The Boston Irish Honors 2016 Exemplary Boston Irish Family: The Leary Family

Joe, Patsy, Betty, and Kevin Leary learned their lessons of faith and charity at home

Photo by Margaret Brett HastingsPhoto by Margaret Brett Hastings

The story of the Leary family of Boston is rooted in an event so shameful in Boston history that it’s not talked about much, but in the summer of 1834, Protestant thugs burned the Ursuline sisters’ school and convent in Charlestown and drove the nuns out of Boston.

Nearly a century later, in 1928, a young Dorchester woman, Mary Nolan, graduated from an Ursuline school, the College of New Rochelle in New York. In 1946, she collaborated with Boston Archbishop Richard J. Cushing and others to induce the Ursulines back to Boston to establish Ursuline Academy on Arlington Street. She helped raise funds, and sent her two daughters to the nuns’ school. Today, the academy prospers on a 28-acre campus in Dedham, offering independent Catholic education to 430 girls in Grades 7 through 12.

Joseph and Mary Leary’s children continue their mother’s mission on behalf of the Ursulines, an order of sisters founded in Brescia, Italy, in 1535, and noted for its commitment to the education of girls.

One afternoon in October 2015, 182 years after the devastation in Charlestown, Mary’s daughter Patsy was at home in Milton with her husband, Stephen A. Dowling, and they were mulling a number of charitable gifts. His success as an investment banker has made them wealthy. While lugging laundry to the cellar, Patsy turned to Steve. “I want to give some money to Ursuline.”

“Okay, how much?”

“I think a million dollars would be nice.”

“If you want to do that, honey, you can. Go ahead.”

Afterwards, Patsy wept in gratitude for his acquiescence and for the opportunity to honor the memory of her mother.
When it was announced in August that the Leary family would be celebrated at the 2016 Boston Irish Honors luncheon, no one asked why. For half a century, the Learys have contributed to peace in Ireland and, philanthropically, many millions of dollars to such causes as Nativity Prep, Boston College, The Irish American Partnership, and Boston Health Care for the Homeless.
In their contributions to the culture of Boston and to its business, educational, and charitable communities, the Learys symbolize the influence of Irish Catholics on American life from the middle of the 20th century.

So, let’s meet the current generation:

• Joseph F. Leary Jr., 83, of Newton, father of two, was an executive at Gillette, then the longtime president of The Irish American Partnership, which encourages education, employment, and economic development in Ireland. He met his wife, Eileen, while she was a nurse at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, and they married in 1959. She died in 1981.

• Mary Patricia Leary Dowling, 81, of Milton, managed the Admirals Club for American Airlines at Logan Airport. Ursuline Academy will honor her at its annual Brescia Ball at The Lantana in Randolph on Saturday, Nov. 5.

• Elizabeth Ann Leary Horrigan, 78, of Avon, CT, mother of three sons, is a nurse, and a hospice caretaker.

• Kevin W. Leary, 75, of the South End, father of four, is founder and owner of VPNE Parking Solutions, a $30 million company that provides valet parking at hospitals and donates 10 percent of its net income to charity. In the past decade, he and his wife, Mary Kelleher, have given more than $3 million to charity. Now coping with illness, Kevin retains a charm, insight, and remarkable humor. In telling a story, he loses his way, then apologizes with wit: “Last July, I had a bunch of seizures,” he said, “and I’ve had difficulties with memory. I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten the story I was just telling, but I can assure you that it was a fantastic story, very funny and very compelling.”

All four Learys have degrees from Boston College, and the men served in the military, Joe in the Army, in the military police, and Kevin in the Navy, aboard a destroyer.

At Kevin’s South End condo, over a lunch of tuna, turkey, and roast beef sandwiches, the anecdotes and funny stories roll forth about the quaint life at Ursuline Academy in the 1950s.

– Because the nuns were cloistered, a policeman had to be summoned to escort the girls across Arlington Street to the Public Garden. “The policemen were happy to do it,” said Patsy.

– Both sisters shudder to recall the uniforms they wore: green bowler, white blouse, green bolero jacket, green jumper, thick, white cotton stockings, and what Betty calls Girl Scout shoes, ugly oxfords.

