Category: Archive

One immigrant’s devotion to his struggling parish

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

His funeral in Sacred Heart Church in the Vailsburg section of Newark would have done justice to a head of state in some countries: A dozen police cars escorted the funeral procession, and two pipe bands sounded their laments outside the church.
John Cryan was, in the words of his son in law Judge Patrick Donohue, “one of the most important Irish-Americans in the history of New Jersey.” As if to illustrate the point, two pretty important New Jersey Irish-Americans were at the funeral — Gov. Richard Codey and former Gov. James E. McGreevey. The funeral Mass itself was filled with references to Cryan’s heritage, from the eulogies to the music.
In some ways, the story of John Cryan’s successful life may sound familiar, even though he was a unique individual with an upfront style all his own. The story of a hard-working immigrant who earns a piece of the American dream through grit and talent is not, thankfully, so very unusual. More than a few readers of this newspaper have similar stories, or they know people who do.
But there is an aspect of John Cryan’s life that surely would surprise those who believe they know all about the Irish-American experience of the late 20th century — you know, the flight from the cities, the deracinating effects of new-found affluence, the turning away from tradition, parish and, yes, the Democratic Party.
John Cryan (and, no doubt, many others) would be unfamiliar with that story. In death, he reminded his friends and loved ones not only of his cherished Irish heritage, but of his roots in the wounded city of Newark, of his abiding affection for his old parish of Sacred Heart in its Vailsburg section, and of his career as a very important New Jersey Democrat who once was a state legislator and sheriff of Essex County.
His family brought him back to Vailsburg, to Sacred Heart, for his funeral. Yes, he and so many like him had left Newark decades ago, when the city was torn apart by riots and crime. But he moved only a few blocks away, to South Orange, and his commitment to the old neighborhood continued.
A civic organization he founded, the Cryan Association, still holds its functions in Sacred Heart and remains intimately tied to the old neighborhood even though its members live elsewhere. Another Irish-American from Vailsburg, union leader Thomas Giblin, heads the Giblin Association, made up of fellow exiles who still come back to Vailsburg on occasion and who support local social service organizations.
Sometimes they come back to socialize and reminisce. And sometimes they come back to be buried.
In a sense, people like John Cryan and others of his generation were and are exiles twice over. They left Ireland, often because there were no opportunities for them at home. And then, after they established roots and made a home in the cities of their adopted land, they fled places like Vailsburg, or the Bronx, or Boston. And not all of them left because they yearned for a house and a mortgage and a backyard. And not all of them left because they feared living with or near other minorities, although some did.
They left because they believed they had to, just as so many Irish left home against their fondest wishes. They left the cities because the cities became unsafe and because they were parents they had to do right by their children. Detached observers would note that this flight was self-fulfilling, and perhaps it was. But when you fear for the safety and future of your children, you have no choice. You leave. And so they left.
But only sort of. Some, like John Cryan, retain a connection to the neighborhood or parish. Some return for their final journey, because they still considered the old neighborhood their home.
As Judge Donohue recounted his father in law’s remarkable life story, it was astonishing to be reminded how quickly life changed in Vailsburg — in urban American — in the 1960s. Cryan opened his first business, a tavern, in 1960. Not far way, workers were putting the finishing touches on a new parish school at Sacred Heart, a school large enough to accommodate 1,000 children.
For the Irish, Italians and Poles who made Sacred Heart one of the largest parishes on the East Coast, the 1960s seemed to promise only continued stability and middle-class prosperity. The cops and brewery workers and lawyers and politicians who worshipped together in Sacred Heart had no reason to suspect that by the end of the decade, everything would change. So John Cryan invested his money and his future in his business. His parish invested the same in its new school.
And then, in 1967, Newark collapsed. The riots that year did not reach Vailsburg, in part because the Garden State Parkway separated the neighborhood from the rest of Newark. But the murders and fires left psychic scars. And flight began, block by block. And into the frame homes built on streets named for poets — Longfellow and Poe Avenues — came other exiles. They were African-Americans who left the ruins and chaos of central Newark for the relative peace of Vailsburg. In more recent years, many African-Americans from Vailsburg have followed the Irish into more affluent towns in Essex County, and for the same reasons: the chance for a better, safer future for their children.
Forty years ago, 12,000 people attended Mass every week in Sacred Heart. Now, the congregation numbers about 500. The kids who attend Sacred Heart school — also about 500 — are black, poor and non-Catholic.
Everything has changed. Despite it all, and despite his many successes in a colorful and eventful life, John Cryan never forgot where he came from: County Roscommon, and Newark, N.J.

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