Saturday, September 6, 2014

Church Record Sunday/From Elphin To Upstate

Irish Postulants in Rochester, NY 1899

     A few days ago I opened my mailbox and amid the bills and junk mail was the quarterly newsletter the Sisters of St. Joseph send out.  One of my relatives was an SSJ, so I have a soft spot for them and enormous respect.  They are a teaching order (they taught me) and also do some nursing, often in underprivileged areas--in other words they are out there on the streets, "keepin it real".  So I wasn't at all surprised to see on the cover, Congressman John Lewis who represents Georgia, thanking the SSJ for their care in Selma during the civil rights marches of the 60's.  Some of Rochester's Sisters had been missioned at a hospital in Selma that served African Americans and they had cared for Lewis after he was badly beaten during the march from Selma to Montgomery.  Though the Bishop of Selma forbade the Sisters to march, they tenderly nursed those beaten that day in 1965.

Bishop John Joseph Clancy
     The last article in the newsletter really piqued my interest.  It was written by Kathleen Urbanic, the Congregational Archivist, and it was about twenty-four Irish girls, (chosen by Bishop John Joseph Clancy of Elphin), who came to Rochester to join the order in 1899.  Two years earlier the Bishop had visited Rochester, and he promised to send "pious and talented young girls of his diocese" to the Congregation.  Being a family researcher, I had to know more about all this, and after some digging I found, not only was the Bishop here in New York, but why he was here.

     Bishop Clancy came all the way from Ireland to perform the
marriage ceremony of his brother's daughter in Canandaigua, New York. Canandaigua is six miles from the village I grew up in, and twenty-nine miles from Rochester, the nearest city.  The Bishop cut it pretty close too, he arrived in New York harbor the day before the wedding.  Some scrambling for trains must have taken place!

     Once back in Ireland, the Bishop, true to his word, selected the candidates, and two Irish Sisters, Sister Ursula Murphy and Sister Alcantara Carroll were dispatched from Rochester to escort them to America.  Sister Ursula wrote of her experience: "It was a great responsibility to bring twenty-four young girls, some mere children, far away from all that the heart holds dear, not knowing whether they would persevere."  Most of them did however, twenty-one became Sisters of St. Joseph.

     Looking at their innocent faces I find myself wondering who they were and what they left behind?  Parents, sisters, girlhood friends?  How hard it must have been.  Perhaps some had relatives here, perhaps not.  Some have serene smiles, some look uncertain, the poor child in the lower right looks like a deer in the headlights.  Although I've never found any ancestors from the Diocese of Elphin, I'd love to know more about these girls. I'm going to write to Kathleen and suggest she do a follow-up on her interesting article.


  1. Being a postulant in a religious order in or near one's home has its own challenges, but how much more so must it have been like to be one in a distant land. Brave girls, indeed.

  2. Brave and so young. How bad must conditions in Ireland have been that leaving everything behind seemed a better option?