I'd like you to meet your great-grandmother

One of the letters my dad gave me

My dad never actually said these words to me. Instead, he simply gave me an envelope filled with a sheath of parchment letters from the late 19th and early 20th centuries— letters to my great grandmother, who lived in Marquette, Michigan at the time, from her business representative in Canada, Bernard “Barney” O’Connell.


After reading the letters, I wanted to know more about my great-grandmother. So I immediately embarked on a grave-digging expedition to bring her back to life.


Perhaps passing these letters on to me was a precursor to passing on the entire family history to me, which dad had already worked on for 20 years. Suppose this was a test from my father about whether I would be a good steward of the living document. In that case, I must have passed with flying colors because he eventually designated me as the Family Historian. 

Stephen told me you were dressed up in velvet

Ellen “Nell” McConnell Downey, born on February 4, 1865, to Patrick McConnell and Margaret Friel in Seaforth, Ontario, Canada, married Thomas John Downey on November 26, 1889. Thomas, born December 23, 1858, in what is now known as St. Columban, Ontario, Canada, was the second child and eldest son of Stephen Downey and Brigit Pierce. 


Nell and Tom’s marriage took place at St. James Catholic Church in Seaforth. Witnesses to their marriage were Michael Downey, the groom’s brother from McKillop Township, and Agnes McConnell, the bride’s sister from Tuckersmith. Father P. T. Shea performed the wedding ceremony.


It was a time when Catholics married Catholics, and the Irish married the Irish. Both of Tom’s parents had been born in Ireland. Nell’s father was also born in Ireland, and although her mother wasn’t, her mother’s parents were both born there. That counted.


Nell was 24, and Thomas was 30 when they married. No family stories recount how they met or details about their courtship. But their hometowns of Seaforth and St. Columban were less than six kilometers apart in a farming community, which practically made Nell the girl next door. Perhaps they chose their late November wedding date because Tom was a farmer. The crops were in by that time of year, and neighbors or farmhands could tend the animals for one day.


The marriage registry required that Nell be identified as a widow or a spinster. The registrar noted spinster. Little did she know that the day she became wife, it wouldn’t be long before she would carry the title of a widow—for the rest of her life.


Their daughter Mary Collette was born shortly after Nell and Tom’s third anniversary. I wonder if her December 11 arrival in 1892, not long before the Christmas holidays, was responsible for her name? Then, on August 4, 1894, Marcella Agnes, my grandmother, their second daughter, was born.


Nell, with Collette (left) and Marcella (right), circa 1898

At the end of 1894, Tom came down with pneumonia after helping a neighbor move his overturned wagon and team of horses from a ditch. He died of heart failure on January 26, 1895, leaving Nell a widow. Mary, who would be called by her middle name, Collette, was just two-years-old; Marcella was only five-months-old.


Sarah E. Dunne, Nell’s cousin from Canarsie, Long Island, wrote this sympathy letter to Nell, dated January 31, 1895:


My dear cousin,

I just received a letter from Will telling me of Tom’s death. I am so sorry for you and all the family but you most of all. It never occurred to me that he could die. He was so tall and seemed so strong. But to be taken in the prime of life and when his family needed him most seems almost cruel, but the good God, the all-wise One, must have thought it best. Although it is so hard to reconcile oneself to think it so. 


May He who gave you trouble give you strength to bear it, and may he guide you that you may bring up your children pleasing to Him.If you but think that the time on this earth is nothing as compared with the next world where, there surely, you never will be separated, it will comfort you. And, maybe, he going before can do more for you than on earth.


Dear cousin, I cannot sympathize as others can for never have me lost one of our family, and I pray God it will be a long time before we do. But I sincerely pray that his soul may rest in peace and be always with God.

Your loving cousin,

Sarah E. Dunne


Another sympathy letter from Englewood, Illinois, dated March 6, 1895, but not in its entirety, so the author is unknown.


My dear Ellie,

I hope you will not think me negligent in not writing ere this to sympathize with you in your affliction, but at the time of the sad event, I knew you would be so prosliated (??) that letters would scarcely be read. I delayed on that account—a little longer than I should. You must know that we feel deeply for you, being such a good, kind husband, and the little children their loving father. It seems almost impossible to realize that Tom is gone. He seemed so well in the summer when I was home. We must all bow to God’s will. No matter what trial he sends back to you, it will seem as if it was too much to bear.


Fa thinks there was no one like poor Tom—always so obliging and kind and willing to do anything to please another. It must be some consolation. . .


Perhaps these letters did console Nell on some level. But there was likely no consolation for Tom’s parents, especially his father, Stephen. In 1834, at two years old, Stephen migrated to Canada with his father, mother, three-year-old sister, and two-month-old brother. Unfortunately, his mother and siblings died and were buried at sea on their trip from Ireland. His father, Dennis, never remarried, so Stephen grew up in McKillop Township, Ontario, the only child of a single father who was a stalwart community member.


Dennis Downey, a staunch Roman Catholic, was one of the first settlers to open his home for public Mass. Then, in about 1850, he donated part of his land to construct the first log church in McKillop. 


He served as the first Secretary-Treasurer of the McKillop school. He was also elected as Councillor in 1850, the first year Councillors were elected by the populace at large. And in 1856, he became the first Reeve [mayor] of McKillop, and then again in 1863.


Dennis left Stephen with some big shoes to fill, but Stephen wouldn’t do it alone. This only child married Brigit Pierce on October 27, 1856. By 1876, they had 11 children—six boys and five girls. 


With the massive size of his family and landholdings to manage, Stephen had little time to be as political as his father had been. However, he was named and served as a Trustee of the McKillop school at one time.


