By Robert Somerville
There are few figures as important to the history of the Irish Pastoral Centre as Sr. Veronica Dobson. Sr. Veronica, a Brigidine Sister who hails from county Offaly in Ireland, is the IPC’s longest serving Director – spending 17 years immersed in the Boston Irish community. Sr. Veronica retired from her assignment with the IPC-Boston in 2004, returning to San Antonio, Texas, where she continues to work with immigrant and refugee groups. I spoke recently with Sr. Veronica, to reflect on her time with the IPC, and to hear some of her memories and stories of the center’s first 30 years.
When the call came for assistance with a new Irish outreach project, Sr. Veronica was in the midst of a sabbatical at the Weston School of Theology in Boston. Prior to this sabbatical, Sr. Veronica had spent twenty years on a teaching assignment in Wisconsin. When Sr. Veronica was asked to join this Irish outreach effort in Boston, there was no job description or office. Sr. Veronica had little knowledge of the nature of the assignment with the IPC, and what her work with the Irish community would entail, but she was most welcoming of the challenge and arrived permanently in the summer of 1988 to begin her stay with the IPC in Boston.
Sr. Veronica immersed herself in the Irish community from her first day based at St. Mark’s parish in Dorchester, always listening attentively for Irish accents. Within a month of her arrival, over 100 young Irish immigrants were assisted in their adjustment to life in the U.S. For the first number of years, Sr. Veronica was the only full-time member of staff assisted by dedicated volunteers. Mary Dianne Hayes offered pro bono legal assistance, and Ann Gargan, a cousin of the Kennedy family, helped with the administration of the tiny office at St. Mark’s parish. Sr. Veronica recalled that at the opening of the IPC office at St. Mark’s, there was room ‘only for [herself] and the Cardinal’! This office was visited by up to 30 young Irish immigrants daily in the first years of the IPC, and the lack of space didn’t detract from the dedication to working with the Irish and Irish American community.
Sr. Veronica speaks fondly of the sense of community between the Irish immigrants in Boston at the time, and the commitment to giving back to both the organization and the city ‘in good spirit’. There were many volunteer led efforts in the 1980’s and 90’s including an annual cookout for the homeless, a mother’s support group and regular fundraising for Trocaire, an Irish ‘international aid’ charity. Important to these efforts were Cait Cotter, Caroline Sullivan and Mark Mathers, to name a few. According to Sr. Veronica, without this support, and the ability of members of the Irish community to ‘round up the others’, the IPC-Boston couldn’t have been as effective as it was in serving the immigrant community.
Over the 17 years she spent in Boston, Sr. Veronica experienced great highs and lows. The best moments for Sr. Veronica were those in which she ‘helped people get on with their lives’ by assisting them through difficulties they might have been experiencing. In Sister Veronica’s time with the IPC, some Irish sadly returned home in coffins as a result of ill-health or, in some cases, suicide and these were the times that she, and the community, found most difficult. ‘No matter how hard things [get], there is always hope’ – that was the message that Sr. Veronica tried to share with the immigrant community in Boston, and it is a message she continues to share today.
Sr. Veronica helped thousands of immigrants from all over the world in their adjustment to life in America, and of her 17 years working in Boston ‘[she] enjoyed every minute!’. Whether assisting with employment and housing, or providing emotional and spiritual support, Sr. Veronica guided people on their path to a greater future. This is what ‘kept [her] going’ throughout her time with the IPC-Boston, that there was always someone in need of support or guidance and this mission continues to guide the work Irish Pastoral Centre in our 30th year.
The Irish Pastoral Centre has been incredibly fortunate throughout its 30 years to receive such wonderful support from the community that we serve. Without the continued generous support of our volunteers, sponsors and donors the IPC would not be the fixture it is within the greater Boston area. From the outset, the Irish and Irish American community embraced and encouraged the mission of the Irish Pastoral Centre and its staff. In 1989 with the arrival of Rev. Jerry O’Donnell and Rev. Gerard Burns, the IPC acknowledged the need for a significant fundraising effort to be able to provide an effective and meaningful service to the Irish communities in Boston. While the financial and physical support of the Archdiocese of Boston, Catholic Charities, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians got the Irish Pastoral Centre off the ground, it was the community that afforded the IPC - and its service users - the opportunity to spread its wings and affect real change for the ‘new Irish’.
The Consul General of Ireland at the time, Brendan Scannell, was one of the Irish Pastoral Centre’s great early advocates, and it was he who led this first great fundraising effort in 1989. Brendan Scannell throughout his time as Consul General had made life-long connections with members of the Boston-Irish community, and he utilized this network to assist the Pastoral Centre’s earliest missions, before funding was available from the Government of Ireland. In 1989, Brendan Scannell, along with of the Irish community, organized a fundraiser in the Irish Social Club in West Roxbury. This fundraiser was attended by over 500 people, and an astonishing $80,000 dollars was raised for the IPC - Boston, about which Brendan Scannell said “Progress has been made but the challenge remains to be done.” This collective acknowledgement from the Boston community ensured that the IPC could continue to develop its outreach to reach the most vulnerable immigrants.
Particularly important to acknowledge in this early fundraising effort was the unwavering support of the late Tom Flatley, who personally donated $10,000 to assist IPC - Boston in its mission. Alongside this, Mr. Flatley requested that donations be made to the IPC - Boston in lieu of flowers at his Mother’s funeral, which took place in the spring of 1989. Gregory Ashe, a member of Mayor Ray Flynn’s administration, was central to gaining the financial support of City Hall at the time, another important factor in the development of the IPC - Boston’s outreach efforts. IPC – Boston received its first funding from the Government of Ireland in 1990 and this now yearly contribution from the Department of Foreign Affairs has sustained us in our mission in large measure, allowing for the continued provision of our social, legal and pastoral services.
