Perched on the highest point of St. Paul’s Cemetery on Mitchell Street stands a magnificent Celtic cross dedicated to the memory of Very Reverend Father Michael Barry, a Roman Catholic priest who arrived in Oswego in 1869 and spent the rest of his life here.

Father Barry was a tireless crusader for temperance, Catholic education, and the betterment of his adopted community in general.

He was born in County Cork, Ireland, the eldest child of Thomas Frederick and Mary Cooney Barry. The family left Ireland ca. 1843 since his brother William (1844-May 7, 1915) was the first child known to be born in New York State. Thomas (1800-1868) died in Carthage, NY and was buried in Old Saint James’ Cemetery. Mary (ca. 1800-October 22, 1882) died in Oswego and was buried in St. Paul’s Cemetery.

Although Barry first worked in a grocery store in Montreal, Canada, he had aspirations of becoming a priest. He entered the Sulpician Order’s Grand Seminary in Montreal and was ordained in 1858. Initially assigned to the diocese of Albany he was sent to Saratoga, NY to act as assistant priest and priest in Saint Peter’s Church. In 1861 he was transferred to Saint James’ Church in Carthage.

Father Barry remained in Carthage throughout the Civil War. He came to Oswego in 1869 to take charge of St. Paul’s Parish. This assignment was deemed “irremovable” meaning the holder was allowed to stay as long as he chose. Father Barry never left. As vicarius foreanus (vicar forane) he was entitled to use the title of Dean.

A small Catholic community had lived in Oswego since its early days and in 1830 Peter Lappin and others decided it was time to organize a parish. Through his efforts Father Donoghue, the pastor for all of Central New York, came to say mass in 1830. Subsequently the congregation purchased a lot on the corner of East Mohawk and East Fifth streets from philanthropist Gerritt Smith in order to erect a church, a modest wooden frame building measuring 20 feet by 24 feet. In 1840, the congregation laid the cornerstone for a new stone church, measuring 55 feet by 100 feet, which was completed in 1844.

Father Barry’s first task was to get to know his parishioners and gain their trust. By 1871 he felt confident enough to plan a new church which, when finished, was one of the largest in Central New York, measuring 76 feet by 200 feet. That church was used until the present structure was opened in 1969. In the ensuing years, Dean Barry would supervise the erection of Priory Hall in the new church, a project completed in 1880. He had the basement deepened and installed an inclined floor and stage. He took a personal interest in the work and it was said that he almost daily took office his clerical clothing and grabbed a shovel or pick to work alongside his parishioners while they removed thousands of tons of dirt. When the project was finished, the hall boasted a seating capacity of nearly 1,500.

Father Michael Kelly, Barry’s predecessor, had instituted a parochial school but had been unable to enlarge the enrollment. Intensely interested in education, the new priest set about making St. Paul’s Academy, as it came to be known, one of the finest around. Sisters of St. Ann were the teachers when Father Barry arrived. He immediately declared himself principal, holding that position for ten years. By 1885 the school was divided into a primary and a senior level. Boys and girls were segregated for instruction. Fr. Barry brought in lay teachers whom he trained himself and turned over day-to-day operations to a lay principal. Nevertheless he presided over half-year oral examinations, testing the students on everything from arithmetic to church doctrine. In 1909 he gained the bishop’s permission to bring several sisters of St. Joseph to Oswego to take over the teaching duties.

Former students praised Fr. Barry for his interest in them. It was said that when he found a student with a particular talent he did all he could to encourage it. Over the years, however, his views on education shifted. By 1910, he was preaching that most young people would not profit from advanced education. He advocated a thorough grounding in English and math but little else, claiming that higher education only fitted them to become mediocre teachers or half-failures in the professions since not more than one child in fifty had the mental capacity to make use of the education imparted in high school and college. Dean Barry’s advice was to take boys and girls out of school between the ages of 14 and 16 and put them to work.

