THE LITTLE IRISH CHURCH OF ST. MARY OF THE SORROWS

Maj. Gen. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, aimed at capturing the rebel capitol at Richmond, was beaten back after the Seven Days Battles 150 years ago in June, 1862.  Union forces, including the partial Irish Brigade, made it back to relative safety, but suffered almost 16,000 casualties during a strategic retreat.  Lee’s army had taken the offensive, but lost close to 20,000.  Convinced that McClellan no longer posed a threat to Richmond, Lee moved his army into northern Virginia and headed for Washington via Maryland.

Many Irish immigrants had signed on to build America’s railroads, so it was no surprise to find names like Cunningham, Hammil, Maher, and Doyle among those who had built the Orange and Alexandria Railroad in northern Virginia which now stood right in the path of Lee’s advancing army.  These and other Irish workers had built a small town around one of the railroad’s stations and the community became known as Fairfax Station.  One of the first projects of the Fairfax Station Irish was the erection of a Catholic church.  They labored in their off-hours to put up a small frame building in Sept, 1858 and pooled their money to buy a bell.  The new St. Mary of the Sorrows Church at Fairfax Station had barely opened its doors when the Civil War began.  Many of the Fairfax Station Irish joined the totally Irish Regiments that had been formed in the Confederate Army such as the First Virginia Regiment which became The Emmet Guard and the 27th Virginia Infantry which was called The Virginia Hibernians.

The little town of Fairfax Station was strategically located between the important railroad station and a main road to Washington, DC.  The Union Army had taken the railroad depot at Alexandria in order to protect the Capitol and southern forces occupied the station at Manassas Junction on the other side of Fairfax Station making the area the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.  In July, 1862, General Lee sent his best commanders, Generals Stonewall Jackson, J. E. B. Stuart and James Longstreet up through Virginia to intercept the Union Army of General Pope who was en route to join forces with the army of General McClellan that was then moving back toward Washington after the Seven Days Battles.  Lee and his forces met the Union Army on August 30 and fought what came to be known as the Second Battle of Manassas or, as the Union referred to it – Second Bull Run.  Three days of fierce fighting left 1,744 Union dead and another 8,452 wounded.  Unlike the calamitous retreat at the First Bull Run a year earlier, the Union withdrawal was orderly and the Confederates, weary from battle and low on ammunition, broke off and did not pursue them.  Although Lee had won the battle, he had not achieved his objective of destroying the Union army and the Union forces had successfully stopped an invasion of the north.

During the battle, two gallant Union officers were lost, Major Generals Kearney and Stephens.  Major General Philip Kearney had been a hero of the Mexican War where he fought at the side of General Robert E. Lee.  When Lee heard that his former comrade had fallen, he ordered both bodies returned to the Union camp.  Under a flag of truce, amid the roar of artillery and the thunder of an approaching storm, the bodies of Kearney and Stephens were carried by Confederate Honor Guard to a tent at a makeshift field hospital which had been set up beside the little Irish church of St. Mary of the Sorrows.

Hundreds of wounded were treated on the high ground around St. Mary’s.  A terrible storm made the scene one of confusion as wounded men lay dying in the mud waiting for a doctor to reach them.  It was to this scene that a woman from Washington, DC came to offer her help.  She had spent the first year of the war tending wounded in Washington, and hearing of the heavy fighting, made her way to Fairfax Station.  With two assistants, she set up an operating room inside the little Church and assisted the surgeons in their tedious tasks.  She moved tirelessly among the wounded, cleansing wounds, writing letters, and praying with them until a doctor was available.  While serving the many wounded in these deplorable conditions, she conceived a plan for a civilian organization that could act quickly with proper medical supplies and trained staff in any emergency – in peacetime or in war.

A final Confederate raid forced the evacuation of the wounded amid terribly unsanitary conditions, and the brave little lady from Washington was among the last to leave.  The advancing Confederate troops found the station and most of the town destroyed by fire, but as if by a miracle, the little Church was barely touched.  Only a few of its pews had been used by the Union Army for firewood.  Years later, when President Grant heard of this, he ordered $765. in war damages to have them replaced, for the Church of St. Mary’s had earned a special significance in American history.  It was there that the heroic little lady from Washington, DC had conceived the idea for a noble organization.  The lady was the angel of the battlefield, Clara Barton, and the organization was the American Red Cross. . . and the little Irish Church of St. Mary’s where it all started is still in use to this day, but as a national shrine.

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Father Theobold Mathew

October 10 is the birth date of Father Theobold Mathew, yet sadly there will be very little, if anything, about this remarkable Irishman in the media.  In his day, however, he was internationally known as the Apostle of Temperance. This is his story.   Born in 1790 at Thomastown, Co Tipperary, young Toby Mathew grew up with 11 brothers & sisters on the estate of the Earl of Llandaff, who employed his father.  Educated at St Canice’s Academy and Maynooth, he joined the Capuchin Order in 1810 and was ordained in 1813.  His first assignment was a small church in Kilkenny which was no easy task in early 19th century Ireland where Catholics were second-class citizens and clergy were severely restricted.

