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The Irish Stories of the Saint-Colomban Cemetery

Welcome to our video on the Saint-Colomban Cemetery Restoration Project. The Saint-Colomban parish and cemetery hold significant historical value as they were the homes and final resting places of many of Lower Canada's earliest pre-Famine Irish settlers. During the 1820s, a large number of Irish immigrants arrived at the port of Montréal. From this group of Irish families came the first wave of settlers to the Saint-Colomban region. Join us as we explore the rich history and the efforts to restore and preserve this important heritage site.

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A Brief History of Saint-Colomban

The Saint-Colomban parish and cemetery are situated in the province of Québec located 67 km north of Montréal in what was the Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes (Lake of Two Mountains) seigneurie. The Saint-Colomban parish and cemetery are historically significant because they were the homes and final resting places of many of Lower Canada's earliest pre-Famine Irish settlers. During the 1820s, many Irish immigrants made their way to the port of Montréal from Ireland and from this group of Irish families came the first wave of Irish immigrants to the Saint-Colomban region beginning in 1821.

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Mohawk Land Disposession by Sulpician Priests

To fully understand Irish settlement, we must first understand the context in which they arrived and were granted land to live on. 

The land was controlled by the Sulpicians, a French society of diocesan priests, often remembered as wealthy, educated elites, academics, and missionaries. Contrary to other religious institutions at the time (like the Jesuites), the Sulpicians never took vows of poverty. They were first and foremost powerful and influential landowners. They held the island of Montreal for almost 200 years (1663 to 1854) in addition to the Seigneurie they administered in the Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes and the Seigneurie de Saint-Sulpice.

Between 1821 and 1829, Irish and British immigrants settled in the Seigneurie du Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes as part of the British monarchy's initiative to populate the area. They established themselves in the northwest of the Seigneurie, in what would later be known as St Colomban. At the time, the Rivière-du-Nord (North River) provided a natural buffer between the Anglophone and Francophone settlements.

The speed at which St Colomban was formed was remarkable—28,000 acres were allocated within ten years, from 1820 to 1829. This expanse is roughly equivalent to 21,200 football fields and slightly larger than the current municipality of Oka.

Diaspora Story: Chicago Connections-Dwyer and Walsh Families of the St. Colomban Parish

My great grandmother, Mary Agnes Dwyer Wallace, was the daughter of Michael Dwyer and Ann Elliott Dwyer. Both Michael (b. 28 September 1831)[1] and Ann (b. 14 July 1836)[2] were born in St. Colomban, Quebec, Canada, as was Mary Agnes (b. 8 July 1858)[3], and three of her siblings.

Between 1857 and 1864, four Dwyer children were born. In addition to Mary Agnes, two little boys, John and Thomas (b. 9 April 1857 and 15 December 1860)[4],[5], and another daughter, Delia Bridget, (b. 25 July 1862)[6] were baptized in the St. Colomban parish church. Sadly, the two little boys were also buried there; John in 1859 and Thomas in 1864.[7],[8] At some point after Thomas’s death, the family left St. Colomban. Another daughter, Margaret Jane Dwyer, was baptized in at St. Patrick’s Church in Montreal on 19 February 1865[9], and the family arrived in Chicago, Illinois soon after that, most likely in March or April 1865.

On 26 April 1877, Mary Agnes married John Dwyer Wallace whose family came to Kane County, Illinois from County Limerick, Ireland.[10] John was the youngest of seven Wallace children, and the only one to have been born in the United States.

Everyone Has a History; Your Heritage and Why it’s Important

By: Laurie McKeown

Where do you come from? Why did your ancestors move and why did they choose that particular place to live? How and when did they get there?  So many questions but too few answers. In 1825, James Skelly of County Westmeath was offered a land grant in the Seigneurie of Lake of Two Mountains from Father Jackson of the Sulpician Order of Montreal. Like many of his fellow countrymen, Skelly and his family suffered from severe poverty at this time in Ireland. Deciding to stay put in his homeland, Skelly’s three sons accepted the land grant and left for a better life in Quebec. A few years earlier in 1823, William McManus left his Irish home in County Tipperary for Lower Canada. Crossing the Atlantic for these Irish immigrants was a hazardous trip, a potential tragedy waiting to happen every day during those long seven-weeks. The ship went as far as Quebec City and from there they had to find their own way west along the St. Lawrence River. Steamboat companies bound for Montreal loaded up their boats with as many as two hundred men, women and children and at the end of this week-long voyage, they disembarked in Lachine to avoid the rapids and continued the rest of the way on foot. But, their arduous journey wasn’t over yet. Both the Skelly brothers and McManus would now have to find room on another steamer or large river raft to continue their journey up the Ottawa river.

The Story of the Skelly Brothers

The Skelly family were part of the many Irish migrants who left Ireland to escape poverty in the early 19th century. The tragic circumstances of the rural Irish – like those who began to settle in St. Colomban in the 1820’s and the promise of a better life in the States or the colonies gave hope to the Irish people. Despite the many difficulties and potential tragedies that lay ahead, storms, disease (cholera) and dysentery, they boarded the ship in quest for a better life. 

In Montreal about 1817, a member of the Gentlemen of St. Sulpice, Father Richard Jackson noticed the presence of the Irish at Notre-Dame de Bonsecours Church. He was an assistant at the Church at the time and quite astute to their needs. Not only did he open a school for the children of these Irish migrants in the Recollect Convent, Father Jackson offered these immigrants the opportunity to carve out a farming community in the Seigneurie of Lake of Two Mountains, which, like the island of Montreal, was held by the Sulpician Order. As early as 1819, a first group of Irish settlers, along with a few Scots and some French Canadians, settled on a Rivière du Nord concession. Two years later, in 1821, four Irishmen were allocated lots in the midst of the dense forest of the lower Laurentians. They were Hugh O’Reilly (spelled Hughes Reilly in the Quebec records), Andrew Cowan and John Mullin. They were the first Europeans to settle in what would soon become the Parish of St. Colomban. Four years later in 1825, a second wave of settlers, mainly from the South East of Ireland, began to arrive under the aegis of another Sulpician, Father Patrick Phelan from Ballyragget, Kilkenny. Until his departure for Upper Canada in 1842, Father Phelan was responsible for the Irish communities of both St. Colomban and Montreal.

In loving memory of Mother Marie-Josephine Phelan, Third Superior General

December 11, 1899

Our dear Mother Phelan, born in Ireland, was the daughter of Daniel Phelan and Elizabeth Dalton. As the family had settled in Canada, she came to know the Grey Nuns of Montreal et requested her admission to their noviciate on February 19, 1845, the day our founding sisters departed Montreal for our Bytown mission, now Ottawa. The Mother Superior of the Montreal community offered her the chance of joining this mission as they needed people who spoke English, which she accepted; she arrived in Bytown only the following autumn and she entered the noviciate September 16, 1945, aged 22 years and 9 days.

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