The support for the work of the center hasn’t wavered over the last 30 years, and the physical and financial contributions from the Irish community have ensured that the IPC’s mission has been maintained. Without the early drives for IPC - Boston funding, however, the center might never have developed in the way it has. IPC - Boston, and the community we strive to serve, are most grateful for the support the organization has received throughout the years. We aim to be a fixture within the Boston community for many more years, and we hope you will continue to join us on our journey.
With the opening of the Irish Pastoral Centre’s offices in 1988, there was finally a center which could welcome the ‘New Irish’ and help them adjust to life in America. Throughout the late 1980’s the demand for the assistance of the Irish Pastoral Centre continued to increase as more and more young Irish immigrants arrived in Boston. At St. Mark’s Parish in Dorchester, the Irish Pastoral Centre was in the heart of the Irish community, however, as the numbers of undocumented Irish continued to grow, so did the Irish communities in areas outside of Dorchester. The IPC was very conscious of the numbers of Irish spread throughout the city of Boston, and as a result the outreach efforts at the time had to extend not only to the Irish in Dorchester, but further afield in Quincy, Brighton, Allston, Watertown, Roslindale and West Roxbury.
Sr. Veronica Dobson was the only full time member of staff through 1988 and most of 1989, supported part-time by Fr. Finn and Fr. Ronaghan. The staff felt that they were only scratching the surface of the issues being faced by the ‘new Irish’ and realized there was a need for more full time support. In 1988 a request was made of Cardinal Law to extend an invitation to Irish Chaplains, via the Irish Episcopal Commission of Emigration, to assist the IPC in meeting the varying needs of the newly arrived Irish immigrants. Following this request Bishop Eamon Casey of Galway visited Boston to discuss the details of these ‘missions’ by Irish priests with Cardinal Law.
In September 1989 the first Irish chaplains arrived in Boston to work with the young migrant Irish population at the IPC. Fr. Jerry O’Donnell and Fr. Jerry Burns, both from Mayo, arrived from Ireland on what was intended to be a three year mission with the IPC. Although Fr. Jerry O’Donnell was based at Sacred Heart Church in Roslindale, and Fr. Burns was based in St. Ambrose Parish in Fields Corner, both of the chaplains took their ministry to the places where the young Irish community were found throughout greater Boston. The familiarity of the Irish chaplains acted as a gentle reminder of home, and it was through the relationships formed with the community that the barriers and fears to seeking help were broken down. With the arrival of Fathers O’Donnell and Burns, the IPC could extend its ministry of hospitality and welcome to Irish throughout the city of Boston, becoming a ‘parish without boundaries’.
The Irish Pastoral Centre was established 30 years ago, in 1987, to respond to the needs of a growing immigrant Irish population in the greater Boston area. It is understood that there were in the region of 20,000 undocumented Irish in Boston in the mid 80’s in search of a new prosperous life in the United States. These immigrants left Ireland during one of the most severe periods of recession experienced there, with unemployment affecting around 18% of the employable population. Conversely, the unemployment rate in Boston in the mid 80’s was around 4%. The number of visas available to the immigrant Irish at the time did not meet demand and so many individuals arrived on temporary holiday and work visas, which they overstayed due to the opportunities available to them in the United States. However, adjusting to life in the United States posed difficulty, particularly for the undocumented. From the outset, the Irish Pastoral Centre aimed to assist the immigrant Irish to ensure their successful adjustment to life in Boston.
Between 1984 and 1987 there was a significant increase in the number of young Irish in the Dorchester parishes. During this time, Fr. John Ronaghan and Fr. Dan Finn began ministering to the Irish community in their homes, and via meetings in the pubs, clubs, dancehalls and the established groups and societies, like the GAA. Fr. Ronaghan brought to the attention of Cardinal Law and the Archdiocese of Boston the great numbers of ‘new Irish’ that had arrived in the parishes of Dorchester. At the request of the Archdiocese, the parish of St. Mark’s played host to a priest from the Diocese of Raphoe in Donegal, Fr. Cathal O’Fearraí, who would spend a number of months in the spring of 1987 assessing the needs of the ‘New Irish’ in Boston. Fr. O’Fearraí reported these needs to the Archdiocese of Boston, and his own Diocese in Donegal, after meeting with the large cohorts of the young Irish immigrant community. The Irish Pastoral Centre was initiated as a direct response to these reports.
The first organized meeting of what would become the Irish Pastoral Centre was held in August 1987 in St. Mark’s Church in Dorchester. This first meeting was attended by over 800 members of the Irish immigrant community, alongside members of the Haitian and Hispanic communities. At St. Mark’s, Mayor Ray Flynn offered the services of Boston’s Community Health Centers and Boston City Hospital to alleviate some of the concerns regarding the undocumented accessing healthcare, and also the services of the Immigrant Rights office at City Hall to offer advice and information regarding immigration related issues. Within the community, however, there was a need for an organization, and a physical center, which could welcome the newly arrived Irish with open arms. This was the space that would ultimately be filled by the Irish Pastoral Centre, and the organization has played an important role within the Boston Irish community since these early beginnings in Dorchester, all those years ago.