One of my goals after moving to Iowa was to re-find a place my grandfather showed me nearly 35 years ago.
In October of 1979, my Aunt Suzy sent me a ticket to fly from Los Angeles to Des Moines to see Pope John Paul II’s visit. My mother’s sister, for whom I was named, was also my Godmother. As such, she felt it was her duty to save my heathen soul by any means possible and what better way than to make a pilgrimage to see the pope?
The event was an amazing spectacle. Joining 350,000 people shivering in a field at the Living History Farms, we arrived just before 4:00 a.m. and found a place on a blanket a few feet from the barricade at the very front of the venue. The best seats in the house! The pope’s helicopter didn’t land until 4:00 p.m., so it was a long, cold day. The ceremony was beautiful, and the event was handled remarkably.
A couple of days before the big event, my Grandpa Johnny (John H. Gillespie), asked me to drive him somewhere. He said it was important. Of course, I agreed, even though his car was a monster Cadillac that I had never driven before. We headed out of town and soon hit dirt roads. He laughed out loud every time I slowed down at a road crossing and used my turn signals. Mind you, I was driving a BOAT on dirt roads.
Grandpa, if you learned to drive in L.A., you’d use your turn signals, too!
After about a half hour we arrived at his destination. It was a little clapboard church named St. Patrick’s, complete with a tiny cemetery. He told me that many of “our people” were here, and it was important for me to know about them. We walked out into the cemetery and found an obelisk-style grave marker that marked our people. The lettering on the stone was so worn away by weathering that I had to kneel down and look up at it at an angle to read it. He told me this little church was the center of the Irish Settlement, and that our family was among the early settlers. He said that the Irish weren’t particularly welcome in Des Moines, with frequent signs saying “No Irish Need Apply” in store windows, and that farm land in the Irish Settlement was plentiful, so this little colony grew up just a few miles from the state capital.
Two days later, the Pope visited this tiny little church before coming to the big event at Living History Farms.
Last week I decided it was time to find this place again, so I hit the search engines. It is located in my own county! It is overseen by the Catholic church right here, in my own little town!
We drove out yesterday, along the same dirt roads as 35 years ago. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place surrounded by rolling farms and forest. I couldn’t find the stone marking our people. There were several obelisk-style markers that had the lettering completely worn away, and it’s possible that the stone I was looking for was one of those. I took pictures of each of them, and choose to believe one of them is the right one. There is no one left who knows for sure, so I’ve adopted the entire Irish Settlement as my people, and will assume the responsibility of remembering them. I wonder if they allow heathens to rest there now?
It will now be seen that the Irish settlement is not a very small place. From north to south it is fully twelve miles and about the same number of miles from east to west. Of course there are many people of different nationalities living in their midst, American, Germans and others, all living in harmony and brotherly love together as all men should do. They are, generally speaking, industrious and prosperous, and as to honesty, few will say that they have been cheated by an Irish man. The early-time houses have all disappeared and in their places stand modern dwellings, substantial and capacious barns and granaries. Horses, cattle and swine are here in abundance, and cheerful hospitality can be found among the Irish settlers and their descendents, and as freely given as on any part of the globe. And now the history of the Irish settlers of this place known all over Iowa as the Irish Settlement, is at its close. Many of the original ones are now in their graves; peace to their memory. Many have moved to other places and those of native Irish birth, who yet remain, are hastening to the world beyond the grave.
– by James Gillaspie of Crawford Township for the Madison County Historical Society meeting of March 19, 1907
It’s said that whatever you put on the internet lives forever. So be it.