As Ireland entered a century that would see as many as a million of its own starve to death and another million flee the island’s impoverished clutches, an ocean away an aristocratic Frenchman was in the process of establishing one of the world’s great industrial enterprises on the banks of a creek called Brandywine.
As the 1800’s rolled forward, that company, E.I. du Pont de Nemours, would steadily grow, fueled by a pipeline that brought thousands of workers from Ireland to its home in Wilmington, forever changing the culture of this state and the history of the world in the process.
The original French-Irish Connection was forged by a shared antipathy for the British and legendary faith that a monk named Patrick had fine-tuned his evangelizing chops in France before shipping across the Celtic Sea to Christianize the Emerald Isle – niftily banishing the land’s snakes in the process.
Twelve hundred years later, this new world connection was hatched, born of black powder and the need for skilled laborers to produce it.
In her book Black Powder, White Lace: The du Pont Irish and Cultural Identity in Nineteenth Century America, Padua Academy and UD graduate Margaret Mulrooney explains that the Ulster-born Irish who came to Delaware were actually better-off and more educated than most Irish immigrants who fled 19th Century privation in their homeland to build new lives in the United States.[i]
These “du Pont Irish” differed from the “famine Irish” in many ways, beginning with a deep identification with their local counties in Ulster. The northern-most Irish province was generally more developed and industrialized, avoiding the worst of the mid-century potato famine that ravaged so much of the island. Professor Mulrooney writes that many of the Irish who came to work for Du Pont hailed from bustling market towns with access to the linen trade or they were “strong farmers” with greater tenant rights than their countrymen in the south. They were also a highly literate population.
While most were Catholic (some Presbyterian), these Irish were not devout mass-going folks in the way we might envision. In a land where Catholics had been persecuted and marginalized, priests and churches were few and far between. And some Irish still clung to earthy superstitions of fairies and banshees.
So while the parish church was never the center of their community in Ireland, the Church came to be a critical focus of the immigrant Irish experience in America.
It was in this context that a new Catholic church sprung just steps from the mills one hundred and seventy five years ago, a milestone being celebrated this year by parishioners of St. Joseph’s on the Brandywine in what is today an affluent suburb called Greenville.
Establishment of the church was in a way a joint project of a paternalistic DuPont Company and the Diocese of Philadelphia (Wilmington would become its own diocese, together with the counties of Maryland and Virginia’s Eastern Shore, in 1868). The company invested greatly in training and developing its workers, offering cradle-to-grave benefits for them and their families, and a du Pont donated land for the new house of worship.
The grave could never have been far from the minds of workers in this hazardous business of producing explosive powder, and faithful seeking solace and sacraments had few options that didn’t require several good miles’ walk. St. Peter’s was established in Wilmington decades earlier and as far back as the mid 1700s, priests had been ministering to the Catholic community in and around “Coffee Run” near Hockessin near where St. Mary of the Assumption stands today.
Into the 19th and early 20th century the Delaware Catholic population grew, and churches were established to serve clusters of other new European immigrants in Wilmington including Germans (Sacred Heart), Polish (St. Hedwig’s) and Italians (St. Anthony’s).
To enter St. Joseph’s sanctum one must navigate graveyards on all sides, filled with ancient, weather-beaten tombstones marking the hearty lives of people like “Thomas Ferry – 1848 – 53 years old” and “Michael and Agatha Hasset, 1859 and 1864.”
A cemetery like that suggests a sly bit of marketing aimed at those wobbly about investing an hour in the pews, a not-so-subtle reminder of our mortality and the unavoidable fact that, in the uplifting words of the great Irish-American poet Jim Morrison, no one here gets out alive.
[i] Dr. Mulrooney is a professor and Assistant Vice Provost at James Madison University. She gave a superb talk on her book at Hagley Museum in March of 2014, which can be viewed here: http://www.hagley.org/librarynews/video-black-powder-white-lace-du-pont-irish-and-cultural-identity-nineteenth-century