The story of missionary priests coming from Ireland to serve in the United States and other countries is a rich part of church history. The Diocese of Duluth has been blessed by this phenomenon. The first bishop of the diocese, James McGolrick, was from Ireland.
In the Duluth diocese, it ended up being a family affair. At least four Irish priests who came to the diocese in the early 20th century were followed here by nephews ordained decades later.
Msgr. Michael Boland (with trophy) poses with students from St. John School in Duluth.
Each uncle and nephew came from the same county in Ireland. Each uncle spent more than 40 years as a priest in the diocese. All four nephews have also served more than 40 years, bringing combined family totals sometimes more than a century.
Msgr. Michael Boland, from County Tipperary, was born in 1886 and died in 1971 in Superior, Wis. He built St. John the Evangelist Church in Duluth, where he was pastor for 46 years, and directed the adjacent St. James Children’s Home for 45 years. He also served the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart and St. Michael’s in Duluth, building the basement and offering the first Mass at the latter parish in 1915.
He was vicar general under three bishops — Bishops James McGolrick, John McNicholas and Thomas Welch — holding the post from 1922 until 1957 with only a brief interruption while he served as diocesan administrator between 1925 and 1926. He was named a prothonotary apostolic, the highest of the three grades of the honorary title monsignor, in 1922, and as he marked his golden jubilee in 1962 was considered to have held the title longer than any other priest in the United States.
Father Eamonn Boland, 67, has served at parishes in Grand Rapids, Duluth, Deer River, Hibbing, Cloquet, Carlton, Hoyt Lakes, Eveleth and Moose Lake, where he is approaching a decade as pastor. He has also served as a diocesan consultor.
He said his uncle’s work at the orphanage stands out. “I think that was the great love of his life,” Father Boland said. “He loved that ministry.”
His uncle was influenced to come to Duluth by Bishop McGolrick and in turn was an influence on his own decision, especially when his uncle would come home and mention happenings in the diocese, Father Boland said. “That influenced me quite a bit.”
His time in the diocese overlapped with his uncle’s only briefly, and he said Msgr. Boland’s “mind was going a little bit” by that time, but he would go up to St. John’s and talk to him frequently. “We come from a big family, so we had lots of relatives to talk about.”
Father Patrick Flynn was born in 1900 in County Leitrim and died in 1970 in Two Harbors. He served parishes in Duluth, Virginia, Hill City, Aurora, Biwabik, Pine River and Two Harbors. He also served a mission in Pequot Lakes and founded St. Christopher Church there. He was a diocesan consultor.
Father Charles Flynn, 66, has served parishes in Grand Rapids, Cloquet, Longville, Hibbing, Nisswa, Pequot Lakes and Duluth in addition to his current parishes in Eveleth and Gilbert. His additional service has included being a consultor, serving on the diocesan Pastoral Council and Executive Council, chairing the Priests’ Senate and serving as dean of the Duluth deanery.
Father Charles Flynn said he remembers his uncle coming home when he was a little boy. “He came every three years, and he’d stay with us three months.” On the years he didn’t come home, they would have other missionary priests visit.
His time in the diocese overlapped with his uncle’s service by about a year and a half. “It was fine; I’d go up and visit him and stuff like that,” he said, and his uncle would give him Pabst Blue Ribbon and let him take the four cans left over home with him.
“He drove a great big car. It was a Buick Wildcat. It was like a tank,” he said.
Father Flynn said his uncle was happy about the decision to come to Duluth but that he had already made the decision independently, drawn in part by the Catholic American president John F. Kennedy.
Father Lyons and Msgr. Scott
Msgr. Thomas Scott was born in 1899 in County Mayo and died in 1968. He served parishes in Duluth, Hibbing, Hill City, Floodwood and Brainerd. He was named a monsignor and invested in 1961. He also served as Brainerd dean and as a diocesan consultor.
Father Michael Lyons, 68, served as a deacon in Brainerd and as a priest in parishes in Hibbing, Duluth and Pine City in addition to his current parishes in Two Harbors and Silver Bay. He also served in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Archdiocese of Tuam in Ireland in the 1970s and for the Duluth diocese has directed the planning office and the office of communications and served on the diocesan Presbyteral Council.
Father Lyons said in an email that his only personal experiences of his uncle are from his teenage years while Msgr. Scott was on an extended vacation in Ireland. “During that time I enjoyed his many stories about Minnesota that he shared with family members and neighbors,” Father Lyons said.
He said the visit left a deep impression on him. Those experiences and his uncle’s “iconic stature” were important to his eventual decision to serve as a priest in the Duluth diocese, and he also got a “persuasive letter” from Msgr. Scott when he entered All Hallows Seminary.
“He spoke highly of the life of the church here, the deep faith and support of parishioners for their priests, as well as the potential support and friendship of many other Irish-born priests already serving here,” Father Lyons said. “He never mentioned the Minnesota winters, however!”
Many other letters passed between them during seminary, and he was looking forward to an ongoing friendship, but just six months before he was to begin his internship as a deacon in Brainerd, Msgr. Scott died suddenly. “Had he lived, I’m sure I would have enjoyed his familial support and his ever-ready counsel,” Father Lyons said.
Fathers Walsh and Spain
Father Henry Spain was born in 1893 in County Tipperary and died in Duluth in 1978. He served parishes in Virginia, Chisholm, Pine River, Walker, Bovey, Coleraine, Nashwauk and Eveleth before retiring in 1968.
Father Seamus Walsh, 70, has served parishes in Duluth, Marble, Crosby, Cloquet, Pequot Lakes, Nisswa, Brainerd, Pine Beach and Fort Ripley as well as his current parishes in Grand Marais and Grand Portage. His other service includes being chaplain to St. James Children’s Home, being a diocesan consultor, doing campus ministry at the University of Minnesota Duluth, serving on the diocesan Personnel Board and Presbyteral Council and serving as a National Guard chaplain.
Father Walsh’s time in the diocese overlapped with his uncle for about two years while Father Spain was still a pastor and for several years after his retirement. “There was something special about it, a family connection, both immigrants to the country,” he said.
Father Spain came to Duluth because of Bishop McGolrick. Father Walsh came to the diocese because he wasn’t needed in his home diocese and because of his uncle. “Had he not been here, I would never have heard of such a place as Duluth,” he said.
“I’m amazed that I asked so few questions about what it was like,” he said. For instance, he never knew anything about the winters.
Fathers Walsh and Spain attended the same seminary but 50 years apart. With Father Spain’s 60 years as a priest in the Duluth diocese (10 retired) and Father Walsh’s nearly 46, that’s almost 106 years between them.
The Fathers Boland have combined for almost 105 years.
The Fathers Flynn have combined for nearly 88 years, and Father Lyons and Msgr. Scott have combined for nearly 84.