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Carnegie’s Maid: A Novel: Chapter 28


December 26, 1865

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Several stops before my Reynolds Street destination, my streetcar pulled into the Liberty Street Station. The station was dark, save for the light of the ticket taker’s window. Only sparsely populated with waiting passengers at this late hour, the platform looked nearly desolate. When I left Patrick’s home half an hour earlier, I had intended to go directly back to Reynolds Street, but now, I felt compelled to leave the streetcar. I thought I might find solace in the Catholic church, Pittsburgh’s only one, that was near the station.

Drawn to the sole illumination on the platform, I asked the uniformed ticket taker, “Can you please tell me the way to Seventeenth Street, sir?”

Glancing up from his task of sorting used tickets, he looked at me askance. “Are you heading to St. Patrick Church?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Wouldn’t have taken you for a Catholic.” He spat out the words.

Shocked at his blatant insult—I knew Catholics weren’t exactly revered in Pittsburgh, but I thought tolerance was more prevalent here than at home—I recoiled and turned to walk away. Behind me, he relented and called out, “Head west down Liberty, and in a few blocks, Seventeenth will intersect with it.”

Wide enough to accommodate several lanes of traffic, though hardly better lined with cobblestone than a dirt road, Liberty Avenue stretched before me, as busy as if it were noon on a regular workday. Gaslights lined the street, providing just enough brightness for me to observe the ravages of factory smoke on the storefronts and the black snow underfoot. Horses pulled overladen carriages on the street, stopping to unload crates and bins wherever convenient. Delivery boys, merchants closing up shop, and mill workers starting the evening shift pushed past me, not rudely but with purpose.

I almost walked past the place I sought. Not until I saw a circular tower topped by a cross jutting out from behind a warehouse crowded with carriages and workmen on the corner of Liberty and Seventeenth did I crane my neck to look. There, in the midst of the crowded, commercial city block stood St. Patrick Church, a rectangular stone-and-wood building, plain save for another cross over the front door and the stone tower attached to its side. Even though the structure was simple and unobtrusive compared to the Presbyterian houses of worship that populated the streets of Homewood, St. Patrick was far more elaborate than the Catholic churches at home. Because of the governmental prohibitions on practicing Catholicism in Galway, worship had taken place in makeshift, single-room, thatched structures or the open air, as safety would allow. Only in recent years were more permanent and substantial Catholic churches built in Ireland, but even then, they had the dual purpose of serving as the local schools.

Ironically, I had Mrs. Carnegie and the elder Mr. Carnegie to thank for my knowledge of this church, one of only a handful of Catholic churches in the entire Western Pennsylvania region. One evening last winter, during a regular business conversation between my mistress and her elder son, they discussed an earlier iteration of St. Patrick Church that had existed on Fourteenth Street. The Pennsylvania Railroad wanted the Fourteenth Street site for the railroad expansion that Mr. Carnegie anticipated would be necessary after the end of the Civil War, and at his behest, the railroad had purchased a lot on Seventeenth Street and began work on a new St. Patrick, with the goal of tearing down the Fourteenth Street church and building a railroad facility on the site. The St. Patrick Church near where I now stood was finished and dedicated very recently, on December 15, not even two weeks ago.

The newness of the church was evident from the incomplete, rough exterior and the piles of bricks and wood lining the walkway to the front door. Evidently, they’d rushed to finish enough so that it could be used for the Christmas services but would still have to finalize construction. There was nothing unfinished about the front door, however, with its hefty oak material, intricately carved scenes from the life of Christ, and the numerous padlocks.

I suddenly felt nervous. I had not stepped foot in a Catholic church since I had left Ireland. I couldn’t. Everyone thought I was Clara Kelley, good Anglo-Irish Protestant, and consequently, I attended the ten o’clock Presbyterian service with the rest of the staff. Would I be struck down, as Mum had so often warned us girls would happen if we skipped mass? I had always dismissed her admonitions as old-fashioned superstitions, but I felt unsettled.

