June 17, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Sound and Proclamation (Part 1): Learning about Henry McShane and his Bells

Sound and Proclamation: Learning about Henry McShane and his Bells (Part 1)

The strange days of COVID-19 affected every facet of life, including the simple activity of going to church on a Sunday morning. Rules about how to gather frustrated many, and congregants wondered when there would be some semblance of normalcy again.

Americans have enjoyed freedom of worship since the founding of this country, much to the appreciation of immigrants who came from many lands where that freedom was unknown, and especially by the faithful who practiced a religion or were part of a denomination that was out of favor. Ireland experienced this as a reality for generations, and perhaps more so than many other nations of the world.

England was a harsh enforcer of the Penal Laws for many generations. These were designed to oppress the Catholic majority in Ireland, and browbeat them into submission to the established Church of England. English rule controlled both church and state, and their edicts were thrust upon the Catholics and Dissenters of Ireland. This created realities in the practice of religion that were light years beyond any inconveniences or perceptions of unfair treatment in modern America.

Imagine being placed under the penal laws as a Catholic or dissenter (non-Anglican Protestant). First put in affect in 1695, and enforced sporadically until 1829, The Irish could not build permanent church structures or open their own schools. Marriages of Presbyterians were not recognized as legitimate in the sight of English government, and Catholic priests had bounties placed on their heads…leading to transportation to a penal colony or death.

These oppressed Irish Catholics were usually illiterate…no home Bible study for you and yours. Religious practices were often limited to what was on hand…perhaps a modest shrine in your home to kneel before, and say your prayers.

Family times saying the Rosary together might haver been your only social time of worship entirely. There were few churches, and priests themselves often lived secretively, distant from their circle of congregants.

A wink and a whisper might be the only notice that an underground gathering was going to happen, and secluded spots with Mass Rocks (pictured above) served as a gathering place. These ruins of old Catholic structures were a meeting place for those who could not fully worship without a priest present. He would appear among them, suddenly…and vanish just as quickly, before authorities could find them out.

Irish historian Christine Kinealy tells the story of Achill Island in the early famine years. Some 7,000 lived on the island off of County Mayo, and yet there was not one Catholic Church to be found. Alexis De Tocqueville traveled throughout Ireland in the 1830’s, and observed that churches typically met in wooden structures such as barns and sheds, if they met at all.

Just think of it…an overwhelming number of pre-famine Irish were rural, poor and often illiterate. Families might have gone several generations without being able to practice their religion in ways we are accustomed to, in a church building…and yet they persevered.

Baltimore’s earliest immigrant population must have thought that things in America were not all that much better. Colonial days included restrictions on the practice of religious faith beyond the Established Church in Maryland and Virginia, and John Moale’s 1752 sketch of Baltimore (pictured) includes just one church: Anglican, of course. One home, owned by Irish-born Edwin Fotrell is included, and a small gathering of unseen Catholics gathered there once a month.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the richest man in the colony, had his own priest say Mass in his home, and sent him to Baltimore for this monthly gathering. Others assembled in nondescript buildings in the Maryland colony to practice their faith in private, and continued to do so until 1770, when Catholics were finally permitted to build their own structure in Baltimore

St. Peter Pro-Cathedral (pictured below) was initially a tiny building; no bigger than three modest rowhouses. It had no outward indicators that it was a church, and was referred to as a “mass-house” by the powers of the day. America’s first bishop, Rev. John Carroll, used it as his spiritual home base.

The Declaration of Independence changed all of this. Freedom of Worship became an essential tenet of American life, and churches were not going to hide themselves under a bushel basket any more. Far from it; huge structures were built, including the magnificent modern-day Basilica (pictured). It was placed atop a hill for all to see, including the Irish who arrived in large numbers both before and during the Great Hunger.

These famine-era arrivals included an 18-year-old named Henry McShane, who arrived in Baltimore during Black ’47 aboard the ship Scotia (see included Passenger List). He left his home in Ireland and boarded the ship on June 5, 1847 for America. Henry McShane is listed as passenger 34.

Henry was leaving a country where religious freedom was lacking, but lived in the town that was an exception to the rule. County Louth was the location of Dundalk, where the remarkable St. Patrick Catholic Church was built, in spite of it all (pictured below). Here’s the wonderful story they have shared with us via their web site:

“On a Sunday morning in late summer of 1748, the officer commanding the Dundalk garrison was returning from an early morning canter, when he noticed at St. Helena's Quay, a crowd of people assembled in and around an old shed. On enquiry he was told that they were Catholics attending Mass.

Despite the fact that it was a penal offence, the officer was so impressed by the people's fidelity to their religion that he persuaded the first Earl of Clanbrassil to grant the Catholics of the town a site for a permanent church.

The first St. Patrick's was built in 1750 in Chapel St. This church served the needs of the people for almost a century. From 1843 it was used as a school and became the property of the Irish Christian Brothers from 1867. Fr. Matthew McCann (P.P. 1817-1836) acquired the present site for St. Patrick's in 1834. He was succeeded as parish priest by Fr John Coyne (P.P. 1836-1848). During his time as parish priest the new St Patrick's was completed. The cost of this beautiful church was €25,000 and it took 12 years to build. On the 1st January 1842 St Patrick's was opened for divine worship and Daniel O'Connell, the Liberator of Irish Catholics, attended Mass in St Patrick's on that day.”

We recently learned that a bell tower was added, circa 1903; we hope to learn more about that!

We don’t quite know what motivated young Henry McShane to establish Baltimore's McShane Bell Foundry, the pre-eminent bell foundry in America, but we should not be surprised by his doing so. Like thousands of Irish and Americans of all stripes, he came from a land where religious expression was suppressed, and kept hidden.

Yet his life’s work was to provide sound and proclamation for many thousands of churches in America, and around the world. That pealing of bells said ‘here we are” to those who populated the America’s cities, towns and villages, and churches of many denominations welcomed people to join community worship and social gatherings. Churches that were once hidden in the old country were now front and center, and made a big noise for all to hear.

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