"The True Story of Father John's Medicine"

"The True Story of Father John's Medicine" 

Little did Father John O'Brien realize when he arrived in Lowell in 1848, the impact that he and those that would follow him would have on the mill city of Lowell, Massachusetts.  Father John was a man of vision.  It was the time of massive Irish immigration with each newcomer seeking employment and a new life.  The good pastor understood the balance that was needed for these people who were caught between two worlds, the need to retain their own identity as Irish men and women, and that of identifying themselves as Americans.  It was during his pastorship that the Irish became an active and prominent factor in Lowell's population.

The Fathers O'Brien

     Father John O'Brien was born in Ballina, County, Tipperary, along the River Shannon. He was trained for the priesthood at Maynooth and came to America after his ordination.  He served in Virginia and Newburyport, MA before coming to Lowell.

     His assignment to Lowell was a rather strategic move on the part of Archbishop Fitzpatrick. Lowell had already proven itself a dilemma for the Archbishop.  There had been outbursts of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish demonstrations in the past.  The Irish also fought among themselves within the city which had not helped matters.  A few years previous the Irish population splintered into a second group that founded St. Peter's Church.  To make matters worse the group which remained at St. Patrick's split again over the leadership of the current pastor, Father McDermott.  It seemed Father McDermott had let some personal issues get in the way of his leadership.  Trying to take matters into his own hands he caused the breakup of a school agreement that had been made with the City Council.
 When Father John O'Brien arrived he found Father McDermott the pastor of St. Mary's, just
two blocks away, and a broken physically and
spiritually, St. Patrick's.  Another pastor, Father
Hilary Tucker, had even gone so far as to request a leave of absence from the Bishop.  Rather than counting on the negatives, Father John focused on
the positive factors he had going for him.  Now
that many of the dissenters were either at St. Peter's or St. Mary's, the Irish who were coming to
St. Patrick's were looking for leadership.  They
found that in Father John O'Brien and his older
brother who was to join him in 1851, Father  Timothy O'Brien.  Though older than his brother, Father Timothy was the more personable the more vocal of the two.  It was through their combined talents that the growing Irish numbers would find identity in Lowell.

     Since they were not part of earlier struggles between the Irish factions they could move easily between the circles.  The O'Briens immediately, made their presence known attending functions at St. Peter's and St. Mary's thus ensuring the dominance of St. Patrick's as maintaining the title of "Mother Church" of the Lowell area. 

     The pair realized that if their people were to become a vocal presence within the community, and not just members of the work force, education was needed.  By 1852 five sisters of Notre Dame were brought from Cincinnati to open a school for girls.  Though no building was ready for them, the next day classes started with over 100 girls attending.  Within a few days over 300 were attending.  Quite soon thereafter the Sisters, encouraged by Father O'Brien, started visiting the sick. There was a City Dispensary for the poor and the Corporation Hospital funded by the mills.  The O'Briens' attempt at caring for the ill soon outgrew its site and plans were made for a hospital. In 1867 the doors of St. John's Hospital.  In 1867 the doors of St. John's hospital operated by the Daughters of Charity opened.  Here medical care was available to many more than before.

     This was also the time of flagrant anti-Irish
and anti-Catholic sentiment.  On more than one occasion the parish was threaten with violence. Twice the convent and school were visited by political committees who took it upon themselves  to investigate supposed atrocities.   Both times the O'Briens were summoned.  Father Timothy once 
threatened the visitors not to harm the Sisters.  Troughout these visits the work of building the  community continued.

     Barely a St. Patrick's Day went by when toasts
were not given to the  Fathers O'Brien and all the
work which they were credited.  Their job of instilling religious zeal to a group who faced the task of providing for there own immediate needs was not easy.  There own example served as the best teacher.  Together the O'Briens formed St. Patrick's in the image they has envisioned.  In 1855 Timothy O'Brien suffered from a bout of pneumonia and died.  The local paper wrote of his passing and of the work he did, something not done for many Irish at this time.  His funeral took place at the large granite-structure which had  replaced the crumbling wooded church built in 1831.  The church had been dedicated just the year before and he was interred in the churchyard.

     Father John's work had to continue and he would have a number of years remaining at St. Patrick's before his death in 1879.  Father Michael O'Brien, a nephew of John and Timothy, came to assist his uncle.  It was during this time that  properties were built and support societies were formed.  The number of Irish grew as well.  The Girls' School had added an academy for boarders.  Its reputation spread far obtaining students from many areas.  The Xaverian Brothers were brought in to teach the boys.  The Working Girls Home was added for those young women who wanted a secure place to room while working at the mills.  The crowning glory to father Michael's pastorship was the consecration of the church in 1874, a title not given to many churches.

