By Robert Somerville
One of the Irish Pastoral Centre’s longest running programs is the Irish prisoner visitation program. This program was initiated in the mid-90s by Fr. Ted Linehan, then chaplain at the IPC, to provide support to Irish individuals detained in New England’s prisons, and to those navigating the judicial system. In many cases, Irish individuals who find themselves in criminal proceedings lack the support of family and friends during both their court hearings, and time spent in prison. Imprisonment is a very isolating and intimidating experience, and having the physical and emotional support of a chaplain, social worker, volunteer or friend can be of significant benefit.
Over the course of the last twenty years, the Irish Pastoral Centre has assisted over 20 Irish men and women in long term incarceration throughout New England in its State and Federal prisons. Including those placed in short term detention, often undocumented immigrants picked up on Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers, the IPC has assisted countless numbers of imprisoned Irish immigrants. The program, initiated by Fr. Ted Linehan, has been led throughout the last twenty years by Sr. Veronica Dobson, Sr. Marguerite Kelly, Fr. Jimmy Kelly, Fr. John McCarthy, and now Fr. Dan Finn, however, the most important asset to the program are its dedicated volunteers, namely Denis Moynihan.
Denis Moynihan, a native of Dromtariffe in Co. Cork, has been an intrinsic part of the IPC’s prison visitation program since being encouraged to participate by his cousin, Fr. Ted Linehan in 1997. Since his first introduction to supporting Irish prisoners, Denis has been a constant fixture within the program, supporting multiple Irish individuals for the duration of their time in Boston area prisons. Over the course of his twenty years volunteering in the program, Denis has built meaningful relationships with Irish prisoners through time spent in visiting rooms, sharing news from home, liaising with family members, providing a supportive ear – by being a friend. Denis regrets the assumption that ‘everyone who is behind bars is a bad person’, stating that there are ‘some very good people behind prison walls’ if they are given them the time of day. Denis acknowledges the difficult circumstances under which he comes to build these relationships, but speaks of the importance of a single positive encounter on the life of someone in prison. Denis also supports Irish prisoners’ family members if they ever make trips to the U.S. to visit their loved one, helping them to settle in Boston and navigate the complicated visiting procedures in the area prisons.
Being imprisoned is a ‘tough position’, states Denis, even without being thousands of miles away from home, friends, and families. The support offered by Denis, and the IPC Prison Visitation Program, goes a small way in ameliorating some of the difficulty experienced by Irish prisoners. In our 30th year, Denis would like to see more people come on board with the IPC’s prison visitation program, as he feels it can change people’s lives for the better – rewarding both prisoner and volunteer. Of their relationships with Denis, Irish individuals in prison have described him ‘like family’; a compliment of the highest order for a man that has given so much to the IPC and to the Irish community in the Boston area, and a true testament to the effect of his relationships with imprisoned Irish men and women. Go raibh maith agat, Denis.
By Robert Somerville
Strength is often found in numbers, and this is most true in the context of responses to the immigrant experience here in the United States. In the 1980s and 1990s the situation for Irish immigrants in the U.S. was at crisis point, with legal immigration from Ireland essentially an impossibility and with most immigrants under the age of 30 being ‘out of status’, or undocumented. The task at hand was too great for responses in isolation, and this was understood not least by the Consulate of Ireland and its Consul General at the time, Brendan Scannell. The Irish Pastoral Centre was ultimately borne of the meeting of Brendan Scannell with community leaders, immigration reform advocates and members of the Archdiocese of Boston. One of the most important participants in these meetings was the Massachusetts Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and it’s State Board Chairman of Immigration, Jack Meehan.
The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) was founded in 1836 as a response to the threat faced by Catholic Churches, members of the clergy, and Irish immigrants from ‘American Nativists’. Since the organization’s inception it has been charged with a primary mission: to work on behalf of newly arrived immigrants from Ireland by providing friendship, advice and support. The support offered to Irish immigrants by the AOH has been wide ranging, including influential political and social activism and advocacy. In the political arena, the AOH utilised its wide ranging network to put pressure on legislators. An example of the importance of their support was demonstrated in the passage of the Donnelly (NP5) and Morrisson (AA1) Visa programs in 1989 alongside the Irish Immigration Reform Movement.
Jack Meehan, now National President Emeritus of the AOH in America, was instrumental in the beginnings of the Irish Pastoral Centre and he has maintained his support for Irish immigrants in America over the last 30 years. In his position as Massachusetts Board Chairman of Immigration, Jack spearheaded progressive change in respect of immigration and the immigrant experience and he continued to press the issue in his two terms as National President of the AOH in America. In 2011, Jack was awarded the ‘Golden Bridges’ award by the Irish Echo in Boston, recognising his more than thirty years advocating for the undocumented. Without the support of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and Jack Meehan, one of the IPC’s most important early programs might never have been realised.
