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The Irish in Vermont: Their Religion

Author Vincent E. Feeney  shows a keen appreciation of religious issues in his new book “Finnigans, Slaters and Stonepeggers: A History of the Irish in Vermont.”

I wrote an article, which ran a week ago in the Banner, about this new book from Bennington publisher Images from the Past. Dealing with the economic, political, and other aspects of the book took up so much space that I neglected the religious aspects of Irish immigration to Vermont and life here. Feeney skillfully weaves the religious aspect into his narrative about the Irish in Vermont. His research is thorough and he draws thoughtful conclusions.

On Sunday, Feeney will speak at the 10 a.m. meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Bennington on “The Making of a Humanist: Giovanni Costigan.”  Later in the day, Feeney will discuss “Finnigans, Slaters and Stonepeggers” at a meeting of the Bennington Historical Society at 2 p.m. The program, held in the Ada Paresky Education Center located on the second floor of the Bennington Museum, is free and open to the public.

Feeney, a retired adjunct professor of history at the University of Vermont, writes that the first Irish immigrants to Vermont “Were Protestant, primarily Congregationalist or Baptist, although many of them originally had Presbyterian connections.”

Though the first Irish in Vermont came in diverse ways and very small numbers, the town of Londonderry was an exception. “There, in 1770, a number of second- and third-generation New Hampshire families from Scots-Irish backgrounds bought, with a New York grant, an unsettled township in the eastern foothills of the Green Mountains named Kent and quickly renamed it Londonderry, a choice that reflected their origins,” he writes.

Their Presbyterian ancestors fled the intolerance of the Church of Ireland and the hostility of the dissatisfied Catholic Irish and came to Boston in 1718. The Massachusetts Puritains, however, made little distinction between the Catholic and Protestant Irish and had doctrinal problems with the Presbyterians at any rate, so they shunned these “Irish vermin,” Feeney writes.

In looking for a more hospitable place to live, 16 of the families chose a location in what was then a spot in the wilderness of southern New Hampshire and gave it a familiar name. “These pioneering families thrived,” Feeney writes. “Drawing on skills honed in Ireland,  they planted flax and produced fine-quality linen. Some authorities believe it was this community that introduced the potato to the Northeast.”

The Catholic Irish didn’t come to Vermont in large numbers during the next century. “In colonial New England,” Feeney writes, “an Irishman from a Catholic background who might have wished to remain faithful to the old religion would have found it impossible. In New England’s early days, religion and community were one: for an individual not to
belong to the local church invited ostracism.”

Feeney closely examines surviving records to study two early Irish families in Vermont. These families probably were Catholics in the mid-1700s but later became Protestants.

Most of the Irish immigrants to Vermont from the 1820s on were Catholics. Vermont was then part of the Archdiocese of Boston, and the archbishop there was desperate for priests to minister to Catholics in the Green Mountain State.

In 1829, the Rev. Jeremiah O’Callaghan, a combative man with eccentric political views — but an extremely dedicated, energetic priest who could speak both English and Irish — came to Vermont and began a successful 25-year ministry.

He chose Burlington as the center of his mission and wrote: “Catholics, principally Irish immigrants were as sheep without shepherds, scattered through woods and villages, amidst the wolves in sheep’s clothing — amidst fanatics of all creeds, or rather no creed; all enticing them by bribery and menaces to protracted meetings, Sunday schools and so forth.”

Feeney goes on from there to detail the growth of the Catholic Church in Vermont, which of course also included a substantial number of French Canadian immigrants.

The story includes mention of the establishment in 1854 of the first Catholic Church in southern Vermont, St. Francis de Sales in  Bennington. Nor does Feeney neglect the later history of the Protestant Irish, telling about Dublin-born John Henry Hopkins, the first  Episcopal bishop of Vermont and someone who frequently clashed with O’Callaghan.

Having written the history of the Italian-American parish in my hometown in western Massachusetts, I appreciate the importance of such histories as “Finnigans, Slaters and Stonepeggers.” In dealing with difficult times on many fronts, knowledge of our ethnic, cultural and spiritual heritage can be a source of inspiration and wisdom.

Mark E. Rondeau is the Banner’s religion editor.
 
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Book Reviews

The Irish in Vermont