Growing up in Charlestown in the 1950s and 60s was equivalent to doing the same in any small town in any county of Ireland. All your friends were Irish, the families in your neighborhood were Irish, the priests were Irish, or at least had an Irish mother, such as Fr. Novello, and all the nuns were either from the “old country” or of Irish descent. You didn’t have to go too far to hear a lilt in the air of the Irish dialect.
Unlike today, we didn’t have to travel out of the neighborhood to buy anything we needed. We had clothing stores, cobblers, shoe stores, hardware stores, 5 & 10s, meat markets, bakeries, food markets, a movie theatre and any other kind of establishment that could fulfill your shopping list. You name it -- we had it. So self contained were we that it was hard to even imagine that another world existed outside this square mile.
Every child was so cared for by family and neighbors that it was unimaginable to think that there could ever have been people who held a grudge against the Irish. But that, apparently, was not the way it was for our ancestors living here more than a century before I entered the scene.
The rich history of Charlestown includes decades of anti-Catholic (in particular Irish Catholic) hatred that brought misery, hardship and even death to that population.
The “Know Nothings,” a residential group that held title to these sacred acres, didn’t want the “uncultured scourge” cohabitating the area and bring “disease” and “petulance” to them and theirs. Battles took place, both on land and in the courts, to prevent this from happening. The hardest felt battle took place at a plot of land at the top of Bunker’s Hill, now known at the .
When the Irish Famine hit, millions of men and women fled their homeland in search of a better life. Hundreds of thousands of these immigrants landed in Boston and spilled into the tenements of places like the North End. As you would expect, many of them were so deprived of nutrition, not only from what they faced at home but from the long voyage across the ocean, they didn’t survive to find their dream come true, thus creating a situation of where to find a blessed burial ground to place them, as was their custom.
The only Catholic Cemetery of St. Augustine’s in South Boston soon filled to capacity and land was found in Charlestown by the Boston Catholic Archdiocese to accommodate this rapidly growing need.
Up to six funerals would take place each day at this new location, many of them children whose families were without funds to pay for a “proper” internment. Heartbroken parents would be forced to leave their child, neatly dressed and wrapped in the mother’s shawl in a wooden box on the newly blessed, sacred land during the middle of the night with great shame of the family‘s plight that they could not afford the $6 fee.
Over 400 children are believed to have met this fate and were buried in a “pauper’s pit.” They lay there nameless, to this day, and all but forgotten other than by ancestors with a line in their Bible denoting their birth.
Two years ago this month, the Charlestown Historical Society and the Parish of St. Francis de Sales dedicated a memorial in their honor. The Children of the Famine Memorial, located within the entrance to the cemetery, has become a tourist attraction through its beauty and remarkable story.
Thousands have ventured to view this dramatic, yet inspiring location with manicured lawn. Cradled beneath the watchful eye of St. Francis and the heavenly blue skies bearing the sun’s rays upon their resting place, these Irish children have not been forgotten by a community that cherishes their families’ contributions toward a more peaceful co-existence within a new land.
A rededication ceremony of the memorial will take place on Sunday, Sept. 18. Starting with Mass at 11 o’clock at St. Francis de Sales Church, celebrated by Bishop Robert Hennessy and Fr. Dan Mahoney, Pastor, the event will continue into the cemetery for a blessing of the Children of the Famine Memorial Celtic Cross, followed by a collation in the parish hall.
Now that you know a little bit more about the history behind this memorial, I hope you will attend and show your support in remembrance of another great moment of the rich heritage of this town we love so well.