The organ at St. Patrick Congregation on 7th and Washington streets in Milwaukee doesn’t get much use these days. The music that accompanies the Mass is more often provided by the piano or other instruments.
Nevertheless, the organ has an important function once a year — to provide the music for the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade Mass, organized by the Shamrock Club of Wisconsin in an effort to keep the focus of the holiday not on green beer and corned beef and cabbage, but on the very real saint credited for converting Ireland to Christianity.
“With our type of Mass and the music that we play, an organ is required,” said Chuck McLaughlin, longtime parade Mass coordinator. “The whole feeling of the Mass is to have that organ playing.”
So when the organ required a tune-up after several months of not being played, it was the Shamrock Club that rallied its members – and their wallets – to pay for the service.
“When we have our Mass, it’s not used until the following year,” said McLaughlin. “We’re the only ones who use the organ, so while it’s sitting all year long at different temperatures and everything else, it finally got to the point where we had to do something. I put together a fundraiser and the club came through very well, and we were able to fix it up.
“Now that we put it out about the organ being in trouble (from disuse), I’ve gotten some calls from people suggesting that if they could come in and play it to keep it going.”
Club pays up for tune-up
The club published an appeal in its February “Emerald Reflections” newsletter which raised about $1,000 to pay for the tune-up.
McLaughlin said he was surprised and gratified by the generous response of club members and attributed it to their fondness for what was originally a largely Irish parish that still holds great meaning for the Irish-American community.
“I would imagine there’s sentiment toward St. Patrick’s Church, and it’s such a beautiful church and it’s such a ceremony for us,” he said.
Organ represents community’s heritage
The Shamrock Club has a longstanding relationship with St. Patrick congregation and its organ, which McLaughlin said was manufactured by the Milwaukee-based Schuelke Organ Company. Schuelke organs are rare, said McLaughlin; there are only a few others like the one at St. Patrick, though St. Francis of Assisi Church on Fourth Street in Milwaukee also has a Schuelke organ.
In the early 1990s, when the aging instrument was in need of dramatic restoration and cleaning, the Shamrock Club came to the rescue.
“It was in pretty rough shape,” said McLaughlin. At the time, the parish did not have funds to fix the organ, and had just finished up an extensive fundraising effort to repair its stained-glass windows.
Jerry Hill, a Shamrock Club member who spearheaded the efforts in the early 1990s to repair the organ, recalled a conversation with the pastor at the time.
“When he finished the windows, I said, ‘Father, what about the pipe organ? What can we do to get that organ to play?’ He said, ‘Don’t speak to me about it because we don’t have the money!’ I said, ‘I didn’t say anything about money, did I?’”
Because of the importance of the organ to the parade day Mass, and the significance of the church to the history of Milwaukee’s Irish community, the Shamrock Club convened a group of members to repair it.
“They had a fellow that said they could do some of these repairs, but there was a lot of physical work involved,” said Shamrock Club member Jack Noonan, who along with his wife assisted in the project.
Two years of free labor
Under the supervision of a professional, Hill, Noonan, fellow Shamrock Club members Erv Jankowiak, Joe Donovan and others spent close to two years providing free labor to save the parish money on the instrument’s repairs.
“I collected a few people from the Shamrock Club and from the Knights of Columbus, and as the thing went on, as friends would lose their mate, I would say, hey why don’t you come down to St. Patrick’s and work with us? It’ll keep your mind off what you can’t change,” recalled Hill. “We built a family of people that would go down there twice a week.”
“All the pipes from the organ had to be taken out – under each pipe is a leather bellows, and the organ was not played for many years, so all those bellows, the leather is all cracked and had to be replaced, and that’s all hand labor,” said Noonan. “The pipes had to come out and you had to remove all those old pieces of leather and cut new ones and glue them in place, and then all the pipes had to be cleaned, and we actually had the pipes all painted gold, also. We did a lot of the bull work and the ladies did a lot of the cleaning.”
Hill said that, at the time, the parish only had to spend about $26,000 to repair the organ; the money came from a deceased parishioner’s bequest and was also donated by the Ancient Order of the Hibernians and Knights of Columbus.
Bringing the Irish back for a day
The St. Patrick’s parade day Mass celebrated its 31st year Saturday, March 12. The liturgy features Irish hymns from the Shamrock Club Choir as well as readings in Gaelic and English, and an honor guard is provided by the Shamrock Club Color Guard, Pipes and Drums.
The liturgy was originally proposed by a Shamrock Club member and native Irishman, Joseph Pembroke.
“He couldn’t get it in his head why we didn’t have Mass here, where in Ireland it’s a holy day. We were just talking just casually one day and he said, you know we ought to start up a Mass, and I said, you know, Joe, I’m thinking along the same lines,” said McLaughlin.
It was suggested that the Mass be held at St. Catherine or St. Sebastian parishes to be closer to where the parade began at that time, but Pembroke insisted it be held at St. Patrick, said Noonan.
“He said it doesn’t make any difference (where the church is) – you should start the day off honoring the saint. You’ve got a St. Patrick’s Church in your town; you should have it at that parish.”
When the Gothic revival-style church was built in 1895, St. Patrick served a largely Irish-American community, including McLaughlin’s ancestors on both sides. He was baptized at the church and remained a member for many years, though he now attends Immaculate Heart of Mary, West Allis.
Still, it holds a special place in the hearts of many of Milwaukee’s Irish, who make their annual pilgrimage to the parade day Mass. McLaughlin said he still attends Mass there on occasion, and Hill said when his wife died in the 1990s, in lieu of flowers, he asked for donations for the church’s stained glass window fund.
The congregation, celebrating its 140th anniversary, is composed of a different immigrant group. About 90 percent of parishioners are Hispanic, said Jesuit Fr. Timothy Manatt, pastor. There are two Sunday Masses in Spanish and one in English.
“When I first approached St. Patrick’s, they were mainly Spanish then, too, and the priest said to me – Fr. Paulie at the time – said, you know, this (church) is primarily Spanish now,” said McLaughlin. “And my comment to him was, ‘Father, I just want to bring the Irish back for at least one day a year!’”