In partnership with the AOH and Consul General Brendan Scannell, the IPC led a significant fundraising effort in 1989. This fundraising effort not only secured the short term future of the Centre, but also allowed for the implementation of a ‘hardship fund’. This hardship fund was significant for many Irish immigrants who found themselves and their families in difficulty. The fund was designed to meet an immediate short term financial need, such as rent, heating and electricity costs, and repatriation in the event of an emergency. The AOH received applications to the hardship fund, which were then referred to Sr. Veronica and the chaplains at the IPC for assistance. While there was no legal obligation to return the financial aid, applicants understood that in returning the assistance, where possible, would allow for the fund to go further and help more immigrant families in need.
The IPC Hardship Fund operated for a number of years, up until the mid 1990s, helping countless Irish immigrants in a very practical way. The assistance of the AOH in advancing and operating the fund, and also in founding the IPC, was instrumental, and without it many individual’s immigrant experience would not have been as successful. Jack Meehan extends his, and the AOH’s “sincere thanks to the dozens of groups and hundreds of individuals who could be counted on to extend the hand of friendship in so many ways to [their] efforts on behalf of the undocumented Irish community”. The IPC mirrors this thanks, and also expresses our gratitude to Jack Meehan and the Ancient Order of Hibernians for their continued support.
By Robert Somerville
While the Irish Pastoral Centre has many contributors to thank for the organization’s creation, few played as important a role in the process as Fr. John Ronaghan. Fr. John, whose family immigrated to Prince Edward Island from County Monaghan, was pastor at St. Mark’s parish in Dorchester when the need for an Irish center was first mooted. Fr. Ronaghan, now based at the Weymouth Collaborative of Immaculate Conception and St. Jerome, spoke recently of his time at the Irish Pastoral Centre.
Fr. Ronaghan was charged with assessing the need within the Irish community by the Archdiocese of Boston and the late Cardinal Law. Fr. John employed an unusual form of outreach: posting himself in the overwhelming number of Irish bars in Boston. Fr. John recalled recently, how he would meet many of the young Irish in one of Dot Ave’s twenty (plus) Irish pubs after Mass on a given Sunday. It was here that the young Irish felt most comfortable conversing and confiding. Many of the young Irish were without status, and didn’t feel safe, or welcome necessarily, congregating in traditional forums, such as Boston’s parishes.
Fr. John realized that a formal Irish support structure was required following a request from a young Irish woman to celebrate a mass in her home for her mother, who was unwell at home in Ireland. Expecting a handful of close friends and family members, Fr. John was overwhelmed when he found the house was filled to the brim with young Irish immigrants. The parishes in Dorchester were overwhelmed by the rise in immigrant parishioners in the 1980s, and the Diocese responded by creating ‘ethnic ministries’ to cope with the ethnic and cultural needs of these communities. With the support of the Archdiocese and the Consul General of Ireland, Fr. John was appointed Director of Irish Pastoral services for the Archdiocese of Boston.
The formation of the Irish Pastoral Centre followed shortly thereafter, and it was, according to Fr. John, a powerful ‘statement made by the Archdiocese’ in that these young Irish immigrants were ‘welcome here in the city of Boston’. In speaking with Fr. John recently, it was discovered that the mission of the Irish Pastoral Centre in its inception was only a temporary one; five years long, to be more specific. Fr. John realized that the Irish Pastoral Centre was to be a permanent fixture in the Boston community when ‘suitcases would arrive at 20 Roseland Street before their owners’.
The young Irish immigrants of the 1980s ‘created a sense of enthusiasm and hope’ for the immigrant experience in Boston, according to Fr. Ronaghan. The new arrivals ‘integrated well into the community’, and there was ‘visible’ progress made in terms of overcoming challenges – these were the highlights of Fr. John’s experience of starting the IPC. The sense of togetherness, particularly following crisis in the event of a tragic death, was inspiring to many, not least Fr. Ronaghan.
The creation of the Irish Pastoral Centre was a success, according to Fr. Ronaghan, due to ‘the right people being in the right place at the right time’, but this fails to acknowledge Fr. Ronaghan’s own dedication to the IPC’s creation and its cause. Without Fr. Ronaghan’s contribution, the Irish Pastoral Centre could not have materialized and served the multiple thousands of community members it has over the last thirty years.