Cover image for Books and Religious Devotion: The Redemptive Reading of an Irishman in Nineteenth-Century New England By Allan F. Westphall

Books and Religious Devotion

The Redemptive Reading of an Irishman in Nineteenth-Century New England

Allan F. Westphall


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ISBN: 978-0-271-06404-8

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248 pages
6" × 9"
34 b&w illustrations

Penn State Series in the History of the Book

Books and Religious Devotion

The Redemptive Reading of an Irishman in Nineteenth-Century New England

Allan F. Westphall

“Allan Westphall brings together an extensive knowledge of Thomas Connary’s sources (his books), the scholarship directly and indirectly dealing with a reader’s interaction with his texts, and the old Irish and medieval sources of Connary’s Catholicism. This fresh, original study explores the significance of a reader’s text embellishments and examines how a farmer and ‘book keeper’ can integrate himself into his books—making them an extension of himself.”


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In Books and Religious Devotion, Allan Westphall presents a study of the book-collecting habits and annotation practices of Thomas Connary, an Irish immigrant farmer who lived in New Hampshire in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Connary led a pious life that revolved around the use, annotation, and sharing of religious books. His surviving annotated volumes provide a revealing glimpse into the utility of books for a common reader—and they show how one remarkable, eccentric reader turned religious books into near icons. Through a careful excavation of book adaptations and enhancements, Westphall gives us insight into the range of opportunities provided by the material book for recording and communicating Connary's religious fervor. The study also investigates the broader nineteenth-century cultural setting, in which books are seen as testimonies of personal faith and come to function as instruments of social interaction in both domestic and public spheres. Underlying Connary’s many and varied interactions with books is his belief that working in books, as physical objects, can be a devout exercise instrumental in human salvation.
“Allan Westphall brings together an extensive knowledge of Thomas Connary’s sources (his books), the scholarship directly and indirectly dealing with a reader’s interaction with his texts, and the old Irish and medieval sources of Connary’s Catholicism. This fresh, original study explores the significance of a reader’s text embellishments and examines how a farmer and ‘book keeper’ can integrate himself into his books—making them an extension of himself.”
“Allan Westphall’s book is more than an exhaustive account of one reader reading. It is a welcome excavation of the ways in which a non-elite New Hampshire farmer lived his reading, physically manipulating his books to reflect and develop his beliefs and devotional practices. Westphall’s meticulous insights into the material dimension of reading illustrate the surprising ways the physical text has been used for religious self-fashioning.”
“Allan Westphall has made quite a remarkable find: a late nineteenth-century Irish immigrant who, deep in Puritan New England, left ample traces of his reading of devotional texts, including Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. Westphall unfolds the significance of this material through an exceptional range of inquiries into the Protestant publishers in Boston who printed Catholic devotional texts; into Irish immigrant life in New Hampshire; and into reading practices and the purpose, status, and value of marginal annotations. This study is richly diverse in its illuminations and a model of what the history of the book might contribute to social and religious history, as well as to our understanding of the mind of a reader whose visions led Protestant authorities to declare him insane. As our acquaintance with Thomas Connary deepens, we reflect on our own practices and experiences as readers, not all of which we might wish to confide to posterity. Connary has found in Allan Westphall a most ingenious and sympathetic interpreter of his marginalia and interleavings.”

Allan F. Westphall is an honorary research fellow at the University of St. Andrews.

Preface: A Discovery and Serendipitous Journeys


Chapter 1: Irish American Print Culture in the Nineteenth Century: A Private Library

Epiphany: “Seeing very plainly”

Chapter 2: “Labouring in my Books:” Thomas Connary’s Book Enhancements

Epiphany: The Lamp

Chapter 3: Redemptive Reading in the Connary Household

Epiphany: The Road to Lancaster

Chapter 4: The Farmer’s Treasure: Thomas Connary Reading St. Francis of Sales and Julian

of Norwich

Epiphany: “No priest or bishop in this church but Himself alone”

Chapter 5: Book Keeping, Longing, and Besetment

Epilogue: Rome Uninvited




“I Am Here”

Early in the morning on Tuesday, the seventh of January, 1890, Thomas Connary—an Irish immigrant farmer living in the town of Stratford, New Hampshire—sits down in his study to read in one of his most treasured books, the Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love by the medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich. As Connary, who is now in his seventy-sixth year, recounts, he occasionally looks up from his book at “her picture fitted by myself over the window facing northerly in the room I am now using for reading and writing purposes.” As has been his routine for more than three decades, he inserts numerous notebook pages with religious meditations between the pages of Julian’s writing. Some of these handwritten pages show prayer and reflection emerging from his reading of Julian’s visionary accounts. The following statement, written in Connary’s somewhat idiosyncratic prose, allows us to reconstruct a specific reading situation, and it begins to convey the particular esteem that this devout farmer has for his religious literature.