     The idea of service was still foremost at St. Patrick's.  The was a temperance society, an aid society for the poor, and social groups for women, men, and families.  Upon the death of Michael O'Brien in 1900, a cousin, Father William O'Brien, carried on the O'Brien Dynasty.  It was under his pastorship in which the church suffered severe fire damage and its subsequent rise from the ashes to its rededication in 1906.  Father William was also responsible for the restructuring of St. Patrick Cemetery and the building of St. Bridget Chapel where he was laid to rest in 1921.

     In front of the church under the granite slab engraved with a Celtic cross lie the remains of three of the Fathers O'Brien.  The parish still lives in their shadow of service and loyalty.  Though the numbers of the community are smaller than they once were, and the buildings do not stretch as far as they once did, St. Patrick's is as much a community devoted to loyalty and service to God and man as it ever was.  In the words of the nineteenth century parish writer, "Ad Majorern Dei Gloriae - To the Greater Glory of God."

Father John's Medicine

Tradition has it that Father John O'Brien was taken ill in 1855.  He made his way to the pharmacy of Carleton and Hovey on Merrimack Street to get something for relief.  He was given a tonic that was composed of cod liver oil and had a licorice taste.   Unlike many other medicines of its time, the prescription contained no alcohol.  It worked so well for the priest that he began recommending folks to visit the apothecary and ask for "Father John's Medicine" - a legend was born.

Soon the shop was packaging the medicine  for sale.  Father John was given a small stipend for using his name and picture. It was agreed   that anyone Father John sent 
to the shop personally would not have to pay for the medicine.  The pastor was always looking after his flock.  
For many years the company was overseen by the Donehue family.   The generosity of the management to its employees was well known, even so far as keeping workers long past 
the need to, just so an employee could have a job. In the 
Father John's Medicine

Within 50 years the medicine was known far and wide. 
Early literature claimed it worked on "consumption, grip, 
croup, whooping cough, and other diseases of the throat." 
Pamphlets given   to customers stated, "All disease is due 
to a run-down condition of the body, unhealthy tissue, 
blood poisoned with impurities, and general weakness." 
Guarantees were made by the manufacturer of its 
restorative powers.  The potion was pedaled in 
numerous countries.  Pharmacies built huge displays in 
their windows advertising the product.
     The factory building, which still stand on Market 
Street, was a model of production.    Every process from 
manufacturing, to bottling, to packaging, to advertising 
was done in that one spot.  Freight cars pulled in back of 
the building to ship cartons to parts unknown. A second 
factory was built in Montreal, Canada.

he 1970s the company was sold.  The building was made 
into an elderly housing complex, and the product no longer 
made its home in Lowell.  This was not the end of the medicine 
It is still produced today by the Oakhurst Company in New 
York, and can be found on drugstore shelves in the local area.  
The recipe remains the same except for one ingredient the 
government said must be included.  The brown-orange bottle 
with the trusting face of Father John O'Brien has been a sign 
of assurance to people for 140 years.
The ARCHIVES of St. Patrick Parish gratefully acknowledges 
George Merrit, Director St.Patrick Cemetery for his 
contribution towards the erection of the O'Brien Plaque
"Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam" 

David McKean
Paula O'Neill Abraham & Guy Lefebvre

The following individuals have played an
integral part in the formation of this exhibit.
We are deeply grateful for their sharing of time
and talents

  Peter Alexis, Audrey Ambrosino, Mark
Bograd, Fr. Arthur Coyle, Kay Conan, Jack Flood, Louise Hunt, Martha Mayo, 
Brenda McKean

The following individuals and groups have kindly
loaned us items from their collections for this
exhibit. We are indebted to them.

Tom Paskiewicz Collection

The Jack and Terry O'Connor Collection
(In memory of Gerald Donehue, President
Father John's Medicine Company)

The Lucien Villandry Collection
(Mr. Villandry has generously donated a part of the his exhibit to the Archives of St. Patrick Parish)

The Country Carriage, Meridith, NH

The Oakhurst Corporation
(Father John's Medicine Company)

Lowell National Historical Park

The Lowell Historical Society

The Lowell Gallery, Jackson St., Lowell

The Parish of St. John the Evangelist

Pollard Memorial Library, Lowell

Saints Memorial Hospital, St. John's Campus

St. Patrick's Cemetery