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.
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.
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.
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”.
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: FamilySearch.org. 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—Ancestry.com—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.
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?
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.
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.
- 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.
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:
- “At the Crossroads: Old Saint Patrick’s and the Chicago Irish” by Ellen Skerrett, Wild Onion Books, Loyola Press, Chicago, IL, c. 1997.
- “The Irish in Chicago” by McCaffrey, Skerrett, Funchion and Fanning, University of Illinois Press, c. 1987.
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