Pride Comes Before the Fall: The Life and Times of Patrick McEvey

St. John’s RC Church soaring above Federal Hill, with Holy Ghost RC Church (Italian) to the right.

Patrick McEvey was one of the lucky ones. Most of the Irish living in Providence in the 1860’s had flooded into the city in the aftermath of An Gorta Mór, the great famine of 1845 to 1852. They came destitute, hungry and ripe for being taken advantage of, by both Yankees and fellow Hibernians who were up to no good. With Patrick, it was different.

He arrived in New York on August 8, 1843, and by 1851 was living on with his sister, Rosanna and her husband, Dennis McCarthy, on Hope Street in the Fox Point section of Providence.
Whether he acquired his skills in Providence or in his native County Longford, by the 1850’s he was a skilled stonemason. It was this trade, and the support of his family, that made his transition from rural farm worker to urban worker relatively smooth.
In addition to his sister and brother-in-law, another sister, Ellen, lived in Providence with her husband, James Burke. Two brothers, Matthew and James and their mother were in the city, as well.
In January 1853, Patrick married Catherine Mary Riley. Together, they had at least nine children.
Patrick was a hustler. The money that he made as a mason fueled his investments in real estate on Federal Hill, where he was said to be living by 1855, and buying properties by 1858. We certainly see him on Atwells Avenue and Knight Street by 1861, living directly across the street from where Holy Ghost Roman Catholic Church is today.
Patrick lived just a few blocks from St. John’s.
His masonry blossomed into a construction business located a block up from his house on Atwells Avenue.
McCaughey was a neighbor & competitor.

 

In addition to construction and real estate, Patrick opened a grocery store by 1860. Grocery stores in the 1860’s served as more than just a place to get provisions. They were the pubs and restaurants of the period. During the day, these stores spread news and gossip, at night, they were a place for good cheer and familiar music. While Patrick had a license to sell wine and spirits for take-away, his sale of alcoholic beverages for consumption on his premises led to a number of arrests, detentions and lost court cases. He was not alone in this. Rhode Island Superior Court records are full of arrests for illegal sales of adult beverages.

Patrick did not hold a monopoly on the grocery business on the Hill. In fact, there were as many as twenty-four such establishments on Federal Hill by the late 1860’s, thirteen along Atwells Avenue, with more on Spruce and nearby Vinton and Trainor Streets.

One such grocer was his brother, James, whose store was diagonally across the street from Patrick.

Ryan, just a few blocks away specialized in
helping Irish bring relatives to
Providence, as well as helping others
to return home.

Family lore, published in the booklet, “Builders and Razers,”, by Joseph M. Lynch, credits Patrick, his brothers and brothers-in-law among the brave Irish men who took to the streets when “No Nothing” thugs threatened the nuns at the Sisters of Mercy home in March of 1855. A rumor that the nuns were holding a Yankee girl against her will led to a mob of anti-Irish near-do-wells who threatened the nuns, the children they cared for, and their home itself. Bishop O’Reilly called upon the parishioners of Sts. Peter and Paul to create a protective ring around the nunnery. The McEvey men answered the call.With such a densely populated neighborhood of Irish Catholics, it made sense to build a church on the Hill. Begun in the early 1870’s, St. John’s was a welcome addition to the neighborhood. The architect, James Murphy, was in the process of gaining great fame in New England for his ecclesiastical work. Murphy’s work can be seen today throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.

 

Perhaps an architects rendering of the finished building. If that is
the case then the intended tower was never completed.

Murphy chose Patrick’s construction company to do the work. The building of St. John’s was to be both Patrick McEvey’s greatest achievement, and his downfall.

About the time that he was completing work on St. John’s, McEvey made the decision to by a farm on Chalkstone Hill. He had the money and it was time to raise his family as he had been raised, in the countryside and on a farm.The building of the church was going fine until the economy fell into depression. What is historically referred to as the Panic of 1873 was a worldwide depression that lasted years.

With everyone scrambling to stay ahead of the creditors, Patrick found himself being pursued by the companies from which he had purchased brick and granite. He wasn’t the only one facing financial ruin. Dennis Campbell, the stucco man on the job, fought successfully in court against his creditors, as did Patrick Taggart, the carpentry contractor.
James Murphy’s company faced none of these charges, perhaps because the Church and the suppliers knew that Murphy’s firm had the legal power to successfully fight off any challenges. At their hearts, and for all their occupational success, McEvey, Campbell and Taggart were simple county lads with limited education and understanding of the ways of the American legal system.
McEvey might have had the same success in court as Campbell and Taggart, except for what happened next.

It was St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1873, and Patrick and Dennis Campbell were standing in front of the nearly finished St. John’s. Feeling proud of this monument to his work, right in the heart of his community, Patrick took up Dennis’ dare to climb the tower and “kiss the cross.”

The cross that Patrick kissed.

 

The climbing was not an issue, as he and other workers had climbed the tower on numerous occasions as construction was in progress. On reaching the one hundred and sixty foot high cross, Patrick looked around and could see Providence Harbor, the Cove, College Hill and Downtown. And especially, he could see his new farm on Chalkstone Hill. A great and prosperous future was ahead of this forty-nine-year-old man.
Descending was no problem, as well, until just near the ground where, as he “jumped clear of the bottom stagings, he twisted his knee painfully (Lynch).”
That accident resulted in internal bleeding that led to his death within two months.
The same daring that had him guarding the Sisters of Mercy against Yankee thugs nearly two decades ago was his final undoing.
The family suffered tremendously, not only personally but financially, as well. Eleven weeks later, Patrick’s wife, Catherine, died. Family members said it was of a broken heart. The new house on Chalkstone Avenue and the properties on Federal Hill went to the creditors. The children were able to keep the grocery.
Young Matthew McEvey, a man of twenty-one, was now the head of a family of eight. Not capable of his new responsibilities, Matthew took to drink, and eventually took whatever family money he could grab and left town.

The other children coped in various ways, working in factories and getting by on Federal Hill.Their father, Patrick McEvey of County Longford, had excellent skills and a talent for risk, attributes that promised great accomplishments. But all that died on that fateful St. Patrick’s Day when Patrick took up friend Dennis Campbell’s dare.

IMG_2906
Patrick McEvey is buried at St. Patrick’s Cemetery, not far from the farm that he bought to give his family a proper upbringing. For all of his success, the family does not to seem to have had the money for a stone. The Providence Daily Journal said that the procession for him was one of the largest that Federal Hill had ever seen.
I am grateful to Jack McWilliams of Leawood, Kansas, for sharing with me his Uncle Joseph M. Lynch’s terrific essay on Patrick McEvey. Jack is a great great grandson of Patrick McEvey. I hope he and other descendants feel that I treated Patrick fairly.
Sources:
City Atlas of Providence Rhode Island. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: G. M. Hopkins, C. E., 1875.
Lynch, Joseph M., Builders  and Razers. Pawtucket, Rhode Island: Times Square Printing, Inc., 1992.
Rhode Island State Censuses of 1865 & 1875.
U. S. Federal Censuses of 1850, 1860 & 1870.
 

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