A stack of newspapers sat outside the forbidding front door, and to assuage my anxiety, I picked one up. It was a Catholic Herald. Flipping through it as I stepped into the church foyer, I discovered that, while it included a few articles about goings-on in different parishes, the bulk of the publication contained advertisements from Irish Catholics looking for their lost relatives in America.

July 25, 1865

Information Wanted: Of James Larkin, a native of County Cork, Ireland, about eight years since. He was said to have resided principally in this city. Any information concerning him will be thankfully received by a distressed mother, who has lately come to this country in search of him. Address, care of the Editor of the Catholic Herald.

September 4, 1865

Information Wanted: Of Brigid McLeary, a girl of fourteen years of age. She left her native place in the County of Donegal, Ireland, about three months ago, with the notion of emigrating to some part of North America, probably Pittsburgh. Any information respecting her will be thankfully received by her mother, Mary Doherty, in the care of Father Reilly, Washington Parish, Pa.

October 22, 1865

Information Wanted: Of Joseph, son of Michael O’Neil, who left his father at the Hoosac Tunnel in the year 1863, then about sixteen years old, and last heard from by his brother James working on the York Canal. He said he was going to Pittsburgh. Any information about him will be thankfully received by Father Condron, Beaver Parish, Pa.

November 11, 1865

Information Wanted: Of Jonathan O’Rourke, lately from County Limerick, Ireland, who came to this city from Boston about seven weeks ago. His wife and three children are now in this city, without means of subsistence. Any information of him will be thankfully received at No. 57 Beechview Avenue, where they have temporary residence.

I felt heartsick at these messages. Irish wives, children, siblings, and parents searching for their lost loved ones, who had immigrated to this country seeking hope but instead became adrift in the great mass of immigrants that washed up on American shores. Where was Jonathan O’Rourke? Had his wife and children found him, or had they died without his “subsistence”? What about poor fourteen-year-old Brigid? Was she simply hard at work as a domestic in Sewickley, without a spare moment to write, or had she become prey to the unscrupulous runners on the New York docks? If I had not taken the place of the real Clara Kelley, and if she’d had a family back home in Ireland, would they have posted an advertisement like this for her? My fate could have easily matched any of these poor folk. I felt like crying for each and every one of these forlorn souls, but no tears would come.

I pushed open the door to the church interior. It was dark, lit only by the flicker of votive candles lining the altar and the low gaslight of an enormous brass chandelier dangling high above the church floor. Despite the hour, I saw five parishioners scattered across the wooden pews. My shoes clattered as I walked down the aisle, but none of the other churchgoers looked up. They were deep in their prayers. Anyone here at this hour must have a serious matter about which to pray, I guessed. I certainly did.

I wondered what this church would be like filled with the sort of music that Mr. Carnegie experienced in Europe. His letters contained wondrous descriptions of the music performed at the Pope’s choir in Rome, in cathedrals of France and Germany, and at the Crystal Palace in London. The words from his letter detailing the Handel Anniversary celebration at the Crystal Palace had stayed with me: “I cannot accurately share how the majesty of music surged through me as I listened to nearly four thousand musicians playing the Israel in Egypt oratorio. The vast cast-iron and plate-glass structure built for the Great Exhibition, nearly one million square feet in all and containing more glass than ever used in a building before, felt as though it pulsated with the divine.” I wondered if I could find my own semblance of divine in this church, bereft of music though it was.

Sliding into a pew toward the back of the church, I kneeled on the hard stone floor. I whispered a rosary’s worth of Our Fathers and Hail Marys before I even allowed myself to think about my personal prayers. Requests for the safety of Mum, Dad, Cecelia, and Eliza flooded in, followed by entreaties for guidance as to how I might best help them. Prayers asking for help in forgiving Dad for putting his family at risk and placing his eldest daughter across the Atlantic, expecting her to thrive in a world different from her home.

The tears came, thinking of Eliza’s latest letter to me and her blissful ignorance over the cause of our family’s despair.

