique gift, and a particular fondness for Father Murphy, indifference to whose grave disturbed him. Meeting the challenge of successfully restoring that grave, he sometimes thought lightheartedly, might be the miracle that Father McGivney would need for his canonization.

(A grateful acknowledgment to Stephanie Gold, Hartford archdiocesan archivist.)

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.