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A St. Patrick's Day Story
Madison's Irish wanted a church ... So they built one
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Saturday, March 16, 2013 5:00 AM
When St. Michael the Archangel Church was built by Irish immigrants in the late 1830s, they used rock that had been removed from the hills surrounding Madison to clear the way for the railroad incline.
"They saved a lot of rocks blasted out of the hill," Phaedra Jones, a member of the Ohio Valley Celtic Society, said. "They would use mules or oxen - or whatever they had really - and they would haul them to the east end of town."
According to River to Rail, an online history project by the Jefferson County Public Library and the Jefferson County Historical Society, there was no direct way to build a railroad from Madison except for an inclined passageway. At one point, the Madison incline was the steepest line-haul incline in the United States.
"Madison had really become a booming river town by then," Jones said. "It was decided that they need to connect Madison to Indianapolis so that things being shipped up the river could be transported to Indianapolis."
The work required to build the incline was dangerous. Jones said that's partially why the Irish were able to get the work.
"They had trouble finding other jobs. The Irish had a reputation for being rowdy," Jones said. "Businesses would put up signs that said 'Irishmen need not apply' because their reputation was so bad. They ended up having to settle for jobs that were less than stellar."
The Irish immigrants that moved to the area often had issues with the German immigrants that had moved in earlier.
"There was some tension between two groups," she said.
Steve Thomas, president of the Ohio Valley Celtic Society, said that the Irish were pushed west where they began to live in the "Irish Hollow." The hollow was located just east of what is now State Road 7. The railroad would have passed just to the west of where the Irish were living.
"The Irish and German people that settled in Madison didn't really get along," Thomas said. "At one point they had to build a wall between west Madison and Madison. That way they had to work a little harder to hit each other."
An article about Irish Hollow published by River to Rail states that the immigrants set up the hollow as a temporary living area. But the poor conditions would have likely killed many people.
"A lot of the Irish lived in the hollow," Jones said. "They lived in basically shanties. They were in danger of sickness and work related dangers, and a lot of them did die."
Thomas said that many of the Irish immigrants wanted a place to worship, but they weren't welcome at existing churches. So, they began building their own.
There is no documentation proving it, but it is believed that priests convinced Francis Costigan, a famous architect in the area who designed the Lanier Mansion, to design the church for free.
Jones said Irish women would raise money for building supplies by selling pigs.
St. Michael's church is still standing today in what Thomas said is a tribute to the Irish workers who temporarily lived in Madison.
"They had some trouble getting along," Thomas said. "But, whenever they all had to pull together, they pulled together."
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