June 14, 2020
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Slaver turned Benefactor: The Transformation of William Kennedy

Baltimore’s early Irish community included many well-to do Scots-Irish, including those who made their fortune in the mercantile business. Men named O’Donnell, Kelso, Patterson and Oliver owned sailing ships that traveled on the open seas, known as the superhighway of the day. Baltimore was the shipping center of the Mid-Atlantic, and many ambitious men were drawn to the booming city from nearby Pennsylvania. That state was a more common immigration point for the educated and ambitious Scots-Irish, but many came South into Maryland to enter the shipping business at several levels. Some were simple tradesmen, while others were ship captains and merchants. Ambitious Irish Catholics also came; they were not immune to the call of trade along the waterfronts of Baltimore Town and Fell’s Point.

Among these was William Kennedy (photo below, courtesy of Maryland Historical Society), born in Philadelphia on February 26, 1801. He was a natural on the water, beginning as a shipmate at the age of fourteen. He was named a Captain just five years later, leading ships such as the Wanderer and El Dorado who frequently sailed to the bustling port town of Veracruz, on the Gulf of Mexico, and island destinations along their way to the East Coast.

Waters off the east coast of Mexico were turbulent at times, and never more so, it was thought by Captain Kennedy, than in 1833. A vicious storm tossed the Wanderer to the point that one of its anchors was lost, and the Captain turned to prayer to retain its second anchor, and the ship itself. In the tumult of the moment, Kennedy promised God that he would build a church in His honor in exchange for surviving the torrential weather.

His “Eternal Father” did still the storm, he reasoned; the ship was wrecked, but not lost. The remaining anchor was saved by Captain Kennedy, and served as a reminder to follow through on his promise.

The damage to the Wanderer was undoubtedly a wakeup call for the ambitious young man, but Kennedy still had to learn more about the temptations on the open seas, and the ill-gotten gain available to many. Cargo of past journeys included cotton and molasses, but he also captained a trip out of New Orleans in April, 1834 (see above) that contained slaves aboard.

His interest in this peculiar cargo was not merely as a Captain. The souls below deck were his own “property”, and he arrived in Baltimore on May 8, 1834 to unload and sell his manifest. This may have been a second point of conviction in his young life, and it seems that his focus changed dramatically shortly afterward.

Kennedy did some additional seafaring work, but had the good sense to move to Baltimore in 1835 and begin work in the leather business with William Jenkins, a prominent businessman in the City. He met and married Jenkins’ daughter Mary Ann, and the couple had two daughters.

His ambition led him into another booming business…that of cotton manufacture. He had transported cotton on the brig El Dorado in earlier years, but saw the head office as a better fit. He became the president of the Mount Vernon Company in Baltimore. His firm produced cotton duck for use in civil war tents and the sails of many ships: once his stock and trade.

He did well in his new profession, and the U.S. Census Records of 1860 showed that he had $80,000 in both personal possessions and real estate. In the fashion of Baltimore merchants, he kept a town home at 26 Mulberry St. (bordering the Cathedral) and a rural estate on Greenmount Avenue, known as Oak Hill.

The northern home was just above Green Mount Cemetery, and a mile north of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, thought of as Baltimore’s largest predominately Irish congregation at the time. He was a generous supporter of that parish, and was a trustee on several Boards within the community, including Father Dolan’s “Orphan Home”, a manual Labor farm in Govanstowne dedicated to the development of orphan boys at the age of apprenticeships.

William Kennedy lived with his wife and two daughters’ families at his estate, as well as several grandchildren. His career and family life were active and successful, but Kennedy must have often thought of his commitment to build a church in memory of God’s faithfulness to him on the sea.

It was a practical decision to build a church a scant 100 yards from his home. William had secured the funds to build the church, dedicated to St. Ann, in 1872 (pictured below). She was known as the patron saint of sailors, and also the source of his wife’s middle name. Great plans were made for the creation of the parish, but a string of losses plagued William in 1873. His daughter, Mary Kennedy Cromwell, passed away on February 22. She was followed by her mother on March 18, and William struggled to maintain his own fragile health within these moments of loss.

The church cornerstone was laid on April 15, 1873, and William was only able to witness the event from his carriage. The day’s ceremonies were a great spectacle, and construction began on a church that would seat 600. Yet the days of loss and despair continued for William. His Mount Vernon Cotton Mill, the workplace of 250, burned mysteriously on June 20, with losses estimated at $215,000.

William himself followed his wife in death on October 4, 1873 with only one daughter, Sarah Primer Kennedy Boone, left to carry on the family legacy. Yet hope sprung eternal; Sarah gave birth to Agnes on December 31, 1873. She was the first to be baptized at the new church, on January 1, 1874.

St. Ann’s Church pews went up for “rent or sale” that January, and the Church was dedicated on January 31, 1874. The future James Cardinal Gibbons, then bishop of Richmond, VA gave the opening sermon, and a packed congregation was treated to a presentation of Hayden’s Mass No. 3, complete with the Cathedral Choir. The anchor (photo below), saved all those years since Captain Kennedy’s vow was made, was placed in the structure.

Both Captain Kennedy and his wife Mary Ann were interred within the church, under the center aisle. The anchor continues to be displayed today. In addition to the magnificent gift of land and the parish buildings, Kennedy’s estate was generous in several important directions. Besides his $50,000 gift to complete the church, he gave towards the expansion of the archbishop’s residence on Charles St., as well as nearby St. Charles College.

A $5,000 gift was also sent to London’s Missionary College of Mill Hill that sent priests to establish St. Francis Xavier Church in East Baltimore. It was America’s first African American Catholic congregation.

His legacy was not limited to the church, though. His descendants, with names such as Boone, Jenkins and Cromwell, led the rebuilt and expanded Mount Vernon Mills for a century.

William Kennedy’s life story displays a profound transition from slaveholder to committed Irish churchman, and his eventual role as benefactor of the African American Catholics of Baltimore. Both St. Ann’s and St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church continue to thrive today, each with African American congregations.

Saint Ann’s Church joined St. John the Evangelist (Valley and Eager St.) and St. Mary of the Assumption (Govanstowne) as parishes that served the growing Irish Catholic population in Northern Baltimore. Among the congregants were the Burgans, members of a local farming family with colonial roots. The family was changed dramatically by the 1863 marriage of John J. Burgan and Irish-born Agnes E. Kenney, of County Galway.

Annie J. Burgan, their first-born, married Charles V. Bamberger (pictured) at St. Ann's on November 17, 1887.

We hope you enjoy the images below of a historic Irish parish in North Baltimore, ably administered these days by African American clergy and a vibrant congregation.

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