Tuesday, early in the morning clear and dry, January 7, 1890, I am working in my book, next to Titlepage of Revelations of Mother Juliana in 214 pages, see her picture directly over the northerly picture now of the window in the room in which I am busy much of my time as I am sighting northerly, for purposes purely heavenly thank God. Mother Juliana was an Anchorite of Norwich: Who lived in the days of King Edward the Third, and published in Boston by Ticknor and Fields in 1864. The publishers are protestants. I have had the Book most of the time since it was published. . . . No glossary is required in the Book for my use—I understand the full force of the Divine blessed holy Heavenly words without explanation thank God. . . . Books however many, cannot be heavenly if God will not bless them, make them pure with His own heavenly graces endlessly continually always forever, so with money, so with the whole of earthly property. Thomas Connary

For Connary, reading Julian of Norwich alongside a wide range of spiritual and didactic texts signifies precious moments of privacy, emotional reward, and prayerful reflection. Far more than just acquiring and reading his religious literature, Connary invests significant labor in filling his volumes with a plethora of material, such as newspaper cuttings, religious images, poetry, and, most noticeably, handwritten pages of religious prayers and reflections as well as diary records of daily events and personal reminiscences. The augmented volumes are the result of years of laborious accumulation—a process that appears to have begun in the late 1860s and continued until shortly before Connary’s death in 1899.

These annotation practices and the manifold ways in which Thomas Connary interacts with books are the subject of detailed examination in this study. What can it mean to be inside one’s books, to participate in them, and to be shaped by them? The following chapters focus on the writings of an eccentric reader and book collector in order to investigate the passion and fervent piety that he pours into his books. Connary’s library allows us to explore the opportunities provided by the material book for structuring the practical, spiritual, and moral life of readers. His annotations offer ample evidence of how a book’s physical properties can participate in the imaginative and spiritual life of a reader: more than anything else, they show how books can become the material conduits for a deeply felt relationship to one’s neighbor as well as to the divinity. As this farmer-bibliophile works in his private room, he puts his books to many and varied uses, but the cumulative effect of his labors is to convert his library into a comprehensive proclamation of faith. In it, we find elaborate records of religious reading as an ingrained habit of everyday life, one existing alongside the routines of agricultural labor and the domestic duties of a nineteenth-century Irish Catholic living in New Hampshire.

Occasionally, when reading Julian of Norwich and many other books, Connary writes in the margins a brief yet pregnant comment: “I am here.” This, I will argue, is particularly ripe with significance. More than merely marking a specific juncture in his reading, it is the assertion of someone determined to inscribe himself into the experiences recounted in the book, to testify to their veracity, and, finally, to convert the printed book into a signed testimony of a particular intensity of religious devotion. For Connary, noting that “I am here” means to assert affinity and proximity with past authors and their writings in a way that is concrete and aesthetic as much as it is existential and ethical.

Connary provides us with some details of his early life in a note he inserts into his book The Council of the Vatican and the Events of the Time, printed in Boston in 1872:

March 25, in the year 1833, I left Castlemarket, my native home in Old Ireland, in the Province of Leinster, Kilkenny County, near Ballinakill in the Queen’s County, expecting to return to my native home in three months of time: when on the way I met a few people who were on the way to America, I accompanied them, and worked for Mr Josiah Bellows 2nd, and his family, in Lancaster, Coos County, New Hampshire in June that year, my home from that time to this day has been in the United States of America.

Born in 1814, Connary was only nineteen years of age when he left Ireland. He was part of the early wave of Irish immigrants who came to the United States before the trauma of the Great Irish Famine and who brought with them overwhelmingly positive memories of Old Ireland. Intriguingly, the above record provides no further explanation of motives, no details about the trials of crossing, no impression of the thoughts running through the mind of a nineteen-year-old finding himself in an unfamiliar land.

