(Editor’s note: Earlier this month, preceding its St. Patrick’s Parade, the Nutley Irish-American Alliance held its annual Mass at St. Mary’s Church in that township. This year, Msgr. John J. Gilchrist of Kearny was the guest speaker. In honor of March 17, The Observer would like to share a portion of his homily, and its local history lesson, with our readers. )
This annual parade has two great purposes. The first is, of course, to give glory to God and show gratitude to the Lord for sending St. Patrick to us to bring the great gift of faith.
Secondly, all of us who carry the Celtic DNA want to pay tribute to our forefathers and to those who brought us to this great country and especially to those who settled in this beautiful area that was once known as Avondale, then Franklin, and that we now call Nutley. And so, we represent faith, heritage, and gratitude to those who went before us.
You know the Irish came to this area as refugees from famine and persecution.
Once they arrived here, they needed work. The Dutch and English who preceded them had discovered that this beautiful river valley contained copper that could be mined, then brownstone that could easily be cut into building blocks for housing, and the running water in the rivers that turned wheels for mills.
So the Irish followed the river and came here to settle and make a living mining, cutting blocks, and working in the mills of the area.
It was a hard and difficult time. The single men lived in barracks, and families lived in shanties. The men and women worked six days a week from sun-up till sundown in all sorts of weather.
Until 1880, there was no Catholic church in Avondale, as Nutley was called in those days. Catholics went to Mass in St. Peter’s in Belleville from 1838 until 1877 when Father Hubert de Burgh came and took up residence here.
I would like to tell you a story that my mother uncovered. She was a member of the Belleville Historical Society and in the 1950s she wrote a history of St. Peter’s Parish.
She wrote of a Mission that was held during Lent in the 1850s. The Irish families from the quarries, mines and mills rose long before dawn that year and walked in the dark beside the river along Main St. to Mass at 6:30 a.m.
They then walked back to Nutley to grab a bite of breakfast and then went to work until sundown at night. They filled the church each morning for the nine days of the Mission.
I have to tell you that, on these frigid cold mornings, with the snow all around, I think of those faithful Catholics. By the way, in those days the Passaic River froze over and the Irish from Kearny and Arlington walked across the river on the ice to attend Mass.
I want to leave you with that image. On these winter days, consider what religion meant to those good men and women who endured so much to find their God in the Holy Mass.
My dear friends, if you would honor these saints, for holy they were, imitate them by giving God glory by practicing the Faith that meant so much to them.
May you have a great and glorious parade.
May God bless you all.
– Msgr. John J. Gilchrist