The Irish Catholic Church loomed large in the lives of both my parents and shaped who I am today. In my childhood, my ancestors appeared to me as soft gray forms that we prayed would make the transition from purgatory to heaven above. The elderly who were still living had only a bit more life force.
I can still feel the shadow of my widowed grandmother hovering in a few early childhood scenes. Every Sunday, my father would drive the family 20 miles to Manchester, Connecticut, to pay his respects to his mother, Mary Jane Donnellan Peckenham, a proper Irish lady who kept an eye on her neighbors from behind lace curtain, and his aunt.
It was dark and stuffy inside their house on Elro Street and, if we were lucky enough to be offered cookies, had to eat them daintily to avoid dropping any crumbs. No hugs or tickles from this grandmother, a frail woman with frail wireless glasses and grey hair in small, tight curls, who looked like she had never outstretched her arms to anybody, my father included.
Mary Jane, and her unmarried sister, Margaret, daughters of Irish immigrants, worked at Cheney silk mill in Manchester most of their adult lives. Mary Jane was a weaver and Margaret, a clerk. Mary Jane was 37, well past her prime, when she married a handsome Irish bachelor in 1914.
Thomas Francis Peckenham was the son of Irish immigrants who settled in Providence, Rhode Island. Born in 1870, Thomas was still in Rhode Island in 1900, when he was elected as an officer of the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal Catholic organization. A decade later he had relocated to Manchester, Ct., where he worked as a mason in an aircraft plant and was active in his union. Thomas was elected a justice of the peace in 1914, the same year he ran for a seat in the Connecticut state house and lost.
My grandfather Thomas Peckenham married well past the prime of youth. He was 44 years old at the time of his wedding and became a father three years after that. In addition to his civic involvements and mason work he also worked as a security guard in the Colt Firearms plant in Hartford. He led his little family until he died of pneumonia in 1930, when my father was just 13.
Though young, my grandmother and her sister no doubt prayed that little Francis, my father, would assume a man’s role at home. He had been trained by the church to be a faithful son. By my father’s own confession, he was a poor student but in the midst of the Great Depression, he managed to work and give a portion of his pay to his mother.
When he was an old man, my father swore he had no memories of his father but I suspect the few memories he had were too painful and reminded him of his loss. In front of us, he put his mother on a pedestal. After she died in 1960 whenever he uttered her name and quickly added, "may God rest her soul." Did he worry that the woes she faced in her lifetime still troubled her in the afterworld?
Irish pride in relatives who had joined the Catholic clergy or monastery was rampant when we were kids. My father drove us clear across Connecticut to pay our respects to his cousin, Sister Trinita, who smiles coquettishly in a photo we still have of her as a young girl named Mary Louise Mahoney, long before she entered the Franciscan order.
I still get a shiver when I think of entering the Gothic grey convent where she lived and seeing her float towards us down the high-windowed hallways of the convent, her white habit billowing as she glided along. On those days, I didn’t speak, my jaws snapped shut in awe.
Later in life, my father thrilled to learn of a distant cousin in Ireland, Father Michael Pakenham, who was a village priest. A portrait of him that hung in the family home back in County Leitrim, Ireland somehow made its way to America when it hung in my father’s office.
My father tried to cement our Irish Catholic future when, after serving in World War Two and surviving, he set out to find an Irish lass that his mother would approve of, unaware of how high that bar was. He found a sweet girl in Waterville, Maine, a school teacher and a respected Irish Catholic to boot. He married my mother, Catherine Agnes Reilly, the next year.
Names of My Ancestors
Puritans & Servants