An obituary for Thomas Connary in the Coös County Democrat from the year 1899 provides some further details about this early phase in his American experience:

When about nineteen years old he left his home for America, and came to the town of Lancaster, N.H., in the early part of June. He had but fifteen cents in his possession at this time. He hired himself to Mr. Josiah Bellows for the small sum of seven dollars a month, and after having served his time with this gentleman he went about ditching for the farmers. During the winters he threshed wherever he could get employment. At that time, as is well known, threshing was done by hand. He seldom or ever got his pay in money but accepted the tenth bushel as compensation for his hard labor. He kept up this mode of livelihood for several years, then he purchased a small farm in Northumberland, on which he had a log cabin for a dwelling. While here his beloved mother, one sister and two brothers, John and Simon, came from Ireland to sweeten his life and labors. He now seemed happier, having his mother for housekeeper. At the age of thirty he married a worthy lady whose name was Lucinda Stone. The following year he demolished the log cabin and erected in its stead a homesome frame building, the first of this nature ever erected in the town. He lived in this town for five years, working chiefly for the neighboring farmers. He was always very intimate with his old employee, Mr. Bellows, speaking of him ever after in the highest terms and praise. There were born to them in Northumberland one daughter and a son. He sold his farm here and purchased the old Partridge homestead in No. Stratford, on which he spent the remainder of his life.

In 1846, Connary settled in the town of Stratford, Coös County, then a town of some 550 people located on the Connecticut River on New Hampshire’s northwestern border with Vermont. Comprising the two settlements of North Stratford and Stratford Hollow, the town was granted its charter in 1762 under the name of Woodbury; this charter was regranted in 1773 with the name of Stratford in memory of Stratford-on-Avon, probably via Stratford, Connecticut, from where some of its earliest settlers had come. In Jeannette R. Thompson’s impressive History of the Town of Stratford, New Hampshire, 1773–1925, published in 1925, we read the following about Thomas Connary, who was deeply involved in communal affairs: “Thomas Connary, one of Stratford’s most worthy citizens, came here in the ’40s, and held many important offices during the fifty years of his residence in Stratford. He was selectman and treasurer during the Civil War, and furnished much of the material for the town history of that period.”

In this rural New Hampshire setting, which prospered as a farming and logging center, especially with the coming of the Grand Trunk Railway in 1853, Connary lived in his family farmstead with his wife, Lucinda, and their five children, Simon, Mary, John, Joseph, and Anne, until his death in 1899. Connary played a central role in establishing the Catholic mission in Stratford, according to Thompson:

T. Connary was the first resident Roman Catholic, and to his ardent zeal and fervent piety the present prosperous church owes much for its maintenance through its pioneer days. “Of Mr Connary it may be said with the utmost truthfulness that he has ever borne an irreproachable Christian character as citizen, neighbour, friend; and in business he has maintained the highest type, and no one has been more trusted and honored by his townspeople. Indeed the entire family are numbered among our best citizens.” . . . Through Mr. Connary’s efforts a Roman Catholic priest from Montpelier, Vt., came to care for the spiritual needs of the men of that faith who were employed in building the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad, in construction here during the late ’40s and early ’50s; and Mass was first celebrated in a little building a few rods east of the station. . . . Mr. Connary bought the land on which the present church stands in 1866; but, as a church had been built in Bloomfield, building here was deferred until 1887, when a church was erected at a cost of $3,000.

Starting out with nothing and accepting “the tenth bushel as compensation for his hard labor,” we know that Connary, once established, did well and managed his finances deftly. The census record of 1870 for the town of Stratford estimates the value of the Connary real estate at a full $6,000, one of the town’s higher valuations. In January 1899 the obituary in the Coös County Democrat characterized him as a “deeply religious man” whose “confidence in God was unlimited,” while noting that “he was very industrious and of good financial abilities. . . . His generosity to the church of his heart is well known often indeed depriving himself for this end.” Connary’s contribution to the Catholic mission in the area came not only in the form of donations for the foundation of the Catholic church in Stratford but also in the purchase of the land for the cemetery and church (established in 1879) in Bloomfield, Vermont, across the Connecticut River, a stone’s throw from North Stratford. Today, the stained glass window in the Sacred Heart Church in Stratford carries the name Thomas Connary, in memory of the benefactor and the town’s first resident Roman Catholic.

Connary’s adherence to the Catholic faith was deep and fervent, fueled during his adult life by the diligent reading of Catholic devotional literature. While he collected books throughout most of his life, in later years his identity as a devout Irish American Catholic revolved around, and even gained meaning from, the purchasing, reading, annotating, and sharing of religious books. Records show that Connary was a member of the Stratford Hollow Library Association and that he was one of the twenty-six original subscribers (at the subscription rate of $10) when the Library Hall was constructed in 1884 to house approximately four hundred volumes. Most important, he gathered an impressive private library, predominantly of Catholic devotional, hagiographic, catechetical, and apologetic works, but also of dictionaries and general reference, as well as writing on the subjects of travel and topography, philosophy, and history.

