Tag Archives: Father McDonald

Noble Patriot and Irishman

Sandwiched between two legendary figures in Clontarf’s history, Father Anatole Oster and Father Patrick Kenny, was a young priest from Ireland who only served the parish for two years (1899-1901). Little attention is paid to Father McDonald in the history of Clontarf, but judging from letters written by Clontarf resident Stephen Owen, I think he deserves a closer look. (I typed the content of the letters just as it appears in the transcriptions…among other issues, Mr. Owens was not a fan of punctuation.)

Father McDonald

St. Malachy Catholic Church – Clontarf, MN

On December 4, 1899 Stephen Owens writes from Clontarf to his niece in Skerries, County Dublin, Ireland:

Dear Niece Celia I will let you know what this Parish of Ours is doing at Present Our Priest the Rev. Father McDonald is holding a three Days fair in the Town Hall. We have a nice one in the Town for the Benefit of Our Church it is a new one and there is Sixteen Hundred Dollars of a Debt on it so he expects to realize about 5 or 6 Hundred Dollars at this fair and then About two more years would wipe out the Debt on the Church. I think his fair will be a success there is great crowds here those last two nights and we expect a large attendance tonight. Our priest is a Kilkenny Man about 30 years of Age, a fine Man I like him very much he does come see us quite often I and him does have great times nights Playing Checkers he likes to get all the Games he don’t like me to Beat him at all…

This is our introduction to Father McDonald through Mr. Owens’ pen. Already we see that he was responsible for building the new church in Clontarf (the one standing today) and was working hard to pay for it by organizing events such as the fair Mr. Owens mentions. Plus, we learn that he was a competitive checkers player!

On March 19, 1900 Mr. Owens describes the St. Patrick’s Day festivities in town (I highlighted this in an earlier post – click here.) He writes that Father McDonald had been rehearsing the play since January with the young people. Mr. Owens writes, “Our Priest is a Noble Patriot and Irishman.”

On April 1, 1902 Mr. Owens has some sad news to share with his niece. He thanks her for the shamrock she sent him for St. Patrick’s Day and said he gave a sprig to the Priest, but it is a new Priest:

…his name is Rev. Patrick Kenny our beloved Father McDonnoll (sic) was Buried last friday in Calvary Cemetery in the City of Saint Paul. I am awfull sorry to have to tell you this news we will never get the like off him again he was so friendly and sociable I will miss him very much we use to Play so much Checkers in our House Lord have mercy on his soul He dies off Consumption he got a Cough and did not doctor for it until it was to Late he left here last September and went out to the State of Arizona the Doctors sent him there it is a fine climate and thought he would come Back Cured of his Complaint but failed to get his Health he was a fine strong healthy young man I never thought he could be taken away so quick…

I hope Mr. Owens gave Father Kenny a chance. By all accounts he was also a very sociable Priest – he was extremely popular with the Irish families in Tara and Clontarf. He visited folks frequently in their homes and was always ready for a game of cards. Not sure if he played checkers, however.


Filed under Letters

No Place for Gentlemen

Last St. Patrick’s Day I posted a clipping from the Swift County Monitor which provided the slate of events for Clontarf’s celebration in 1899 – click here to read the article.

Clontarf resident Stephen Owens provides a first-hand account of the St. Patrick’s Day festivities the next year in a letter dated March 19, 1900 to his niece Celia Grimes of Skerries, County Dublin, Ireland. After thanking Celia for the shamrock she sent, Mr. Owens begins to tell Celia of “the grand time we had in the Parish this St. Patrick’s Day”:

First thing in the Morning all the Hibernians mett in their Hall at ten O clock in the morning Put on there Badges and marched in a Body to the Church…the Stars and Stripes on one side of the men and the Harp in the middle off the Green Flag off Ireland on the other side…the Band of Musick in the front as they Marched in to the Church, the Band Played Patrick’s Day in Style. Our Priest is a Noble Patriot and Irishman, at 5 O Clock in the evening we had a grand Oration on the life of St. Patrick in our Town Hall by a Lawyer from St. Paul a City in Minnesota Capitol of the State his name was McDermot very smart orator…

Mr. Owens then goes on to describe the evening’s entertainment. The play sounds like the same one from the year before – I believe the title mentioned in the newspaper was Shaun Aroon:

After that we all went to Supper…we went to the Hall it was then we had the time there was a Grand Irish Play by the young Local Talent, of the Parish…called itShan Rue in Seven Acts it was just splended the Priest was Training the young folks since the middle of January the Hall was crowded with Irish, and some Americans and Norwegians I bet youse did not Celebrate like that in Skerries. We are all Irish to the Back bone out here…

In the last part of the letter, Mr. Owens talks farming, explaining to his niece when farmers in the area will start putting crops in and when they will be harvested. Mr. Owens describes the kind of work that is available in towns such as Clontarf:

…there is no work here only in Summer and Harvest time and Thrashing in the Fall there is months in winter there is no work in summer a man gets one Dollar and a half per day and Board…in harvest time a Man gets from one seventy five and Board to 2 Dollars per day…this is not a good Place for a Labouring man Only for men that is Able to buy a farm and work it himself it is a good Country…for any one that wants to Play Gentleman, it is no place for him…

Good advice from old Uncle Stephen!