Parochial school students who entered the local public high school were, in his view, “not subjected to sufficient discipline . . . with the inevitable result that they become disobedient to their parents and never amount to ‘a row of pins’.”

He railed against well-to-do parents who could afford to send their sons to prestigious, although secular, colleges and universities, asserting that they posed a “danger to faith.”

Dean Barry was definitely a man of the nineteenth century, particularly with regard to his views on women who were entering the work force in increasing numbers, becoming more mobile and more independent. In contrast to that reality, he advocated a very circumscribed role for them. Girls, he opined, should not frequent the city playgrounds. To shame mothers he said that daughters in “homes of refinement” would not be found on playgrounds: “Our refined Catholic mothers will not permit their little girls to be thrown into such mixed company.” He condemned young women who attended basketball games for “yelling their heads off.” If they appeared to be looking for male acquaintances while walking down the street they were not “the real young lady [who] paid no attention to anyone on the street.” He berated them for wearing what he deemed immodest and indecent clothing. His constant complaints about women’s hats and apparel often moved his congregation to smiles.

Fathers and sons also found themselves on the receiving end of Fr. Barry’s criticism. He abhorred the fact that baseball games were held at Fort Ontario on Sundays, not so much the games themselves but the times at which some were scheduled. For many young fellows the temptation to attend a ballgame during Vespers, when they should have been in church, was too great. Furthermore, men who permitted their sons to attend such games were “unworthy of being fathers.” Anyone playing ball on Sunday was characterized as a “ruffian.”

On the subject of temperance, Fr. Barry was equally adamant. Addressing the problem directly, he formed St. Paul’s Temperance Society which in 1872 was renamed the Priory of St. Paul. Membership climbed into the hundreds as he prodded, persuaded, and bullied his parishioners to practice total abstinence of alcohol. He particularly vented his wrath against fraternity parties, condemning those who attended in unsparing terms because he thought a young man or woman’s primary concern should be “the working out of salvation.” One Sunday he actually revealed the names of those who had attended a fraternity party the previous Friday.

He criticized Sunday afternoon private parties at which alcohol was served. He blamed saloon keepers for selling liquor consumed at these events and the police for not enforcing Sunday Blue Laws. On one particular occasion he actually toured local bars to “see how the saloon men were behaving.” He found nothing untoward (probably because of advance warning) but vowed to visit every east side saloon to ensure none of his parishioners were there. He referred to those saloons as “hellholes.”

Father Barry disapproved of sending cards of thanks after a funeral. He opined that those who aided in a neighbor’s bereavement did so out of kindness and did not expect any acknowledgment. Persons publishing such notices showed poor taste and a lack of intelligence, he said, and he encouraged his congregation to forego the practice immediately.

He also disapproved of the practice of embalming bodies, claiming that many people were inadvertently murdered because they were alive when embalming began. His solution to the perceived problem was for bereaved families to keep the corpse above ground for a few extra days before holding the funeral. So strong was his opinion on this matter that he directed his body to be held until three days after his death and buried without embalming.

Visitors to the parish evoked an interesting reaction, as a story published early in his tenure as parish priest revealed. Members of the Watertown Catholic Benevolent Society traveled to Oswego one Saturday in August 1870 to have dinner and visit St. Paul’s Church. They marched from the hotel to the church only to be snubbed by Fr. Barry. As reported in The Oswego Daily Press, the visitors complained loudly that the priest had flatly refused to meet with them.

Any type of alleged secret society was offensive to Fr. Barry, as the Mullin family discovered. Their deceased son, William, had belonged to the Fraternal Order of Eagles, an organization aimed at civic pride, charity, fraternalism, and support for social issues. Nevertheless, Fr. Barry refused to perform a funeral for the young man. In desperation friends appealed to Bishop Ludden, who, after listening to them, directed Fr. Barry to conduct the funeral since the young man had received the church’s last rites and was entitled to a Catholic burial.