From Kilkenny, he went to a chapel in Cork where his remarkable generosity and love for the poor soon became legend. He served them heroically during a Cholera epidemic; secured cemetery space so they would not end up in pauper’s graves; he even rented vacant rooms and lofts to set up schools for their children.  He soon had over 500 students.  During his ministry, Father Mathew came to understand that drink was a common ailment among the Irish poor.  Unable to achieve any measure of success in their native land, depressed Irish workers and farmers lived in terrible poverty, barely able to provide for their wives and children. The only solace from the unfair lot they had been born into was found when their minds were dulled by intoxicating spirits. As the line from one Irish song said “when Paddy has Powers, all the weeds look like flowers.

Landlord’s and factory owners were no help either.  They often paid their wages in Pubs in which they held an interest, so that their money – what little was paid – was not out of their pockets for very long.  Father Mathew saw the results of relying on drink as a remedy for despair: families destroyed, homes forfeited, and often a life of crime.  With the aid of a Quaker merchant named William Martin, Father Mathew began a crusade for total abstinence.  He held 3 meetings a week administering a pledge which stated, “I promise with Divine assistance to abstain from all intoxicating liquors and to prevent as much as possible, by advice and example, intemperance in others.”  Instead of asking to give up drink forever, he asked that the pledge be kept for just a day.  If that was successful, then a week, then another, until constant renewal led to a life of sobriety for many.

Within 3 months, 25,000 had taken the pledge. The number grew to 131,000 in 5 months, and 200,000 in 9 months. Father Mathew’s story spread, and he was invited to preach in other dioceses. 80,000 signed up in Waterford, thousands more in Galway; in Dublin a rain-soaked audience gave 46,000 signatures in a single evening and 700,000 before his mission there was concluded.  He traveled the length and breadth of Ireland administering the pledge.  Crime decreased, rioting at fairs & festivals declined, and government officials gave Father Mathew full credit!  That is not to say he had no enemies, for his steadfast refusal to throw his support to political goals – like those of Daniel O’Connell or the Young Irelanders – earned him a few.  There were some who said he was too liberal with Protestants, and of course there were the tavern owners, distillers, and the moderate drinkers who felt that they were being scandalized by the priest’s attacks on alcohol.  But these were the exceptions.

As most of Ireland flocked to him for inspiration, he was invited to Scotland; then to England where 70,000 Londoners joined his total abstinence society.  He was succeeding in every way but two: his travels, medals, staff salaries, free bibles, postage, rental, and countless personal donations to the poor left him deeply in debt; and his demanding schedule began to affect his health.   Another blow came when the Irish potato crop failed in 1845, and the Irish were denied any of the other bumper crops grown by the landlord.  An artificial famine was produced which killed millions by starvation and disease. The despair created by this tragedy was absolute, and many gave in to temptation and turned their backs on the Pledge. Then Father Mathew had a stroke which left him partially paralyzed; his abstinence society began to deteriorate.

After his recovery, he threw himself wholeheartedly into reorganizing the society and decided to visit America. The journey was long and difficult, and the ailing priest spent hours in steerage hearing the confessions of Irish immigrants.  He visited New York and Boston in 1849 and was struck with paralysis again.  After a 2-week rest he toured Philadelphia and Washington where he was honored by the House and Senate, and President Zachary Taylor held a formal dinner in his honor.

He continued his strenuous journey covering 300 cities in 23 states by back road, wagon and stagecoach.  By the time he took ill again in Little Rock, over 600,000 had taken the Pledge across America.  On Dec 6, 1855 he arrived back in Cork after a difficult 4 week sea voyage.  Despite his successes in America, the situation in Ireland had demoralized and his society was failing. He continued to work against his doctor’s advice and had several more bouts with ill health until November 1856, when he suffered a stroke which left him paralyzed and speechless.  On Dec 15, 1856 the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the 67-year old Apostle of Temperance mercifully died.

After the loss of its leader, his abstinence society declined rapidly, but it did not fail.  It had brought the message of the dangers of drink to millions, and banished forever the image of the drunkard as a jolly companion.  It also gave impetus to the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart, which exists to this day.  It was founded by Fr. James Cullen in 1898, who gave full credit to the inspiration of Father Theobold Mathew.  Perhaps the best epitaph to this remarkable man is the statement of one of his contemporaries who said, “He has wiped more tears from the faces of women than any other being on the globe except the Lord Jesus, and thousands of lisping children will bless the providence that gave them an existence in the same age as he.”