Celtic Junction Arts Review

Irish Settlers in Minnesota

Contributed by Mary K. McCormick

Irish Settlers in Minnesota - Sister Mary A. McCormick
Sister Mary A. McCormick

Sister Mary A. McCormick (aunt of Mary K. McCormick, student at Celtic Junction’s literature classes) was born on December 10, 1914 in Caledonia, Minnesota to Rose (McDonald) and Matthew McCormick.  After two years at LaCrosse (Wis.) State Teachers College, she taught in a country school for two years.  In 1935, she joined the Maryknoll Sisters missionary order, and took the religious name of Sister Rose Matthew.  In 1938, she was sent to teach in the Philippines.  From 1941 to 1945, she was a prisoner of war and survived a Japanese internment camp for the last year of the war.  She was then sent to New York City, St. Louis, Stockton, California, Tucson and San Juan Capistrano, California, where she taught minority immigrant students and was a school principal.  She wrote several books, fiction and non-fiction, and worked for Maryknoll Publications.  From 1970 to 1975, she lived in Kobe, Japan, where she taught English and did counseling at Kansai University.  From 1979 to 1995, she lived in Kyoto, Japan, where she studied Japanese, wrote books, and taught English to adults and students from Kyoto University.  She died at the Maryknoll Center in Ossining, New York, on January 7, 2011 at the age of 96.

The following is the beginning of a transcript of an audiotape recorded at her niece’s request to set down some of the early memories of the McCormick family’s life as Irish tenant farmers in southeast Minnesota near the Mississippi River.


“I’m finally going to start that tape that you asked me to make.  This is August 15th.  I’m in Kyoto, and supposedly on vacation.  August 15th makes me think of my mother.  She had a great devotion to Mary, our Blessed Mother, and I remember when we were living north of Caledonia…I was around ten, twelve years old.  My mother went out into the woods to pick some raspberries.  There were lots of raspberry bushes there, and it must have been the day before, if not the day of August 15th, and she came back with lots of raspberries, and then or later she said that she had said to Blessed Mother “If you let me find raspberries, I’ll make a pie for your feast day,” and so we had pie. 

North Kingston Street, Caledonia Minnesota, 1928 Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Now, neither my mother or father ever talked a lot about the early times, perhaps because…that is, about our ancestors coming to America, perhaps because they were born here, and they had no personal roots in Ireland.  But I don’t understand why they didn’t at least tell us what they did know, what they had heard from their parents.  But somehow, it’s my own feeling that perhaps coming to this country was a very difficult thing, and it was something they didn’t want to pass on.  

Years later, I once had a chance to go to Boston, and I wrote back and told my mother that I had visited Boston and done a little sightseeing there, and she wrote back and said “That’s where my family came into America.”  That was the first time I ever heard that.  I know that they all, some of them, also were in Chicago, and if I remember rightly, some of them worked in cabinetmaking.  But these are remarks from my mother.  Whichever uncle it was, had a drinking problem, and they felt, well, if they could get away from the city and from companions and so forth, maybe it would be better.  

So, they came out to Minnesota, where most of the good land was taken. But the McDonalds, that is my grandfather Michael, got a piece of land above the Mississippi on the bluffs, on the Minnesota side.  I’m not sure if it’s from that place that you can look down on the river valley, but not far from there, you can.  The McDonald place was quite surrounded by trees.  In fact, Grandpa used lumber as a cash crop, cutting it down during the winter and taking it on a sled to LaCrosse, to the sawmills.  And they used to cross on the thick ice, which saved a great deal of travelling; they didn’t have to go down to the bridge.

The last sawmill in La Crosse closed in 1906. Photo courtesy of the Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum.

But he had a brother named Moses- Mama always called him “Uncle Mose”.  Uncle Mose one time was coming home after delivering his load of lumber, and probably visiting a bar.  He was coming home in the evening, and he evidently didn’t guide the horses correctly, or fell asleep and guided them wrongly, but they went off the place that was marked on the ice as safe, and the ice broke, and he and the horses, everything, went into the river.  But somehow the horses managed to swim, and he grabbed their harness, and was dragged out too.  So…I don’t know why I brought that terrible story to the beginning of this tape, but I thought that it was a very dramatic thing.  Later, I remember a truck doing the same thing, in my youth, going through the ice, and the fellow that was in the cab from Hokah–he never got out of the cab.  

Irish Settlers in Minnesota - Michael McDonald Family
Front: Joe McDonald, Bridget Brennan McDonald, Michael McDonald, Nellie McDonald (Giblin) Back: Katie (McCarthy), Lizzie, Rose (McCormick), Mary (Scanlon), Agnes (Clifford)

Well, my mother did say once that the McDonalds were sorry that they ever came to America–they had no idea that the winters were going to be so cold.  And they planted crops, and sometimes the grasshoppers came and ate them all up.  But somehow, with the sale of so much wood, because the land had to be cleared, they managed well enough, because they built a nice stone house.  The last I know, it was still standing, a very durable house.  

Woman seated at organ, 1895. Advertisement.
Advertisement from 1895. Courtesy of MN Historical Society.

And they brought an organ from Chicago.  Aunt Lizzie, my mother’s older sister, had something a little wrong with her back, and she was never able to go out and go on to school for any higher education.  So, Lizzie always stayed with Grandma and Grandpa, to their dying days…and this organ was a special favor for her, in her youth.  A teacher used to come from LaCrosse (and perhaps the teacher gave lessons in other farmhouses in the area), but the teacher came to the house.  And my mother and the others were told to stay out of the room while Lizzie had her lesson on the organ.  But my mother peeked through the crack where the door was hinged, and watched and listened to the lesson.  And in the end, she could play the organ better than Lizzie.  My mother loved music very much…”