Luck of the Irish Uncovers the Truth

A few years ago when I first took an interest in genealogy, well before my first webinar, subscription or cemetery visit, I decided to start typing up the facts obtained on each family tree member into their own chronological timeline.

DSCN4373Eventually, I developed a system for myself that was pretty easy to follow, resulting in a binder for each family line with color-coded sections for each descendant.

Time passed.

Recently, during a spring cleaning frenzy of all things genealogy, Grandpa Desmond’s long ignored biographical timeline rose to the top of my “to do when I get around to it” bin to haunt me once again.  It’s a task I’d been putting off for years due to the distraction of other more enticing mysteries in the family tree to investigate.

Poor grandpa! Over the past few years, I’d scribbled over, crossed out, highlighted and edited his timeline in every possible way, and even I had to admit–it was a total disaster: insertions, deletions, notations, corrections, the works. In short, the timeline I’d created for our family’s patriarch was one hot mess and it wasn’t about to clean itself up.

I’d never bothered following through on my updates to print a clean, readable copy for myself.  Nope. I just kept moving that timeline to the bottom of my “to do” pile treating it like the mundane task it appeared to be—an annoying little job I’d get around to someday when the spirit moved me.

Well, last week, on a bleak, cloudy, rainy, bone chilling Monday in March (which just happened to be the day after St. Patrick’s Day), I took on that task and began to address that menial editorial chore. I congratulated myself on getting down to business. After all, I told myself, not every pursuit related to family history can produce a genealogical high. Gotta do those dull things once in awhile—like purging those paper files, cleaning off the desktop, and adding citations to every fact already obtained. Yep, this was my day to do the dull.

OED:NMK Marriage Cert_W copy 3
As I began to go over Grandpa’s timeline, I came across the transcription I’d written for the marriage license issued to him and my grandma, Nellie Keating, back in October of 1890. When I originally transcribed it a few years back, I thought nothing of it; but last week, as I reviewed the timeline, I looked at their marriage license again. Something about it caught my eye that just didn’t ring true.

It looked to me like the license was signed: “T.F. Gally, Pastor, St. Patrick Church.”  Did that really say “St. Patrick” church? The St. Patrick Catholic Church–one of the oldest, most renowned churches in the city of Chicago that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871?

No! That certainly couldn’t be!  Why I’d viewed the pictures a hundred times in the old Desmond family photo album—the ones of Owen and Nellie from October 15, 1940 that were taken on their 50th wedding anniversary. There they were, lined up with family members on the front steps of St. Bride’s Church at 78th and Coles in Chicago—the church where they were married in 1890.

1940_003 copy

St. Bride's Catholic Church,, 78th and Coles, on Chicago's south side in March  2010.

St. Bride’s Catholic Church, 78th and S. Coles Avenue, on Chicago’s south side. (March 2010)

It nagged at me—how dare this Fr. Gally of a “St. Patrick” church have the audacity to sign a marriage license for my grandparents when it was clear for years they’d been married at St. Bride’s?

I wanted to learn more about what records were available to confirm the location where my grandparents’ marriage took place so I could prove Fr. Gally got it wrong back in 1890. I Googled St. Bride’s, logged on to  its website, and clicked on the tab marked  “church history”.

The steps of St. Bride's Catholic Church in 2010. The same steps my grandparents and well wishers stood  for photographs in October 1940 after celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary Mass.

The steps of St. Bride’s Catholic Church in 2010 ~  the same steps where my grandparents stood for photographs 70 years earlier on October 15, 1940, after celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary Mass.

What?  St. Bride’s began as a mission in 1893?  That’s three years after my grandparents were married. That can’t be—my grandparents were married at St. Bride’s. I know it. I’ve got proof! I’ve got photographs! I took another look at the marriage certificate.

Obviously more research would have to be done on this topic.  But how would I discover the truth?

The answer? By following my gut and digging deeper into church records I’d never examined.

First stop: I wouldn’t even have to leave the house or get out of my PJs. And best of all it was free.

I’m a bit chagrined to admit, but I’ve pretty much relied on just one database——for most of my online research. Numerous genealogists I know though, swear by FamilySearch; I just never really gave it a chance. What the heck, I thought, no time like the present to give it a whirl.

After signing on to the FamilySearch website, I started clicking away:  U.S. > Illinois > BOOM:  “Illinois, Chicago, Catholic Church Records, 1833-1925,” the third database on the list. Really? It’s that simple? I guess I should have tried this years ago.

The luck of the Irish seemed to be with me.

I spotted a little camera icon next to the database name. That meant I could browse images of the original record, not just view an index that would lead to some other location where I’d hopefully (maybe) find the record I was searching for. Great, I thought. Shouldn’t take long at all to prove that marriage license is wrong.

