Lowell Irish Cultural Week kicks off with Mass, parade

LOWELL -- Everyone is Irish during Irish Cultural Week in Lowell.

Just ask Lowell City Councilman Sokhary Chau, who, from 2022 to 2024, was the first Cambodian American mayor of any U.S. city. In honor of the 41st annual Lowell Irish Cultural Week, which began on March 10 and will continue until March 17, St. Patrick's Day, Chau was affectionately nicknamed "McChau" and "O'Chau."

In his remarks at the raising of the Irish flag in front of City Hall on March 10, Chau said that he and his family celebrate St. Patrick's Day each year with corned beef, cabbage, and Guinness beer.

Irish Cultural Week is organized by Lowell Irish, a project of the Lowell Irish Cultural Committee of St. Patrick Parish. St. Patrick's is one of the oldest Catholic parishes north of Boston. It was founded in 1831 to serve the growing Irish Catholic immigrant community who came to Lowell to build the canals that were the backbone of the city's economy. St. Patrick's became the focal point of the community, which settled in the surrounding Acre neighborhood.

The descendants of Lowell's Irish community celebrated their faith and heritage on March 10 with Mass at St. Patrick's, followed by a parade through the streets of downtown Lowell to lay a wreath at the Irish Memorial and raise the flag at City Hall.

"It's a celebration of my heritage," Ray Leavitt Jr., Lowell Irish's 2024 Irish Person of the Year, told The Pilot. "And it's a chance to tell people that we're proud to be Irish and proud to be Catholic."

Leavitt, a Lowell native, has been a parishioner at St. Patrick's since 2002. He was drawn to the parish because of its Irish history and now considers it a second home. He has helped restore the church's stained-glass windows and organ, oversaw the St. Patrick's Day Parade for several years, and now helps plan the Irish Cultural Week Mass each year.

"I'm honored to be named Irish Person of the Year by a group of people that are very dedicated to preserving their Irish heritage and working to preserve St. Patrick's Church," he said.

Prior to Mass, Jeffrey Smith performed a concert of classic Irish tunes on the organ, accompanied by the haunting voices of soloists Alison Burns and Miguel Cabrera. A bagpiper led the opening procession, which featured a phalanx of Lowell police officers, firefighters, Knights of Columbus, and green-clad, shamrock-spangled members of the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians. Beaming dancers from Chelmsford's Heavey-Quinn Academy of Irish Dance, accompanied by live fiddle music, pranced and twirled through the center aisle, but their feet made no noise as they slammed against the church floor.

The first two readings for the day's Mass were proclaimed in Gaelic by Lowell Irish member Eileen Sullivan. Father William Acevedo, pastor of St. Patrick's, celebrated the Mass and delivered the homily.

"Thank you all for being here this morning," he said, "especially to the Lowell Irish for all the work they do here in the parish, the work that they have done, and all the work that they will do, especially for taking the time to put together this special week of celebrating their heritage, their culture."

He said that it was a "blessing" and a "privilege" to have Lowell Irish active in the parish for 41 years, and that the organization "just seems to be getting better and better."

Lowell Irish presented Father Acevedo with an oversized $5,000 check to repair the church's stained-glass windows.

"I don't think I'll be able to fit this in my pocket," he quipped.

In her remarks after Mass, Lowell Irish Board Member Kimberly McMahon said that while some Lowell Irish events are purely cultural and secular in nature, the group's main priorities are evangelization and faith formation.

"We are all responsible in our village to create opportunities for fellowship," she said, "for good people from diverse backgrounds to gather together to enjoy each other's company and to love each other as Jesus taught us."

Following the Mass, the parade began. Irish flags fluttered in the March breeze, and the 11 bells of St. Patrick's carillon rang out, played by musician Bob Feldman. Curious onlookers, many filming on their cell phones, watched as the colorful group made its way through the streets, bagpipe music echoing wherever they went.

They laid a wreath at the Irish Memorial in downtown Lowell, and Father Richard "Doc" Conway, a senior priest of the Archdiocese of Boston and former parish administrator at St. Patrick's, delivered the blessing. He praised the contributions of the Irish community to the city of Lowell and the city's history of welcoming immigrants from all over the world. He said that "many more immigrants" are coming to Lowell and the rest of Massachusetts now, and that "some of them are really suffering."

"We pray that we can have peace in the world," Father Conway said, "that we can be welcoming to all the people who are still coming . . . And we ask for blessing on this city, on the Irish, and all nationalities. May we all enjoy peace, and the sooner, the better."

At the flag-raising, Eileen Sullivan sang "Amhran na bhFiann," the Irish national anthem.

McMahon told one of her favorite stories from the history of Lowell Irish, when a West African man with no Irish ancestry joined the parade one year. He was wearing a t-shirt with the Irish and American flags on it and figured that he might as well join the march.

After the parade, he told McMahon: "I feel very close to the Irish people. I understand their plight. My country was colonized, too."

"We talked about how we all have so much in common," McMahon said. "We can all say we're from Europe, from Asia, from Africa. But really, we're all humans. We're all Lowellians."

When the Irish flag was raised, the marchers returned to St. Patrick's for an Irish brunch, music, and dancing.