We can only conjecture about the full extent of Connary’s library, which must have comprised several hundred volumes (see the appendix). This study looks at a segment of his library that has survived—a collection of about thirty books, nearly all on religious themes, purchased by Connary while he was in the United States from the 1850s onwards, and annotated by him from when he was in his fifties until a few months before his death at the age of eighty-four. It is useful from the outset to list those of Connary’s books that figure most prominently in the following discussion. All contain copious annotations and miscellaneous documents.

• James Balmes. Fundamental Philosophy. Translated by Henry F. Brownson. 2 vols. New York: D. & J. Sadlier, 1858.

• Elizabeth de Bodenham. Mrs. Herbert and the Villagers: or, Familiar Conversations on the Principal Duties of Christianity. 2 vols. (vol. 2 only). Baltimore: Fielding Lucas, Jr., 1853.

• Jean-Pierre Camus. The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales. New York: P. O’Shea, 1867.

• M. A. G. Chardon. Memoirs of a Guardian Angel. Baltimore: John Murphy, 1873.

• Frederick W. Faber. All for Jesus: or, The Easy Ways of Divine Love. Baltimore: John Murphy, 1857.

Fables of Aesop and Others. Translated by Samuel Croxall. New York: Derby & Jackson, 1859.

• St. Francis of Sales. The True Spiritual Conferences of St. Francis of Sales. London: Richardson and Son, 1862.

• George Foxcroft Haskins. Travels in England, France, Italy, and Ireland. Boston: Patrick Donahoe, 1856.

• Julian of Norwich. Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864.

• Thomas H. Kinane. The Dove of the Tabernacle. New York: P. M. Haverty, 1876.

• P. R. Leatherman. Elements of Moral Science. Philadelphia: James Challen & Son, 1860.

• F. Lewis. [Louis of Granada.] The Sinner’s Guide. Philadelphia: Henry M’Grath, 1845.

The Lives of Eminent Saints. Boston: Patrick Donahoe, 1853.

The Lives of the Fathers of the Desert. Baltimore: Fielding Lucas, Jr., no year.

• James O’Leary. A History of the Bible, its Origin, Object, and Structure. New York: D. & J. Sadlier, 1873.

• Thomas Canon Pope. The Council of the Vatican and the Events of the Time. Boston: Patrick Donahoe, 1872.

This group of annotated volumes constitutes a remarkably well-documented—and self-documenting—archive that enables us to map a series of activities centered on the presence and the use of books. Viewed cumulatively, these artifacts allow us to reconstruct moments of reading, a physical setting, and the variety of uses to which the books were put. These traces reveal a dedicated reader for whom the reading of religious works represents precious moments of privacy and intimacy, as well as the reinforcement of social bonds that exist within a closely knit circle of family and friends. For this farmer-bibliophile, books are, quite simply, a necessity of life. Working inside books—reading, annotating, decorating, and pasting notes into them—becomes a means of pious self-fashioning and a dramatization of lived spirituality.

The following passage, found on a handwritten note dated February 12, 1890, and pasted in Julian of Norwich’s Revelations, is an extraordinary statement about the powerful iconic status that books held for Connary. Written with his eccentric turn of phrase, it reads as a poignant, profound, and highly personal equivalent of Thomas Jefferson’s statement that “I cannot live without books,” or Jorge Luis Borges’s bibliophilic assertion, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

I have many Books and cannot think that I can ever be really happy anywhere without them: you will see that I speak of happiness now in this small paper, and when I speak of happiness in it, I speak of eternal everlasting heavenly happiness alone in it. For this one business purpose alone I love my Books, and for no other business purpose, from time I was born to this Wednesday February 12, 1890, I have loved my Books well only for the power which they give to me to have a heavenly home with our divine Creator continually for unending eternity. This way alone of Book keeping is God’s way to prosperity and heavenly happiness unending.

This statement, found inside a book especially valued by its owner, is written late in life, as he looks back on his years of laborious accumulation and annotation. In it he begins to convey a sense of a redemptive culture of reading, in which material, utilitarian, and spiritual values are seen to enhance one another. It is this understanding of a redemptive discipline of reading which the following chapters will attempt to analyze in depth.

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