March 3, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

St Mary’s Catholic Church, Govanstowne

Homeless and Orphans Leading the Way

The tumultuous days of the Great Hunger brought Ireland's most desperate to the city of Baltimore. These might have been single young adults and siblings, or entire families who had been removed from their ancestral home by landlords who wanted to rid their acreage of poor Irish once and for all. Baltimore was not the closest port of arrival, but many came for the abundant work available on the railroads of the era, or to live in a city that was central to the practice of their religious faith...discouraged and persecuted in their native land.

Many arrived with a connection to a family member who had begun the practice of chain migration, while others had no connections at all. Civic, religious and ethnic Irish organizations welcomed them and offered care, and the arriving Irish settled in neighborhoods and towns where there was a hint of home.

Today's article tells us a bit about another reality of those difficult days. Irish orphans were another type of passenger that disembarked at Baltimore's Quarantine Station at Lazaretto Point. Some were made orphans by the high seas themselves, while others arrived with a father who could not raise his children alone, while working at hard labor each day. We'll learn about a cure for the situation, thought up by a significant Irish leader and supported by his colleagues, both religious and secular.

We are also celebrating along with many as we continue our "Family History Workshops" , a great diversion from these days of quarantine we are experiencing. Several have challenged us, and we have found Irish in their new settings, in places like Pigtown and the little village of Texas, MD. Some Irish orphans ended up as successful farmers in nearby Harrisonville (arrival record for the four Lyons brothers that headed off to the Orphan Farm is above). One search even led us to an Irish family in DC that had "cowboys" as tenants...huh? It's true, and we welcome you to rejoice with us, since we're all in this together. Register for your own remote session at

Irish Orphan Boys, Brothers and Community Leaders

Saint Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church, Govanstowne

Baltimore’s Irish parishes bloomed out of the soil of distinctly Irish tragedies, among the despair of a people who merely wanted to survive. These modest immigrants had been finally separated from their ancestral lands by the ultimate weapon: that of starvation and death. Their despair led to escape, arrival in a new land and the establishment of a new form of Irish culture within America’s urban centers. For most, the transition was made manifest within a parish where they established homes, found meaningful employment, educated their children, shopped and socialized, and worshiped freely.

The Great Hunger, or Potato Famine was the most dramatic impetus for the formation of Irish parishes, and their tremendous growth. Ireland had many famine years, usually interspersed with productive harvests, but no time period was more tragic than 1845-52. Stories of the desperation of the Irish people arrived via oral transmission and in newspapers that made their way across the Atlantic. Baltimore’s expatriates were very concerned, especially the clergy of the city who were Irish natives.

Father James Dolan, Pastor of East Baltimore’s historic St. Patrick’s parish, was moved to action in the earliest years of the tragedy. His outreach to Ireland, and the haggard arrivals who began arriving in Baltimore led to the formation of an important new parish. St. Mary’s of Govanstowne, the Mother Church of North Baltimore, was born directly out of his efforts to deal with the desperate arrivals to Baltimore. He would use the Irish themselves to begin the work.

An American letter arrived on February 9, 1846 at the home of the Patrician Brothers, who kept a home on Lombard St. in Galway. The writer was a Baltimore priest named Reverend Dolan, requesting a delegation to come to America and begin a work among the Irish boy orphans arriving in the city. They were challenged to begin a school and manual labor farm.

Dolan conceived of a facility that combined the learning of a trade, in tandem with the spiritual and intellectual development essential to the development of the whole boy. A farm seemed to be an ideal setting for boys with various interests and aptitudes, ranging from agriculture to carpentry and mechanical work.

Boys that had reached the age of twelve seemed ideal, given the cultural practice of apprenticeship. Religious training was an essential part of the path of success that Dolan envisioned, and was a requirement for each boy who would come.

Dolan offered the Patrician Brothers of Galway City an opportunity to establish the Order’s first work in America, and implored them to intercede and be the last best hope of Baltimore’s Irish orphan boys. The Order, however, was in the thick of The Great Hunger themselves. It had begun exacting its deadly effects across the Emerald Isle, and most notably in the West of Ireland, where the Brothers lived. While there was no lack of work to be done among the desperate of West Connacht, they were intrigued by the possibility of a work in a city so far away.

Several were a bit old for such an adventure, but younger Brothers were selected, and a letter was sent to Father Dolan, accepting his offer. Dolan wrote back, expressing his own delight and that of his congregation, that the Patricians would be working among them.

The Brothers landed in New York on September 25th, 1846 and made their way to Baltimore, and the Manual Labor Farm in Govanstowne. Orphan boys were waiting, and the three somewhat inexperienced Brothers arrived at the farm on October 10th. Their task was to teach farming skills, general education and the Catholic faith to those who lived there. The Congregation of St. Patrick had established its first work in America.

The Brothers in Galway received an almanac just a few months later from the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The postage due, amounting to two week’s wages, would have been better spent on the starving Irish, the Brothers thought. Nonetheless, the volume contained an entry, “St. Patrick’s School and Orphanage for Boys”: perhaps it was a bit gratifying to receive, at least for some.

Baltimoreans of various means jumped in to help. Many gave money, while hundreds donated manure, of all things. A hundred carts carried it to the farm in 1848, and the soil was enriched for the task at hand. Givers of another sort were encouraged to attend a Fair that same year, where funds were raised in the comfort of a tidy Assembly Room near the harbor. Newspaper articles appeared that appealed to Baltimore’s Irish population, now free to seek happiness and practice their faith. They were exhorted to give generously to the Farm: a practical spiritual work nestled among them.

The Farm’s chapel had been placed for the spiritual needs of the orphan boys, but circumstances and the enthusiasm for the work by Baltimore’s Catholic community brought about a transformation from Chapel to Church. The farm was situated in an ideal spot for a growing Catholic populace to begin their push northward, and The Orphan Home Church was dedicated on September 22, 1850 amid fanfare and religious exercise.

Dozens of civic and religious organizations gathered at Baltimore and Aisquith Sts. to begin a parade north. The procession included the Archbishop, and sermons and spectacle were presented to an audience of 5,000 that followed the parade and gathered on the grounds. The crowd’s generosity was sufficient to remove all indebtedness incurred in the Churches’ construction. The wooden structure itself measured thirty by sixty feet, and sat 200; a modest building by the day’s standards, but nearly twice the size of Baltimore’s Pro-Cathedral, built in 1770. Rev. J.J. McGuire served as Pastor, and the parish rectory was built just a few yards away.

The Church developed in size and importance over the years, eventually becoming St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption. It was situated directly on York Road in Govans, and is thought of as the Mother Church of North Baltimore. Generations of Irish worshiped there, as a measure do to this day.

Old St. Mary's Church by Martin Barry (courtesy of Sharon McCusker Vaughan)
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