It’s hard to believe that Memorial Day Weekend is nearly upon us. Will there be a program at the Clontarf cemetery this year? What are your memories from Memorial Days of the past? Share your thoughts…leave a comment!

excerpts taken from a letter from the Stephen Owens collection at the Swift County Historical Society


Filed under Letters

The Little Town of Clontarf

Have you ever wondered what life was really like in Clontarf around the turn of the last century? Apart from time travel, the  best way to learn about daily life would be from a diary kept by a local resident. I bet many Clontarfians wrote in a diary , unfortunately these items don’t often survive. Sometimes they are intentionally destroyed, and other times they simply get “lost in the shuffle” of a move or a death.

Another way to find out about life in a town such as Clontarf would be to refer to the newspaper. Clontarf never had a newspaper of its own, so we must rely on the intermittent columns in other area papers which refer to the Clontarf vicinity. Even if there had been a newspaper, that would only provide us with the editor’s perspective of Clontarf, complete with political and social bias, not that of an “ordinary” resident.

So how then are we to learn about the day-to-day happenings of Clontarf? Why letters, of course! Letters written by Clontarf residents to their friends and family all over the United States and the world! But, locating these letters presents a major challenge, which makes the Stephen Owens Collection of letters at the Swift County Historical Society truly a treasure for anyone researching the history of Clontarf during the years 1899-1903.

This small collection of letters made their way back to Swift County when Professor Kirby Miller forwarded them to the museum while he was researching Irish immigration. He had obtained the letters from the Old Skerries Historical Society in County Dublin, Ireland. Swift County has photocopies of the transcribed letters from Stephen Owens to his niece Celia Grimes who lives in Skerries.

In a letter from December 4, 1899 Mr. Owens begins by sharing his thoughts on getting older:

26th of this month I will be 70 years of Age and I am Pretty Smart on the foot yet thanks to God. Your Aunt don’t hear so well as I do, She is Pretty Old Looking She is Able yet to do our Cooking and washing. We had to give up farming we were to Old to work the farm any Longer So I sold it and moved to the Little Town of Clontarf near the Church. About 10 Perches from the Church…we are as comfortable as Old People Can Be. We can go to Mass nearly every Day in the Week…

I guess Mr. Owens is able to forgive his wife’s diminished looks and hearing as long as she is still able to do all the cooking and cleaning! Mr. Owens goes on to tell his niece about an event at St. Malachy’s:

Our Priest the Rev. Father McDonald is holding a three Days fair in the Town Hall We have a nice one in this Town…Our Church it is a New One and there is sixteen Hundred Dollars of a Debt on it so he expects to realize About 5 or 6 Hundred Dollars at this fair and then About two more years would wipe out the Debt on the Church I think his fair will be a success there is great crowds here those Last to Nights and we Expect a Large Attendance to Night.

I have never been able to find any information on Father McDonald, only that he served St. Malachy’s for a couple of years and died of TB. Mr. Owens sheds a bit of light on Father McDonald in the letter:

Our Priest is a Kilkenny Man about 30 years of Age, a fine Man I like him very much he does come see us quite often I and him does have great times nights Playing Checkers he likes to get all the Games he don’t like me to Beat him at all…

Father McDonald

Mr. Owens mentions the weather (“Winter is Just Begin the thermometer goes as far as 35 below Zero”), before asking his niece to pass on his greetings to people he used to know in Skerries. This section is particularly poignant because you can tell that he still misses his friends and family in Ireland, even though he has been in the United States for almost fifty years:

Remember me to John Baulf and to James Russel the Shoemaker and his Brother Mathew…All my  Old School Mates I suppose are nearly all Dead, if I landed in Skerries now I would hardley no one Person in the Town…I won’t forget you night & morning in my Poor Prayers…I hope you won’t forget your Old Uncle…

Next time we will look at a letter from March 1900 where Mr. Owens describes the St. Patrick’s Day festivities in Clontarf.


Filed under Letters