History Through the Foresters’ Eyes

Guest author: Susan Steele, Director of TIARA’s Foresters Project

An appropriate story for St. Patrick’s Day? How about one involving a fraternal life insurance society founded by a group of Irish immigrants, an Irish genealogy group, and a university based in a state with one of the highest percentages of people claiming Irish ancestry!

Partners in Progress: It’s Not Just the Numbers
No, it’s not just the numbers… although they are impressive: 100 years of history, 80,000 records, 37,000 index entries, seventy volunteers, and thousands of hours in a twenty-year project involving three organizations!

Let’s Start with the Organizations
The Massachusetts Catholic Order of Foresters (now known as the Catholic Association of Foresters) was founded in 1879 as a fraternal organization that provided life insurance for its members. The organization also offered social and religious activities. In 2004, prompted by a decision to move to smaller headquarters, the Catholic Association of Foresters contemplated sending one hundred years of records to the shredder.

Saved from the Shredder
In 2003, TIARA (The Irish Ancestral Research Association) became aware of the historical and genealogical value of the Foresters mortuary records (life insurance policies). The following year, TIARA negotiated an agreement to take custody of the records. Hundreds of boxes were moved, and TIARA began a seven-year project of foldering, indexing, and arranging for the scanning of more than 20,000 mortuary records.

The Records Find a New Home
TIARA occupied basement-level office space and had several close calls with water leaks. Finding a permanent home for the Foresters records was a project goal. In 2011 this goal was achieved when the records were placed in the University Archives and Special Collections department in UMass Boston’s Healey Library. TIARA was honored for its preservation work with the first Joseph P. Healey Library Community Archives Award.

Partners in Progress
The award also recognized a growing partnership. When the records moved to University Archives and Special Collections, TIARA’s Foresters Project volunteers accompanied them. Volunteers continued to index the collection. Later, the development of a website data entry program enabled volunteers to work offsite. The year 2023 marks the twentieth anniversary of TIARA’s Foresters Project! Twelve of those years have been spent in a mutually beneficial relationship with UMass Boston.

From the Numbers to the Stories
What kept the project going for twenty years? It’s the stories contained in the records. In 2003, TIARA volunteers could open a mortuary record envelope and learn information about a great grandparent’s life.

James Lennon’s mortuary record envelope

In papers signed by an ancestor they could find a physical description, occupation, place of birth, local address, and the name of a friend. These envelopes containing life insurance applications also included correspondence, death certificates, and beneficiary information with names and ages of additional family members. In the years that TIARA held the records, volunteers answered requests for copies of more than 600 records. An early request introduced us to history broader than family knowledge.

Local Legend Becomes Reality
James Lennon’s cause of death was “by the bursting of a molasses tank.” Could this be the famous incident in the North End of Boston? James Lennon’s application page was filled with family history information but gave no hint of what was to come.

James Lennon’s Foresters membership application

A City of Boston death certificate included in the mortuary record, along with a search for newspaper articles, verified our conjecture. James’ multiple injuries were caused by the bursting of the molasses tank in the North End on January 15, 1919. Sorting by that death date, we found four more Foresters who died in the huge wave of molasses. Each of their stories lent more details to our knowledge of the incident.

City of Boston death certificate listing James Lennon’s cause of death as “mult[iple] injuries caused by the bursting of a molasses tank”

There will be future blog posts covering family history and a broad range of historical events contained in the Massachusetts Catholic Order of Foresters collection. Learn more about TIARA’s Foresters Project or search the Foresters Records Index. Contact library.archives@umb.edu to request access to the Foresters records.

A final St. Patrick’s Day fact: if you enter “Ireland” in the “Presumed Country of Birth” category in the search form and leave the rest of the form blank, you will see more than 11,000 results. And those results just cover Foresters deaths through 1935!

More than 1,000 videos from Mass. Memories Road Show at UMass Boston now online

Videographer Jack Clancy records an interview with Max Manadee at the Nahant Mass. Memories Road Show, April 1, 2017. The photographs, stories, and videos collected in Nahant will be online soon. Photo courtesy Dalia Shilas.

For over a decade, the Mass. Memories Road Show has celebrated and documented the stories that connect people in Massachusetts to their communities. In this period, the program has come a long way. With the help of volunteers and community partners, the Mass. Memories Road Show has collected over 8,000 images and more than 1,000 video interviews. The Mass. Memories Road Show collection includes contributions from nearly 40 communities and University Archives & Special Collections at UMass Boston continues to work toward representing all 351 towns in the Commonwealth.

“We began collecting video interviews at one of the Dorchester Mass. Memories Road Shows in 2006,” recalls Joanne Riley, University Archivist and Curator of Special Collections. Riley enlisted a UMass Boston undergraduate student to record the first interviews, and the Video Station soon became a standard feature of all Mass. Memories Road Show events. The Road Show team met Liz Clancy Lerner at the Quincy Mass. Memories Road Show in 2007 and the following year began working with her and her father Jack Clancy, of Best Dog Ever Films, to record and edit the videos in a consistent manner.

“Contributors are excited to describe their photographs,” explained Road Show program coordinator Carolyn Goldstein, “and many of them choose to sit for a video interview to share ‘the stories behind their photos’ or other memories.”

“Throughout the years I have laughed and cried at the stories I’ve recorded,” recalls Liz Clancy Lerner. “I’ve been thrilled at the enthusiasm I see for history in the communities I’ve visited. This is a special project that records what’s often seen as ordinary family stories, but when you dig a little deeper, and really hear how they impact individual families, you see how much these images and anecdotes truly are the beating heart of these Massachusetts communities. I can’t wait to hear more!”

All of the video interviews collected at the Mass. Memories Road Shows from 2006 through 2016 are available online now for research. Some of the newest additions to the collection are the video recordings from early Road Shows held in Dorchester, Quincy, Reading, Stoneham, and Duxbury. Interviews from more recent Mass. Memories Road Show events in Martha’s Vineyard, Spencer, and Hyde Park are also available.

Mary Doherty Manseau at the Dorchester Mass. Memories Road Show: Video Interview from UMass Boston Archives on Vimeo.

These videos preserve the family histories, childhood memories, activities, and experiences that together help tell the complex personal history of Massachusetts.

Explore the Mass. Memories Road Show video collection here.

Caroline Littlewood is a graduate assistant in University Archives & Special Collections and a graduate student in History (Public History Track) at UMass Boston.

The Mass. Memories Road Show is a statewide digital history project that documents people, places and events in Massachusetts history through family photographs and stories. In partnership with teams of local volunteers, we organize public events to scan family and community photographs and videotape “the stories behind the photos.” The images and videos are indexed and incorporated into an online educational database. Since its launch, the project has gathered more than 9,000 photographs and stories from across the state. It is supported in part by the Patricia C. Flaherty ’81 Endowed Fund at UMass Boston.

University Archives & Special Collections in the Joseph P. Healey Library at UMass Boston was established in 1981 as a repository to collect archival material in subject areas of interest to the university, as well as the records of the university itself. The mission and history of UMass Boston guide the collection policies of University Archives & Special Collections, with the university’s urban mission and strong support of community service reflected in the records of and related to urban planning, social welfare, social action, alternative movements, community organizations, war and social consequence, and local history related to neighboring communities. To learn more, visit blogs.umb.edu/archives.