Next stop: a  screen that invited me to “Browse through 179,454 images.”  Sure, why not? What have I got to lose?  “Click.”

On to the parish names; I’d play along. Let’s find “St. Patrick’s” in Chicago and click on that: Done.

Marriage Register, St. Patrick's Catholic Church, Chi ago, IL

Marriage Register, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church

Next up: Record Type: “Marriages, 1848-1916.”  Hmmm…five volumes of those. Guess I’ll have to do a little trial and error to figure out which one contains Chicago marriages at Old St. Pat’s from 123 years ago. After a few tries I was able to narrow my search to Volume 3. Then it was on to “1890” and eventually to “October.”

“Almost there,” I thought, “and I’ve only wasted about 35 minutes on this little side trip.  I’ll go into the database, search around, and when there’s no record proving my grandparents’ marriage, I’ll just write it off to experience gained in using a new database.”

After a few more clicks to pinpoint my search to October 15 of 1890, my eyes fell on an entry with some very familiar names. What? No way! This can’t be right! My grandparents were married at St. Bride’s. I have pictures of them standing in front of St. Bride’s taken after their 50th Wedding Anniversary Mass!  Heck my, mom’s even in the lineup, and I’d know her anywhere!  Don’t pictures speak a thousand words?

Proof: The marriage REgister from Old St. Patrick's Catholic Church where NellieKeating and Owen Desmond were wed October 15, 1890.

Proof: The marriage register from Old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church where Nellie Keating and Owen Desmond were wed October 15, 1890.

Back I went back to the original marriage license I’d had in my files for the past four years and compared it to the record in St. Patrick’s record book. Yep—that’s what it says in St. Pat’s church register:

I, the undersigned, joined in marriage
Owen E. Desmond and Nellie M. Keating
this 15th day of October, 1890
Witnesses: John M. Gaynor
and Susan Duffy
T. F. Galligan, Priest

I took a closer look at both the marriage license and the church record located in St. Pat’s marriage register again. On the marriage license, there was a wide black border hiding the last part of the priest’s signature and the end of the name “Patrick”.  St. Pat’s church register was unmistakable though: the priest who signed the record book wrote “T. F. Galligan”, not “T. F. Gally” as it appeared to be on the marriage license.

I doubted no more. It was clear–Owen and Nellie were, in fact, married at Old St. Pat’s. Result? Family myth now exploded.

Why did our family always believe our grandparents were married at St. Bride’s? Nowhere on the marriage license does it say “St. Bride”, but I never bothered to check that out when I obtained a copy of the marriage license a few years ago. We believed our grandparents were married there because that’s what was written in the Desmond photo album right next to the photos taken of them after their 50th Wedding Anniversary Mass.

Owen & Nellie’s anniversary Mass in 1940 did occur at St. Bride’s. We’ve got the pictures to prove it. We simply assumed that since we had photos of them in front of that church, then that must have been where the wedding ceremony also took place back in 1890. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

7120 S. Coles Avenue, Chicago, where Owen and Nellie resided in October1940 when they celebrated their 50th Wedding Anniversary mass at St. Bride's Catholic chcurch ` just 7 blocks from their home.

7120 S. Coles Avenue, Chicago, where Owen and Nellie Desmond resided in 1940 when they celebrated their 50th Wedding Anniversary Mass at St. Bride’s Catholic church, just seven blocks from their home.

So why was the anniversary Mass held at St. Bride’s?  Because St. Bride’s, which is located at the corner of 78th and S. Coles in Chicago, was the Desmonds’ neighborhood church in 1940 where they attended Mass in their golden years–50 years after they were joined in holy matrimony at historic Old St. Pat’s.

The Desmond home (A) at 7120 S. Coles Avenue, and  St. Bride's church (B) their neighborhood church where they attended Mass.

The Desmond home (A) at 7120 S. Coles Avenue, and St. Bride’s (B), located just blocks away at 78th and S. Coles.

Lessons learned:

  • Go back from time to time and re-visit those records you’ve worked so hard to collect. Maintain your notes. Edit those timelines. You just may find something you’ve overlooked or didn’t understand the meaning of the first time around.
  • Assume nothing.  Don’t be too quick to believe family lore or assume handwritten inscriptions in a photo album can be taken for fact. There may be other reasons for what you see.

Was that picture taken in front of St. Bride’s on my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary?  Yes. Are those my grandparents in those pictures? Yes. Does that mean they were married at that exact same church 50 years earlier? NO!  It simply proves that’s where their anniversary Mass was celebrated—just blocks from their (then) current home in 1940, when they were 79 and 72 years old.

Photo courtest, St. Patrick;s Catholic Church, Chicago, IL

Photo courtesy, Old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, Chicago, IL

The fact is, while I always thought it was kind of quaint that my grandparents were married in a little neighborhood church named “St. Bride” it’s far more exciting to learn the truth.

