It is the height of the Christmas season at the time of this writing, and the Christian world is focused on the Holy Family and their tumultuous experiences as they traveled long distances and arrived in Bethlehem, finding lodging in the most modest of circumstances. The gift of the Savior is counted as the greatest of all by Christian believers without number, and a hushed thankfulness is found in many hearts as they reflect on the story.
Jesus of Nazareth entered the world not as a Greek god might, upon a chariot flashing across the sky, but as the modest infant who relied on the care of others for his daily needs. He entered a family, as all do, and many consider their own mothers and fathers’ caregiving as they reflect on the Gospel narratives of His coming. Other faith traditions are also family centered, and countless many of every background have relied on extended family when major losses are experienced.
Baltimore’s Irish community was well aware of the devastating losses of mothers, especially as many passed away as a result of the trauma of childbirth. Children were also lost frequently, at early ages, and it was not unusual for a family to lose many who had just begun life. Extended family was depended on to provide care once these losses happened, and many were raised by aunts, grandmothers and stepmothers when mothers were lost, while fathers continued as the families’ only provider in most circumstances.
Among these families were the Kenney/Burgan family of Baltimore City’s 10th ward area. Like many, the Kenneys had immigrated to America in the years of the Great Hunger, arriving just as St. John the Evangelist Church opened in 1853. He and his wife Anna brought young daughters with them from County Galway, including Agnes Bettie Kenney. They settled in the farmlands just beyond the city, in the area known as Gardenville. Agnes and other daughters from the family took a liking to young boys from among the farming families of the area, and Agnes married John J. Burgan (both pictured) in July, 1863.
They welcomed their first child, a daughter, on December 22,1866 and named her Annie Jane (pictured below).
Boys came quickly as well, with John J. Jr. arriving in 1870, and then William E. in 1875. Young Harry completed the family in 1878, but was lost just six years later.
The Baltimore region was growing quickly, and the Burgan family eventually sold their farmlands to developers and began a form of suburban life in the 1870’s. Several members of their extended family moved into an area in Baltimore County known as Homestead, just west of Clifton Park. Church growth within the Archdiocese was also dramatic, and St. Ann Catholic Church welcomed many suburban and rural Irish families to their parish at 22nd and Greenmount Aves., just a few bocks north of the City line. The Burgan family had moved southward, and their new church was a mile closer than what St. John’s would have been.
John and Agnes Burgan raised their three living children (see picture of Mom and kids below) in the region’s new suburban enclave, and each was married: some at St. Ann’s, and then at St. Bernard Catholic Church, which opened in 1891…just a few blocks from their home.
Annie Jane married Charles Bamberger, a wheelwright from a nearby family, in 1887. He was a bit older, and Anna became a childless widow in 1913, after 26 years of marriage. She would be depended on to care for nieces for many years.
John. J. Jr. married Annie Donnelly at St. Ann Catholic Church in early 1895 (pictured).
Her father John was a native from Ireland, as was John’s mother, and Annie gave birth to three daughters. The young mother was lost tragically just seven weeks after Annie C., her youngest was born. Annie C. followed her in death just seven weeks after that, and John mourned the loss of both his wife and youngest daughter while considering howto best provide for Carrie and Marie, who were just four and two years old.
William E. Burgan, their younger sibling, married Mary Catherine O’Brien in April, 1900 (pictured, both)and she gave birth to Mary Viola Burgan on March 7, 1902.
William was a successful marble cutter and did well both in the Baltimore area and in New Orleans, where he took his family in the summer of 1907. Unfortunately, both his wife and daughter picked up typhus there, and his wife Mary Catherine died just a few weeks later. Like his brother, he experienced a great loss in the early years of marriage, and looked to others to care for his young daughter Vi as he earned a living for the family.
It was at these moments that extended family provided care for those who experienced loss. Agnes B. Burgan and her daughter Annie Jane cared for these three young girls who had lost their mothers. They kept house at 426 Madison St. (pictured; later becoming 1443 Montpelier St.) and maintained home life for Clara Agnes (Carrie), Maria (Marie) and Mary Viola (Vi) as they grew into young women. Bettie was especially tender towards Vi, the youngest and is seen cuddling with her in this image, taken within her rose garden (pictured).
She lived to see Carrie marry in 1917, while Vi graduated from Eastern High School just a year later (pictured).
Fathers supported the home financially. William never remarried but worked in various places, including as a marble cutter at the Naval Academy during WWI. His older brother John Jr. remarried and had at least eight more children, living nearby.
Agnes spent more than 57 years of her adult life raising her own children and grandchildren, in her homes in northeast Baltimore. Her daughter Anne Jane, childless herself, cared for nieces in both her homes and theirs for 56 years.
These are just two examples from countless stories we have learned about among the thousands of Irish families who came to America to experience new beginnings. Within these stories are examples of those who gave of themselves sacrificially to raise children not their own, and provided the underpinnings for generations who built upon a foundation of security that they established. We honor each of them, and encourage you to do the same as we celebrate the establishment of that modest family in Bethlehem two thousand years ago.
On a holiday-minded note, our family remembers that young Vi Burgan spent the Fall of 1907 in the hospital and a rehabilitation facility in New Orleans as she recovered from typhus. Sisters of Charity provided care for her, and accompanied her back to Baltimore as she rejoined her Grandmother, Aunt and cousins for Christmas. Aunt Annie (known as Nannie) received her at the train station, and was given a note that described what treatments and dietary restrictions she should adhere to, including avoiding nuts and dairy products.
It was the Christmas season, however and Nannie gave little Vi a glass of the most wonderful milk she had ever had. Vi learned later on that it was called Egg Nog.