December 17, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

A Railroader Among Abundance: Learning about John J. Kernan and Family

John was the nephew of Edward E. Kernan, a survivor of a perilous coffin ship John Begg that began its voyage from Galway, Ireland on December 7, 1848 and arrived in Baltimore on February 22, 1849. They were on the  Northern Atlantic Ocean for 11 weeks, in the chill of winter.

Early Kernan men that arrived in Baltimore were hardworking, and are listed as laborers, stone polishers and grocers in the Baltimore Directory. Their work led to better things for their children and grandchildren. They became educated, began significant careers and served in leadership roles within their parishes and greater community.

John J. Kernan was such a man. He was born in 1860/61, the son of Michael and Johana Kernan: both immigrants from Ireland. His parents were listed in the 1850 U.S. Census, with Michael working as a stone cutter. They lived next door to family, including Michael’s older brother, his wife and their son.

John J. began working life as a coffee roaster, living with four siblings in the Duffin home at 672 W. Baltimore St. with his married sister Mary A. Duffin. There were better things out there for John, and he met and married Sarah Caton on October 10, 1880. She was a few years younger than John J., and they set up housekeeping on nearby West Pratt Street. His career had begun by then as well, working as a clerk….an indication of a solid education.

Sarah gave birth to thirteen children between 1882-1902: a seemingly large number by today’s standards. Eleven were living at the time of the family photo we still enjoy today. This family  needed considerable space and lived in a large rowhouse at 1106 W. Lombard Street at the time of the 1910 U.S. Census. This remarkable number of family members were a team, and the older children (James, Sarah, Philip, William and Thomas) brought home salaries from their positions as plasterer, sales lady, machinist and two who worked as clerks.

A descendant tells us the story of how the money was managed in those days. Mother Sarah reminded the children that she was not “running a boarding house”, and each was expected to put their income into the family purse, with a bit held back as their allowance. Mom bought each a new set of clothes once a year, and the family photo certainly shows how well turned out her children were. The rest of their salary went into housekeeping and savings. These funds were given back to the children, such as they were, when they began a new life outside the home.

Both parents were literate, and education was a natural element in their children’s upbringing. They were part of the St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church parish (church image above), where their children received the  sacraments and were educated by Sisters of Mercy Nuns. Their education was applied in various professions, but at least two sons became clerks, as Father was. William J. (see family photo below: top row, second from left) joined his father as a clerk for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad…a virtual stone’s throw from their home.

Image of Kernan Family neighborhood, 1911

Dad had a 25-year career with the B. and O., but it came to an abrupt end on July 31, 1913…just a year or so after this family photo was taken. At the time of his death John J. was working as a Freight Claims Investigator. He was robbed of a large sum of money as he boarded a train in Cleveland, Ohio bound for Baltimore. Kernan had suffered with heart trouble for some years, and speculation was that his heart gave out due to the trauma of the experience.

Several hundred attended his funeral at St. Peter’s four days later, including representatives of several men’s organizations. Like many men of the era, his significance in the community was linked to membership and leadership roles in organizations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Holy Name Society, Young Catholic’s Friend Society, Order of Moose and the Heptasophs.

Sarah lived eight years longer, and was survived by seven sons, four daughters and eight grandchildren, including Gerald Kernan (pictured, in his mother Margaret’s lap). He became a Jesuit priest.

John and Sarah’s son John Jr. (pictured top row, far right) was educated at Baltimore’s City College and continued his father’s legacy in the community. Both John Sr. and John Jr. served as officers of the Robert Emmet Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians as President and Financial Secretary, respectively. John Jr. was also a supporter of St. Mary’s Industrial School.

A picture is certainly worth a thousand words, and we have enjoyed the places where this family photo has taken us. It captured the moment of little Edward’s First Communion Day in 1912. He had been baptized at St. Peter’s on August 12, 1902 and was the last-born child of John J. and Sarah Caton Kernan. This striking photograph gives us an understanding of how important an occasion it was for the entire family. I am thinking that they filled a church pew entirely!

Edward’s father died just a year after this photograph was taken, but their family portrait serves as a dramatic illustration of the markers of Irish life in the era. Many families were church-centered, and hard work was a given for every member of the family, with each generally contributing to a strong home environment. Social life was marked by being well dressed, appropriately educated, and involved in the supportive network of social groups and clubs that were based on a man’s faith, heritage and benevolence.

Many thanks to Sister Ann Kernan for this story and image. She is the daughter of little Edward and a Holy Union Nun living in Kentucky.

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