Parades, politics, parties and priests

Sandy Vasko

    We have talked about the diverse nationalities that came to Braidwood to mine coal and start a new life. While the first wave of immigrants was mainly from the British Isles, the second wave, in the mid 1870's, was from countries all over Europe.
    They were separated by custom, dress and language, but they had two things in common - willingness to take a chance on a new country and life, and the Catholic religion. Today we look at the early history of the Catholic Church in Braidwood.
    M. J. Donna, in his book “The Braidwood Story” tells us that the first Catholic Church was built in 1869 at a cost of $3,000 (about $55,000 today). It was located on the north side Fifth Street at the north end of Walker Street.
    It was originally built to accommodate the Irish who were in the first wave of immigrants. However, the congregation was served by priests from other towns such as Wilmington. As more and more people streamed into the coal fields, the congregation grew by leaps and bounds.
    One of the first activities the church sanctioned was marching in the various parades in adjoining towns on St. Patrick's Day, and in August on the Feast of the Assumption. The St. Patrick's Benevolent Society, an Irish group, never missed a chance to show off their bright green uniforms.
    By 1871 a new wing was added to the church, but it wasn't long before that was also out grown. Now the new immigrants were no longer from the British Isles, but from Italy, Belgium, Germany and Bohemia.
    And while Immaculate Conception had a large congregation, that congregation was also poor. Large donations toward the church just would not be forthcoming.
    That fact did not daunt these people. They started on a campaign of fund raising by a series of entertainments. The first of these in March of 1872 was announced in the Wilmington Advocate, “A lecture on the Life and Labors of St. Patrick will be delivered in the Catholic church, at Braidwood, on Sunday the 17th inst., at 4 p.m. The proceeds will be applied in aid of the church Tickets, at 50 cents each, can be had of authorized agents, in due time.”
    Although educational, a lecture series was a bit dull. The following year's fund raiser was quite different. “The benefit soiree given by the Catholic Church in Braidwood, on Monday evening, was literally a “big thing.” About 150 couples were present and indulged in one of the most pleasant parties ever assembled in the “Coal City.”
    By 1874 Immaculate Conception was no closer to having its own priest. It was decided to build a rectory in case one should be assigned. Once again a fundraiser was in the works.
    It was clear that more money was made by dancing than lectures. “A ball will be given in Braidwood, at the Odd Fellows Hall, on Monday evening, Feb. 16th, under the auspices of the Catholic church in that city. The proceeds will be applied to building a residence for a clergyman, who is to be assigned to that parish.”
    This party stuff was really paying off nicely for the church. The year 1875 saw an even bigger event. “An extensive fair and festival will be given by the Catholic Church in Braidwood, commencing on Tuesday, Jan. 26th, and continuing four days, and concluding with a grand oyster supper and ball. Dancing will also conclude each previous evening's entertainment.”
    While this event was the best ever, it was marred by controversy when the gold-headed cane, awarded to the most popular man in the congregation went to Dr. Henri Le Caron. Alexander Patterson came in a close second, and there was talk of voting fraud on behalf of the doctor.
    It was decided to award Patterson a second silver-headed cane saying he was a “popular” candidate in the inscription.
    Finally in March of 1875 the congregation was rewarded for all of their work by this announcement. “The Braidwood Catholic Church has at last been supplied with a priest, much to the satisfaction of its congregation. Rev. Father McGuire took charge on Sunday last, and after celebrating mass preached an impressive discourse.
    “The non-English speaking Catholics would have preferred a priest of their own nationality, but knowing it impossible to please all, they will doubtless rest content with one of each nationality on the advisory committee of the Rev. Father.”
    By November of 1875 a week long mission was held that shows us just how many Braidwoodites attended the Catholic Church.
    We read, “Rev. J. P. Turner, O. P., assisted by Fathers McFeely and Daley, have just closed their mission work in this place. The mission services were held at the church of the Immaculate Conception.
    “The attendance was large throughout. There were 250 confirmed, of that number 50 were adults. The church has over 1,200 communicants at this place.”
    The population of Braidwood was less than 6,000 at the time.