Owen Desmond and his bride, Nellie Keating, were actually married at one of the oldest and most famous churches in the city of Chicago–Old St. Pat’s–one of the few buildings in the city’s original business district to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

…A church that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its history, architecture, and stained glass windows of traditional celtic design…

…A church that is steeped in the history and culture of Irish Catholics who immigrated to Chicago during the Great Potato Famine in the middle of the 19th century.

And that’s exactly when  Owen’s and Nellie’s families–the Desmonds and the Keatings–immigrated from Ireland to start a new life in America for themselves and their descendants.

All in all, a pretty lucky discovery the day after St. Paddy’s Day for an Irish lass christened “Patricia” who finally got around to cleaning up her genealogical records.

For Further Information

To learn more about the history of Old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and Irish Catholics in Chicago you may want to check out the following books:

To view photos of  Old St. Pat’s richly detailed stained glass windows designed by celebrated Irish artist, Thomas O’Shaughnessy, click on the Pinterest link below:


 Copyright © 2013 Patricia Desmond Biallas

This entry was posted in Biographies, Chicago History, Family Legends, Ireland, Photo Stories. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Luck of the Irish Uncovers the Truth

  1. Wow! I’m opening other scanned images on the left screen as I type this on the right screen. Maybe your luck of the Irish will rub off on me? It never hurts to double check anything…

  2. Lorene says:

    You never know when the mundane will turn into a lucky strike! Thanks for including the link to photos of the church and the stained glass. The two very different looking towers, apparently one for the eastern church and one for the western is fascinating and something I’ve never seen before.

    • Lorene ~ whoever would have thought our ancestors’ story would turn out like this?! Aren’t those just the most beautiful windows? I fully intend to head downtown in the next few weeks to take a tour of this landmark church where our grandparents got married!

  3. Funny how a photo and a few words on the back can deceive you.

  4. Stephanie says:

    What an excellent find! I have done that too….thought I gleaned all the info from a document or note I made, only to see it in a different light years later.

  5. Debi Austen says:

    What a great discovery! I’ve had that happen before – when you’ve looked at something so many times and then one day something reaches out and smacks you in the face with a 2×4. Good for you for following up on your instinct and learning a very cool fact. And for what it’s worth, I seem to forget about FamilySearch, too, even though I know there’s some good stuff there!

    • You’re so right, Debi. I think I’ve learned my lesson on this one. No longer will I rely on just one database for my searches.

      What I didn’t mention in this post that was also a bonus is that in researching St. Pat’s records a bit further, I discovered that their firstborn, Grace Desmond (1891-1972) was also baptized at this historic immigrant church a year after Nellie and Owen were married there. That’s a post for another day, though, as my grandparents went on to have 4 more children, including my father, after Grace was born.

      I guess I’ve got more work to do and FamilySearch will be where I’ll begin!

  6. Pat, I love the way you stage your narrative. It is so clear to follow that I’m now considering trying FamilySearch again. I know it works by databases, but you weren’t daunted at the “browse” instruction. And your search was so suspenseful! I enjoyed all the information about Old St. Pat’s, and especially the reasons (perfectly understandable assumptions) why you assumed your grandparents weren’t married there.

    Looking again at the signature that runs into the wide black border . . . it hides the last letters of Galligan’s name, but mischievously it does not hide the loop on his g, which looks exactly like a y. Your assumptions are so understandable — the gremlins of genealogy. That cursive handwriting business has stumped me so often on census records that I’ve learned to be constantly suspicious. Even the indexers are fooled!

    I enjoyed your post very much.

    • Thanks so much for the accolades, Mariann. I must admit, it was even a bit suspenseful for me while clicking through those FamilySearch screens, not certain of what they would or wouldn’t reveal! The outcome, though, couldn’t have been more gratifying.

      As for penmanship from the past, I’m in no position to critique anyone’s, as one can see from a close-up of the first photo in this post which reveals just how poor my own penmanship is. It’s no wonder I put off this editing task for so long! So thankful for the modern marvel of “processing my words” via computer so I can actually share my discoveries with others!

  7. Dorothy Vaughan says:

    Pat–another marvelous gift to our family and presented as a mystery story… so FUN too! Dorothy

  8. says:

    Boy! Was that ever an eye opener. Your curiosity and persistence paid. off. Thanks. Diane

  9. Meg Biallas says:

    Wow, Mom! I love your storytelling in this post. I was hanging on the whole way through. I think watching CSI has definitely given you a foundation for mystery writing!

    • I’ve certainly seen enough of those shows to know the formula, though I must say ~ when the mystery hits this close to home, it’s far more captivating than anything on TV! Glad to be able to discover and share this fascinating story about your great-grandparents with you.
      Love, Mom

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s