Stephen farmed dairy cows, pigs, chickens, geese, and ducks. He also cultivated oats, hay, rye fields, and a large vegetable garden to feed his family. He and Brigit had a large home, and she was said to be a marvelous cook. The family loved to entertain. They were a happy and outgoing family in those early days.


Over the years, Stephen Downey amassed 500 acres of farmland in the area, five 100-acre lots. He set up four of his sons—Thomas, Michael, Harry, and Joseph—each with their own lot. In addition, he kept his own 100 acres to farm. But, with the death of the family’s eldest son, those happy early days had turned a tragic corner.


Nell migrated to Marquette, Michigan, with Colette and Marcella in 1898—three years after Tom’s death. They moved in with Nell’s sister, Agnes McConnell Enright, Agnes’ husband, John, and their two-year-old daughter, Annie. Records in the 1900 Federal Census show Nell was still living in the rented house at 225 W. Prospect Street in Marquette with her sister’s family. Nell’s occupation was listed as a dressmaker. 


Correspondence from Bernard “Barney” O’Connell of Dublin, Huron County, Canada, to Nell hints at why she left Canada. It seems there was no love lost between her and her in-laws after Tom’s death.


Bernard O'Connell

Undated—Possibly March 1900

Mrs. T.J. Downey

Dear Madam,


Possibly you will wonder why I have not, at an earlier date, written you an account of my stewardship. When I asked Mike [Tom’s brother] for the rent lastFall, he told me to go to his father [Stephen] and treat with him as he intended keeping part, at least, for the keep of the Children, and if I did not like that I could sue for the rest. Mike and Stephen both told me they could sue me personally and recover from me the value of keeping the Children because I was your security. When you took out letters of Administration, Stephen said he had legal advice to that effect.


I told him to sue away as soon as he liked and he would find out to his cost what he would make out of it. I told him I was your security; that you would manage the estate for the benefit of yourself and children, and how could you manage it better than to pay off the Mortgage in so short a time. Besides, said I to him, if you bring this to Court, I am prepared to swear that you and your wife together told me that if Ellie would leave you the children, their keep would cost her nothing, that you would not charge one cent for keeping them. He said he did not remember having said that to me. I told him I remembered it and would swear it if necessary. This bit of information softened him down a little and I hear no more about law since. After some time they offered me eighty ($80.00) dollars instead of one hundred and ten. Of course I refused to take it till I consulted your mother, Mrs. Enright and Mr. Geary. They all advised me to accept it, which I did. Indeed I thought myself it was better than to have law, which would probably cost more and only intensify existing bitterness, which is already too strong.


On December 31st, I called at Stephen’s, got $80.00, which within one hour I placed in the Bank in Seaforth. And as you have the children to pay for now, any minute you need a part or the whole, let me know and I will forward it to you. I would have written you sooner, but I dropped a few lines in Seaforth to Mrs. Enright to let her know and I knew she would tell you. I would have answered yours of the 28th of January sooner, but I thought possibly I might meet Mr. Geary soon and consult with him but I have not seen him yet.


Now with regard to selling your place. I would ask you to reconsider that. In the first place, the Lease runs two years yet and even if you could give possession, you could not give it for two years till the Lease expires. Besides, Tom died without a will and your letters of administration empowers you to manage the estate for the benefit of yourself and children but you have no power to sell till Marsella is of age for she has a claim on the place and the law will not allow her to sign it away till she is of age.


Though I have been told if you can furnish ample proof supported by affidavits that the rent is not sufficient to keep the children, in that case possibly the law would give you power to sell, but I am told it would cost you between $75 and $100 to get it. For these reasons I ask you to reconsider your intention of selling. Besides the interest you could get in the bank would not make you much more than half the rent.


Be sure to send a dollar in good time to pay for your house rent, or will I take it out of the bank and pay it? Let me know. Do not be annoyed at anything your friends here may Say. I am not aware that they have said anything light of you. All I know is Stephen told me you were dressed up in velvet and that some person in Marquette was watching your movements and writing to him. So long as you keep yourself right before God, you need not care what a vain, proud, envious world will say. Pray for them that God may forgive them and it will bring blessings on yourself. Read occasionally a chapter in the Following of Christ, it will do you more good than if you returned spite, for spite and envy.


With best wishes to you and the Children, to Mrs. Enright and her care

 I remain

  Dear Madam

   Your Sincere friend

    Bernard O’Connell


It seems that Nell had invoked her right to dower under the Married Women’s Property Act 1872, a common law entitling a widow to a portion of her husband’s estate in the absence of a will. A dower allows the wife to provide for herself and any children born during the marriage.


While several American states had abolished the law of dower by the mid-19th century because it impeded the sale of land, the law remained strong in Ontario. Upper Canadian legislators steadfastly refused to interfere with a wife’s right to dower. 


The 1860 Legislative Council argued that abolishing this protection would undermine most widows’ position: “The loss by a poor widow of her dower would perhaps leave her penniless. And in instances the wife contributes just as much to enhancing the value of the property as her husband. . . It would not be right to leave the widow completely at the mercy of her offspring. . .” (Parliamentary Debates, Newspaper Hansard, reel 2, Legislative Council, 13 April 1869, 34).


By invoking her right of dower, it seems Nell also invoked Stephen Downey’s ire. Why else would he refuse to pay $110, which I assume he once agreed to as a fair sum? Or perhaps he was ordered to pay that amount. In his letter, Mr. O’Connell mentions the strong bitterness that exists—most likely on both sides.


Despite having the strength of the law on her side, Nell was now facing the strength of Stephen Downey’s own obstinate ideas of right and wrong, punctuated by the grief of losing his son and further deepened by losing the last of what was left of his son on this Earth—his son’s two daughters whose mother had taken them to the United States. Most likely, Stephen believed that Nell had not lost enough yet.


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