Despite his eccentricities, Dean Barry worked tirelessly for his flock. His charitable acts were generally done in private and “cloaked in gruffness” because he disliked attention paid to him. Late in life he organized the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Oswego, whose aim was to provide assistance to those in distress and need regardless of color, creed, or religion.

He took particular pride in his efforts to improve St. Paul’s Cemetery, periodically recruiting crews to clean up the grounds. He took it upon himself to purchase additional land on the cemetery’s east side.

A lover of good music, which he believed enhanced church services, Fr. Barry procured one of the finest organs for his church, paying himself for its repairs and updates. In 1902, when traveling in Europe, he heard Charles Courboin playing a church organ in Antwerp, Belgium. He invited Courboin to move to Oswego to become his church’s official organist. In 1904 the young man arrived in Oswego for what was expected to be a short stay but which lasted for ten years.

One of Fr. Barry’s most enduring achievements was the successful campaign to bring Lake Ontario water to all city dwellers. The Oswego River was used not only for drinking water but also for a sewer. Outbreaks of water-borne diseases, such as typhoid fever and cholera, were regularly reported in the local newspapers. Private wells also became contaminated through poor sewage disposal.

The struggle for clean water began in 1904 and culminated in a bond proposal in 1908 to pipe clean lake water into the city. At the forefront of the fight was Dean Barry, who employed his pulpit to encourage his congregation to get out the vote for the bond issue. He decried the “penurious policy so long practiced by certain classes in this city.” Noting opposition to the plan because of a perceived large tax increase, he pointed out that the bond issue would be cost effective in the long run, in addition to providing clean water to every household. The real reason for opposition, he claimed, had nothing to do with money: “Their preference for filtered river water is but a subterfuge designed to cover their real reasons. They are selfish and care not for the mass of the people; they can afford to buy water while the average taxpayer cannot.” He hoped to see the day when every poor man in the city would have a bathtub and city water in his home. The bond issue passed and on June 16, 1908, Fr. Barry had the honor of turning the first shovelful of dirt for the new water works.

Dean Barry disliked observing his birthday and generally refused to permit his parishioners to mark the day with overt celebrations. He was less successful when it came to recognizing his long service as a priest. Upon the 40th anniversary of his arrival in Oswego it was estimated that he had officiated at over 12,000 baptisms, 3,000 marriages, and 10,000 funerals. In 1911, a grateful congregation presented him with an automobile and two years later replaced it with a newer model.

In November 1912, Fr. Barry suffered a severe stroke, which rendered his right side useless and affected his vocal chords. Not until 15 months later was he able to address the congregation. On Sunday, January 25, 1914, he spoke at both services, thanking his parishioners for their continued support. Although weak, his voice was clear enough for all to hear.

While able to return to some of his pastoral duties Dean Barry, now 83 years old, was frail. He became ill again in August 1914 and died on October 23, 1914. His death was widely reported and the outpouring of sympathy, respect, and grief was overwhelming. Thousands passed by his coffin as it lay in state in St. Paul’s Church. Religious dignitaries from across the state attended his funeral, the largest ever held in the city. Fr. Barry wanted to be buried in the cemetery’s new section but since it was not ready, he was temporarily interred in the parish lot.

Almost immediately a plan was floated to raise a suitable memorial. The idea garnering the most support was a Celtic cross, fronted by a plaque bearing Dean Barry’s likeness. A committee, chaired by Thomas Burden, solicited solely within the parish but accepted donations from anyone desiring to contribute. The memorial was erected in 1916 at a cost of more than $5,000. Father Barry’s coffin was disinterred and reburied near that magnificent cross.

The city of Oswego owes a great debt of gratitude to Dean Barry. His zeal, perseverance, kindness, and commitment contributed to the increased good for all residents. It is small wonder that as late as 1965 various organizations were sponsoring talks and papers about his life and work. Unafraid and undeterred, he took on perceived moral laxity, “the curse of hard drink,” local politicians, and law enforcement. The city is a better place because of this man who adopted Oswego as his own and labored to improve it for 45 years.

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