WATERBURY – Janet Maher’s new book, Waterbury Irish: From the Emerald Isle to the Brass City (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2015), could almost as easily be titled Waterbury’s Irish Catholics. Of the many books about Waterbury’s history, this may be the only one that focuses on how Catholics, and specifically Irish Catholics, helped shape the city.
Mrs. Maher, a Waterbury native and director of the studio arts program at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, wrote the book with John Wiehn, director of Prospect Public Library and a longtime member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. She calls it a “continuation and resolution” of her 2011 book, From the Old Sod to the Naugatuck Valley: Early Irish Catholics in New Haven County, Connecticut (Baltimore: Apprentice House, Loyola University Maryland).
The first book outlined Irish history, discussed Catholicism in New England and Naugatuck, and spotlighted several Irish families in New Haven County. It also dealt with Waterbury Irish, but not to the extent Mrs. Maher had hoped.
“The first book was already getting unwieldy, so I thought maybe there will be a time to do one just about Waterbury, and here it is,” she said in a telephone interview.
In its 187 pages, Waterbury Irish roams the streets of the Brass City to introduce us to people like Venerable Father Michael J. McGivney, Waterbury native and founder of the Knights of Columbus; Rhode Island Bishop Thomas F. Hendricken (1827-1886), a mentor of Father McGivney’s and a tireless early pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish (now a minor basilica) who laid the cornerstone of its new location on East Main Street; Dr. Edward H. McDonald, first president of Waterbury’s Celtic Medical Society and a resident physician at Waterbury Hospital; and many others.The Waterbury story actually predates the Naugatuck one, and Naugatuck was what I was focusing on in the Old Sod book,” Mrs. Maher said. Her ancestors, she said, arrived from Ireland in 1842. “They were supposedly the first Catholic family that came into Naugatuck.”
The Maher family, in fact, is related to Father McGivney, Bishop Hendricken and other personages mentioned in the book, she said.
“[Waterbury Irish] talks about the churches and the origins of the churches, and again I held back all those churches from the previous book because they were not Naugatuck,” she said.
According to the Connecticut Catholic Directory 2015, a yearly publication of The Catholic Transcript, Waterbury is home to 17 Catholic parishes, two more than New Haven and three more than Hartford. Many of these parishes are, or were, predominantly Irish. Some parishes mentioned in the book include Blessed Sacrament, Sacred Heart (now Sacred Heart-Sagrado Corazon), St. Francis Xavier, St. Michael, St. Patrick, St. Peter and St. Thomas.
Of these, St. Peter Church no longer exists, but it is notable because it was the city’s first Catholic church and the one in which the future Father McGivney was baptized.
The earliest Irish immigrants in Waterbury arrived before the potato famine of 1845-49 and settled near a cluster of factories along the Mad and Naugatuck rivers, she said.
“This group started to grow and moved into an area that came to be called the Abrigador,” now Pine Hill, where the Peace Cross now towers over the remains of Holy Land U.S.A., she said. “On the other side of that, in the east part of Waterbury, people also spread there, and so all the Irish were kind of interconnected and they could walk to the churches and walk to work. Eventually, the markets and the grocery stores became Irish owned. All the various businesses started to crop up and they had their own communities.”
She said the most surprising and valuable resource she discovered was a privately conducted 1876 city census by a descendant of one of the oldest Yankee settlers, Sturges Judd. “I studied this so carefully because between 1870 and 1880 is a vast amount of time, of course, and it was a rich period [with] the immigration still coming in. And a lot of people were dying, too, so it was incredible to have a census right in the middle between 1870 and 1880,” she said.
Other highlights of the book include:
• a brief history of The Catholic Transcript, from its origin in 1829 as the Catholic Press and its evolution into the Connecticut Catholic in 1896 and the Transcript in 1898;
• a discussion of Holy Land U.S.A.;
• a partial list of Irish Catholic marriages before 1855;
• a discussion about the Ancient Order of Hibernians;
• the founding of St. Mary’s Hospital; and
• discussions of many Irish family surnames in Waterbury.
Waterbury Irish is laid out as a paperback on glossy stock with more than 60 black and white photographs. It has an extensive bibliography and an index. It is not a complete history of Waterbury, Irish immigrants or Catholics of Waterbury, but it does whet the appetite and point the way to publications that can satisfy the curious reader.
Ms. Maher will speak about her work as an artist in relation to the book at Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University, 3011 Whitney Ave., Hamden, Dec. 5 at 4 p.m.
For information on other events or on how to obtain a copy, go to www.waterburyirish.com.