One of the highlights of any tour of Saint Patrick Church comes when a knowledgeable parishioner points up at the shamrocks shaped into the plaster capitals atop the pillars of the nave. “Look,” they say with conviction. “These are the masts of the sailing ships that brought our Irish ancestors to America.”
“Oh, ah,” we respond. And then some of us pause and add a skeptical, “Hm?” Because we try to picture this:
Did our spiritual or blood ancestors, after their harrowing journey aboard the “coffin ships” of the North Atlantic, actually arrive in the Eastern ports of New York, Philadelphia, or Baltimore, and then—so grateful to reach the shores of their new home—spend their last meager coins purchasing the barely-seaworthy vessels so that they could cart their lumber 1,000 miles overland to Cleveland, in the hope of building a new church with it?
Or did these ships, perhaps circumventing customs and the prospect of fever sheds, somehow make their way by shallow canal and portage (in those days before a deep-water St. Lawrence Seaway) to the Port of Cleveland, and then into the hands of Saint Patrick’s church construction laborers?
Either would be truly heroic, but of course neither is true. Instead, the story told by diocesan archivist Father Nelson Callahan is a bit more practical and only slightly less romantic.
When founding pastor Father James Conlan passed away in 1875, the church he had begun was far from complete. Almost immediately after construction commenced, the nation was struck by the Panic of 1873, and Father Conlan was crushed by parish debt. So his successor, Father Eugene O’Callaghan, was tasked with the building’s completion.
He managed this by organizing parishioners into teams that quarried, hauled, cut and placed the stone themselves. And then, according to Father Callahan, he sent buyers to New York to purchase sailing ships being sold for scrap. Although his essay does not provide documentary evidence for this, it could very well be true.
Besides disrupting the construction of our church, the Panic had also significantly affected immigration. In his book Cunard and the North Atlantic 1840-1973, Francis E. Hyde describes that shipping company’s retrenchment, forced by the sudden dip in the steerage trade. In an effort to modernize their fleet, Cunard sold 35,000 tons of ships and formed a joint stock company that was able to weather the fiscal storm.
That some portion of that scrap might have made its way to Cleveland is certainly possible. Before arriving in Cleveland, a great many Irish men worked their way out of the Eastern port cities by laying tracks for railroads that after the Civil War were beginning to build this city into a major economic force between Chicago and New York. Upon being purchased by Father O’Callaghan’s buyers, the lumber from the ships that carried Irish immigrants could have been carried across the rails that those same immigrants or their children had set in place.
If “probably” is the short answer to our trivia question, “Is the roof really held up by ships’ masts?” then this is the long answer:
We can’t say which ships, exactly. We can’t say for sure that they actually carried our parishioners or their kin. But we can say that it could be true. How much distance exists between the “could be” of legend and the “is” of historical fact? We’ll leave that to you to decide.