Illuminations: St. Patrick Illuminated

Illuminations:  St. Patrick Illuminated
By:  J. Michael Finn

The day was March 17, 1874, a seemingly ordinary St. Patrick’s Day in Columbus, Ohio. The celebration that was held in 1874 at St. Patrick’s Church turned out to be a little more than ordinary.

Father John Andrew Casella was yhe pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in 1874.  What little is known about his early life is that he was born on the island of Corsica. His birth date and the names of his parents are unknown.  He is most often referred to as being French, despite his Italian last name. Corsica had been part of France since 1768, but it still retained a distinct Italian culture. 

Father Casella was ordained in Rome, Italy in 1856 and served as a pastor in Paris, France before coming to the United States in 1863.  At that time, he joined the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York. Records for the Diocese of Brooklyn confirm that his first assignment was as pastor of St. Patrick Church, on Kent Avenue in Brooklyn, where he served until 1864. His assignments from 1865 until 1868 were not recorded. 

From 1868 until 1870, he was pastor of St. Peter Church, on Warren Street in Brooklyn.  In 1869 he became the first resident pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Riverhead, Long Island, New York where he erected the church and laid out the Catholic cemetery.  He remained there until 1872, when he transferred to the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio.

He arrived in Columbus in July 1873. Upon his arrival, he was assigned to St. Joseph Cathedral for a brief time. Later that year Father Casella was appointed as pastor of St. Patrick Church in Columbus, replacing Father Jeremiah A. Murray.

Father Casella’s parishioners at St. Patrick’s were mostly Irish and numbered about two thousand. Father Casella was loved and respected by his parishioners. He served with distinction and became one of St. Patrick’s most beloved and respected pastors.

March 17th in 1874 earned the pastor even more respect in the hearts of all. The entire day’s festivities, including the Mass, church decorations and parade, were planned by Father Casella, with help from the St. Patrick’s Total Abstinence and Benevolent Society.

Flowers were everywhere in the church. Evergreen wreaths adorned the columns, and two evergreen harps sat on either side of the tabernacle surrounded, by sixty-six candles. Father Casella worked with what was described as “highly commendable zeal.”

At 9:00 a.m., all the Catholic Societies assembled at St. Patrick’s School and processed to the church.  At 10:00 a.m., a delegation from the St. Patrick’s School Society marched into the church and occupied reserved seats in the front.
The St. Patrick’s Total Abstinence and Benevolent Society followed them and occupied seats immediately opposite.

The St. Joseph Mutual Benefit Society followed and occupied their assigned seats. The remaining seats in the church were taken up by the people, many arriving early in the morning to secure seats.

The streets and sidewalk in front of the building and the grounds around St. Patrick’s School were densely crowed with people. The congregation that morning was claimed to be the largest that ever assembled in and around the church.

The solemn High Mass began shortly after 10:00 am. Father Casella was preceded up the aisle by twelve members of the clergy and twenty-four altar boys.  Columbus Bishop Sylvester H. Rosecrans was last in the procession.

When it was time for the sermon, Bishop Rosecrans rose to address the congregation.  He welcomed the attendees, saying, “Societies from abroad, societies from our city, and all present, I welcome you on the return of this, the day of Ireland’s great apostle, St. Patrick.” 

Delivering his sermon on the life of St. Patrick he said, “When St. Patrick went forth to carry the light of faith to the Irish people, he found them ready to open their hearts to the truths of divine revelation.  Not for a day, or for the time that St. Patrick was among them, did this faith last, but for fourteen hundred years have the Irish people preserved the faith preached by St. Patrick before Tara.”

At the conclusion of the bishop’s sermon came a single event that was one of the most unique and unusual in the history of the Columbus Irish.  As a surprise to the Bishop and the parishioners, Father Casella had designed a life-size image of St. Patrick. 

The image was constructed of slender gas tubes, and it had been set up over the tabernacle.  The tubes that made up the framework were perforated by thousands of tiny holes for the release of natural gas.  At that point in the Mass, a signal was given to an altar boy behind the tabernacle who controlled the release of the gas. 
A lighted candle on the end of a long pole was touched to the feet of the image and the features and the whole frame shot out and illuminated the image of St. Patrick. As represented in the image, St. Patrick held an open book with a cross on it in his left hand; in his right hand he held a staff; and at each foot was a serpent.

The image was over five feet in height and about three feet across.  It was claimed by the newspaper that, “This was the first gas illumination of St. Patrick that was ever made in the United States.” The illumination, designed by Father Casella, was constructed in New York.

Father Casella’s parishioners, and those assembled for Mass, were surprised and delighted at the illumination. This was another example of Father Casella’s regard for the history and heritage of his parishioners. The newspaper reported, “The Irish who were in St. Patrick’s Church on that day would never forget Father Casella’s St. Patrick’s Day surprise and his hard work on behalf of the patron saint of Ireland.”

Following the Mass, a parade formed about 2:00 pm, and included all of the Catholic Societies at St. Patrick’s.  Music was provided by Hemmersbach’s Band.  The chief parade marshal was Irish-born Father Henry Anderson, assistant pastor at St. Patrick’s.  The parade wound its way through the major streets of the city and then returned to St. Patrick’s Church.

In July 1876, it was reported that Father Casella had resigned as pastor in Columbus and was returning, “… to his native land, France, where he intends to remain.”  Unclear from the reports is why he made such a sudden departure.  To date, no further record of Father John Andrew Casella can be located. When and where he died is unknown. 

Also lost in time is the actual illuminated St. Patrick.  Its use was reported in March 1875, and was likely used again in 1876, but there were no reports that it was used by St. Patrick’s Church after that. 

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history, and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected]

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