What is a modern man to think when he rolls past the abandoned and decaying houses found in major cities? Perhaps our thoughts turn to disgust and a bit of anger, but many of these were places of transformation for our immigrant ancestors…and for several generations. Baltimore was such a place, where rural immigrant families were transformed into American urbanites...within a crucible of dramatic forces and the changes they brought about.
We have lost many who told remarkable stories about the modest neighborhoods of Baltimore, but conversations can still be had with those who were participants within a transformative process: albeit in fairly modest settings. Their day-to-day lives included what could be considered an “intimacy” with buildings, intersections and even transit buses that made their intellectual and social development possible.
Have you conversed with that generation in past years, or perhaps recently? Their entire countenance changes when they talk about places and habits that were part of their daily lives. Who speaks of a particular street corner or business these days with such enthusiasm?
Life has changed significantly for modern generations that do their shopping and movie-going in strip malls or larger malls...or online. We do business anonymously and go to the doctor, church and school not by foot, but drive instead to unmemorable structures that could have been built anywhere, and reached by anyone via cars that travel through dull suburbia. Uniqueness is mostly gone, and the same restaurant that has a location in our neighborhood has thousands more… placed wherever we go.
Immigrant families came to America in the most desperate of circumstances. Irish arrived during the traumatic days of the Great Hunger and were cared for by those who were part of established churches, religious orders, neighborhoods and a collection of civic and medical authorities. Among those institutions that welcomed the immigrant Irish to Baltimore was the St. Vincent de Paul parish of Jonestown (pictured above) …just east of today’s City Hall, and neighboring Shot Tower.
Almost half of the baptisms held at the Church during the years of the Great Hunger were those with Irish surnames, and the Irish parish, once a gathering place for the well-to-do, was transformed into a neighborhood for those who were just trying to survive a national tragedy in their homeland. Among them was Timothy and Catherine Griffin and family, who arrived in the early 1840’s. Two of their children had been born in Ireland, including James J., born in County Limerick in March 1837. At least four more were baptized at Baltimore’s St. Vincent de Paul parish (St. Vincent’s is on Front Street; just to upper right of the Jones Falls on the sepia map below) in the coming decade, and the family kept a home in the predominantly Irish neighborhood.
Such an active, vibrant parish depended on public markets for their daily food shopping, and the nature of this kind of work was a natural fit for a people who tended to be hard-working, but perhaps unskilled. The Center Market (also known as Marsh Market…lower left-center of map above) was a local institution, and Timothy became a fruit dealer there. He later took goods from the market along the broad and narrow streets of East Baltimore as a peddler. The active workplace also offered Timothy an opportunity to do more settled work in his later years, becoming a baker at the Market towards the end of his working days.
Life within St. Vincent’s parish also served his children well. The De La Salle Christian Brothers arrived at St. Vincent’s Parish in 1848, right at the time when Timothy and Catherine's oldest son James would have been in the upper grades of the parishes’ Male Grammar School. These educators were particularly rigorous in their academic and religious training, and had been brought to Baltimore by the Archbishop for that particular purpose. The young men of the parish undoubtedly benefited from their educational methods, and young James J. Griffin was among their number.
Once finishing grammar school, James continued his education for a short time at St. Charles College, an institution that prepared many for the priesthood.
James’ educational accomplishments led to his beginning work as a printer’s apprentice for the Catholic Mirror by 1860, an early publication for the greater Archdiocese that also welcomed him to submit occasional articles. His writing for a significant publication like this suggests that his experiences at the Male School of St. Vincent de Paul Church and St. Charles College was fruitful.
Having a career in place, James married Irish native Mary A. Heaphy on December 29, 1859. They had five children of their own and lived in the St. Vincent parish for years. He continued printing work into 1867, when the work itself became too taxing on his body. His wife Mary had opened a corner grocery at Front and Chesnut Sts., and he joined her there, working with her for several years.
Perhaps the high point of James’ professional life happened by 1876-1877, when he accepted a position at St. Francis Xavier Catholic School as a teacher (pictured below). This parish was located at N. Calvert and Pleasant Streets, and was dedicated to Baltimore’s African American Catholic community. It was the first such Catholic parish in the United States. James was well-regarded by both his colleagues and pupils. His early education served him well during these last few years of his short life.
James J. Griffin passed away at 40 years of age, but left a legacy of hard work and academic acumen to his descendants. His daughter Mary Theresa married John J. Wright Jr. (photo below), who worked for fifty years for the Pennsylvania Railroad. John’s descendants also include Francis X. Wright Jr. and several others with Masters Degrees, working in education, law and other fields. So much of this success was instigated by the De La Salle Christian Brothers who left Canada, came to Baltimore and worked among the Irish in a modest parish school.
Baltimore’s modest rowhouse neighborhoods might not be much to look at these days, but were crucibles of change for thousands of immigrants who took full advantage of their proximity to the major institutions that led to a families’ development and success. The Griffin family, once part of a rural way of life in Ireland, established homes, took up challenging work, educated their children, worshipped freely and socialized within a supportive ethnic community in one of America’s most important cities. They were part of a transformative pattern that built a young America into a place of success; still the destination of millions today.
Many thanks to those who contributed to this article:
Brother Joseph Grabenstein, FSC
Cecilia A. Wright and Family
Library of Congress
Maryland Center for History and Culture (formerly the Maryland Historical Society)
Shorpy ( https://www.shorpy.com/node/6131)Accessed 8-3-22.