Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

Cardinal Francis Spellman

His Eminence Cardinal Francis Spellman (1889-1967)

Regarding the Cardinal's connection with the Parish of Clonegal, if we examine a baptismal record of St. Brigid's Church, Clonegal we will find it states that a baby daughter of Thomas and Kitty Kehoe, of the townland of Kilbride in the parish of Clonegal, was baptised in the church. The baby's name was Ellen, with Larry and Anne Fitzpatrick as her sponsors.

Like most children of her time. Ellen received a fundamental education. She grew into a handsome girl, enjoying the carefree life of a child in her beloved Kilbride. At the age of 16 she left home to go to America.  After some time in the States she met and married a man called Conway. A daughter of that marriage married a man called William Spellman, a store owner of Whitman, Mass.  The Spellman’s had five children, three boys and two girls.

One of the boys, Francis Joseph was born on May 4, 1889 in Whitman, Mass. His father was a prosperous grocer who, as well as running a large store, owned a big country house where Francis, his two brothers and two sisters were brought up. As a boy, Francis grew to have a special love for his grandmother who told him stories of her home in Ireland; She encouraged him to study, and lived to see him enter Fordham University in 1911. One of the sad moments of his life came in 1914 when the granny he loved died at the age of 80 years.

It was this Francis Joseph who was later to become Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman of New York.

Once in Fordham, he quickly became prominent in the college debating and dramatic circles. He entered the North American College in Rome, where he was ordained in 1916 at the age of 27.  He celebrated his first Mass in his hometown of Whitman.

He now moved rapidly up the promotional ladder of the church.  In 1922, he became Chancellor of Boston Diocese. He returned to Rome in 1925 and was made a Monsignor by Pope Pius XI. Pius XII consecrated him a Bishop in 1932 and 1939 he became Archbishop of New York.

He was a man of direct ways and was prepared to meet all creeds and classes. The fact that he could speak to some of the emigrants in their own tongue made him popular with a section of the populace that he might otherwise have never known.

What is not commonly known about the Cardinal is that his knowledge of languages, and his ability to travel, caused him to have some strange assignments.  One of the most interesting must surely have been in 1931 when he was selected to smuggle the Pope's Encyclical out of Italy to Paris. We must remember that at this time, Rome was under Fascist rule and in trying to bring such an important document out of the country, against the wishes of the rulers, he was taking his life in his hands.

During the journey from Rome to Paris he was shot at but escaped injury. When he eventually got to Paris he translated the Encyclical and delivered it to the world.

He was involved with the American armed forces during the Second World War. It was in this connection and while on a trip to Europe in 1942 that he visited Ireland. He was now 53.  It was during this visit that he mentioned to Fr. Francis Hickey of St. Patrick's, Kiltegan, that he had relations in County Carlow. With the help of some friends, Fr. Hickey located who they were and, as a result of his findings, some ten years later, on October 31, 1953, this man of many talents, a prince of the Church, stood in the wind swept Kildavin churchyard and said a silent prayer for the grandmother he had known so well and the relations he had never seen.

The Spellman Hall in Kildavin Co Carlow or Spellman Park, home of the local football and hurling club, must be known by thousands of people from many parts of Ireland. The numbers who have passed through the doors of this magnificent hall and took time to glance at the picture of the Cardinal above the doorway must at some point have wondered what he had to do with the hall or why did the hall bear his name.

The same must surely be said of the splendid Spellman Park sports complex. Not only is it one of the finest GAA parks in Leinster but it also encompasses Tennis, Basketball and a Pitch and Putt course. There are also Dressing rooms, Showers, Function rooms and a Boardroom.

Situated in one of the most picturesque settings one could imagine near the junction of the rivers Slaney and Deny with the heather purpled slopes of the Blackstairs Mountains to the South West, Spellman Park lies near the heart of Spellman country.

To find out why the parish of Clonegal should consider a New York Cardinal as one of its most illustrious sons we must turn back the pages of time to September 16, 1934, when the local GAA committee contacted the Cardinal by letter. Like many other GAA clubs in the country at this time, the members of the Kildavin club could be compared to the Irish after the Seige of Limerick, the 'Wild Geese" who wandered without a home.

They depended upon the generosity of the local farmers to supply them with a pitch from year to year. It came to their knowledge that a suitable area of land was for sale near the village of Kildavin,

After some meetings it was decided that every effort should be made to acquire this land, and it was then that the suggestion was made.  As Cardinal Spellman had furnished a hall in Kildavin, his love for the parish of his ancestors might once again lead to a gesture of generosity to the club. 

Upon this decision, club solicitor, Joseph A. Cunningham was directed to contact the Cardinal and the following letter was the result:

Your Eminence,

Greetings from South Carlow and North Wexford. I act on behalf of the Kildavin Gaelic Football and Hurling Club. As you are aware, the only recreational facilities heretofore in Kildavin are those provided by a magnificent hall donated, to the parish by you. In recent months the members of the Kildavin Gaelic Football and Hurling Club have decided that the time had come when the district should be provided with its own grounds for football, hurling and athletics.

It may be that their project had its promptings in the expressed concern of the late John F. Kennedy that the citizens of his country should pay more attention to the matter of personal physical fitness that appeared to be the rule during the period of his presidency.

It is a noted feature in the Ireland of today that there is a widespread concern, even in remote parts of the country, for the providing of swimming pools and other recreational facilities for the youth.

For example, the residents of the village of Bunclody on the Carlow/Wexford border are providing their own swimming pool by largely voluntary efforts and the parishioners of the half parish of Kildavin have rallied with fair enthusiasm behind the committee of the Kildavin club in the raising of the funds for their field, which would comprise same seven acres and lies close to the banks of the River Slaney.

I have been instructed to enquire from your Eminence as to whether the Kildavin Football and Hurling Club have your permission to name their park, 'The Cardinal Spellman Park'. They feel that this tribute to you is richly deserved because of your unbounding kindness to the parish of Kildavin in the provision of the magnificent hall.

Go Soirbhighiadh Dia Dibh,

Joseph A Cunningham.

While the committee waited for an answer to their request other fund raising methods were discussed. Then the eagerly awaited letter arrived. It was what they had hoped for.

October 2nd. 1967.

Dear Mr. Cunningham,

I have your note and of course I shall be honoured to have the athletic field dedicated in my name.

I am enclosing herewith a cheque for $2.000.00 as a token contribution to help in this project.

With warm regards,

I remain Very sincerely yours in Christ,

F. Cardinal Spellman.

Archbishop of New York.

Now the talking was over and the committee got down to the hard facts of costing the work to be done. This included the removing of a stone wall, the up-rooting of 30 to 40 fir dale trees, the raising of banks along the sides of the pitch, the moving of an ESB pole, the playing pitch levelled and drained and the hundred and one other tasks that faced them.

Sadly, Francis Cardinal Spellman, known as "Franny" to assorted Broadway chorus boys and others, who was New York’s cardinal from 1939 passed away to his eternal reward in New York on 2nd December 1967, before the Spellman Park was officially opened in 1970, but for those who have worked and developed the Park into the beautiful pitch it is today, his name will never be forgotten.

This article first appeared in The Carlow Nationalist  of June 1998 and was written by Willie White.

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