Dad says our situation is not near as dire as the days of the famine. Then, he says, people were dying in the roads by the hundreds, and bodies were piled up on street corners as there was not room enough in the churchyards for all the dead that needed burying. He points to his and Cecelia’s employment and the food we have on the nightly table and claims we are faring just fine. But, Clara, this is not fine. This is survival only. Cecelia and I realize now how idyllic our life on the farm was—even Cecelia reminisces fondly about chores she used to complain about bitterly, like cleaning out the animals’ pen—and how dependent we were upon the acreage Dad had amassed. Although I know it is a sin to hate, I loathe the Martyns for the misguided revenge they have exacted on us all. They not only lost us the farm, but they lost me Daniel. We’ve learned that he’s promised to wed the Flanagan girl, whose father has over ten acres. On hearing the news, I felt as though my heart was breaking all over again.

The sole blessing is the money you send us in your regular mail parcels. The foresight Papa had in sending you to America can only be attributed to the Blessed Mary herself. Let nothing hinder your writing to us, save for the work that keeps us all safe, as there is no greater pleasure in these trying days than to receive a letter from you, dear sister. Perhaps one day, we will be able to amass enough by scrimping to pay for a voyage to America ourselves. What great pleasure it would be to see your shining face again.

Anger at Dad began to build in me again, and as I prayed for the Lord’s help in delivering me from my rage, illumination poured forth from the altar directly upon me. I wasn’t audacious enough to think that the light was some sort of divine sign, and when I squinted my eyes and stared at the altar, I saw its source. A priest, candle in hand, stood at the altar, setting out a paten and flagon, perhaps for a midnight mass.

But the light had sparked an idea. One that might provide a pathway for me and for my family. It made me realize that the way out of despair was not from an external source but an internal one. Perhaps I need only follow Mr. Carnegie’s lead.

Weary from the day’s events and my own emotions, I shuffled back to the station to hop on the streetcar. Once I arrived at Homewood Station, I hopped onto a milk wagon willing to drop me at Fairfield as part of its delivery route. When I finally arrived at the servants’ door of the Carnegies’ home, exhausted and half-frozen, I found Mr. Ford sitting at the kitchen’s central table. Normally, if he was awake past midnight, he was busily engaged in a preparatory task for the next day. Not tonight.

“Mr. Ford, it’s nice to see a friendly face when coming in on a cold winter’s night.”

He nodded but did not offer his usual broad smile. He remained stock-still.

“Thank you again for the generous cut of beef. My family doesn’t often enjoy meat like that. It was a treat for us all.”

Again, the nod. And silence.

“Whatever is wrong, Mr. Ford?”

An envelope sat before him, slit across its top. Without a word, he slid it across the table to me.

“I assume you’ve read this?” I asked.

“James read it to me. I don’t read myself.”

“You want me to read it aloud to you again?”

“No, I don’t think I could bear it.”

Gingerly removing the letter from the envelope, I saw that it was written by an employee of the Freedmen’s Bureau, a newly formed federal government agency designed to help former slaves. One of its primary goals was to help former slaves find family members from whom they had become separated during the war. Knowing Mr. Ford’s situation, I felt sick.

“‘We are responding to your inquiry into the whereabouts of your wife, Ruth Ford, and daughter, Mabel, who were last seen on the Francis Plantation,’” I read. After several statements about the role of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the scope of its authority, I continued, “‘We regret to inform you that no former slaves by those names or descriptions have been identified at the Francis Plantation.’”

I reached for Mr. Ford’s hands and looked into his eyes. The spark usually found there had deadened. Without the hope that had buoyed him for years, he seemed unmoored in tumultuous waters.

“Maybe they have already left the South and are making their way north as we speak?”

“The Francis Plantation records did not show Ruth or Mabel as having ever been there. Not that they were once there but are now gone. I don’t know where else to look for them.”

I felt as heartsick as I had when reading the Catholic Herald advertisements. So many souls lost in the tidal waves of this land. “What terrible news, Mr. Ford. But I am certain that all is not lost. There must be other ways than the Freedmen’s Bureau to track people down. And I’m sure that the Carnegies would help—”

He put up his hand to stop me. “They’re gone, Miss Kelley. I was a fool to hope otherwise. Since I lost them in that tunnel all those years ago, I’ve known they were gone.”


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