– “Every day after school,” recalled Patsy, “we’d head across the street to the Ritz-Carlton, and use the ladies room to comb our hair and take off those horrible stockings. Then we’d go to Schrafft’s for ice cream.” Noted Betty, “My mother would not have approved of Ritz visits.”

– It was proximity to the Ritz that enabled Betty to shake hands with history. “One day, as I approached, I saw a crowd, and as I got close, I realized it was Winston Churchill arriving, so I slipped into the lobby at the Ritz and bought a cigar, a cheap one, because I did not have much money.

“As Churchill walked into the Ritz, I presented him with the cigar, and he thanked me, then looked at the label and probably realized it wasn’t very good. The Secret Service, or whoever, stepped in and gave it back to me. I sill have the cigar upstairs, although it’s probably corroded and fallen apart.”

Of the two sisters, Patsy was the saint, and, metaphorically at least, Betty the sinner.

“When I was in ninth grade, I skipped school to go to a movie, and it was stupid, because there were so few girls in my class – 11 at graduation – that any absence was conspicuous. Well, I was suspended, and although my mother did not find it amusing, my father thought it was hilarious that he had to go with me while I apologized to the nuns. Yes, I was a rascal, but do you know what? I’m very glad.”

The Learys were more Catholic than Irish, or as Joe put it, extremely Catholic. “The house at 480 Brook Rd. in Milton was dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus,” he recalled. “There was a big picture of the Sacred Heart on the wall, over the RCA floor-model radio – there was no television – and we’d all go into the living room as a family and kneel and say the rosary – my mother, father, the children, and grandmother. And no there was no fooling around about it. Father saw to that.”

At the death of their mother in 1955, another Catholic rite was singed into the memories of her children: “My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in April,” said Patsy, “and she died on Dec. 31, midday, at home, in her bed.”

For Betty, it was a moment of unique intimacy.

“I remember it vividly,” she said. She was then 17 and a student in nursing at Boston College. “The family had circled the bed, and I was holding my mother’s hand while the priest was reading a Prayer for the Dying: “ … Heavenly Father, take away fear in the heart of our loved one who’s about to see You …“

“I interrupted and said, ‘I think she’s gone.’ “The priest checked and said, ‘Yes, she’s gone,’ and we bowed our heads and continued with the prayer. Now, it may have been my nurse’s training, but I had accepted it would happen, and so, I didn’t think of it as traumatic, and I still don’t. It was a beautiful Catholic experience.”

The wake, however, brought a less than beautiful moment.

Consistent with Irish tradition, Mary was waked from the family home, and as Joe recalled, among those attending were former Boston Mayor James Michael Curley and a monsignor with whom Curley often feuded.

“Curley and his entourage were in the dining room, and when the monsignor entered, the two of them started arguing so loudly – with my mother in the casket in the next room – that 25 people crowded into the dining room to hear Curley.”

Fifty years after their childhood, one aspect of Catholic life in the Leary household remains a mystery.

“After Mass, my father would get a glass of water, then bless himself and take a sip,” said Betty. “Three times, he did that, and then he’d fill glasses for the rest of us, but none of us can recall why we did that. I guess he was washing down Communion, but I never heard of anybody else doing it. And my father didn’t even go to Catholic school – he went to Boston University, then Northeastern Law.”

According to, “in some cultures, the faithful follow the pious practice of drinking plain water before taking nourishment after Communion. Such acts, while praiseworthy expressions of reverence, are voluntary and are matters of custom, not legislation.”

Litanies of life in the Leary home are a reminder of how rapidly life in America has changed.

Joe was eight years old that day of infamy, Dec. 7, 1941, when his mother returned home to report that she’d heard on the radio that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. “I wondered, where the heck is Pearl Harbor,” Joe recalls, “and so we looked it up.”
He awoke the next day to a shock, an endless line of antiaircraft guns along Route 28 heading from Otis airbase on Cape Cod to Boston Common.

“A terrible presence overcame us. We didn’t know what war was, but we learned quickly, because suddenly there were German ships off Boston, and German spies on Cape Cod. My father was issued a helmet and assigned to a tower at Milton Academy to watch for German planes.”

In the age before television and before sophisticated radio news, many people looked to newspapers as the primary source of world events. In the late spring of 1944, as Americans awaited news that the Allies had invaded Europe, 11-year-old Joe was something of a celebrity as he delivered morning and evening Boston newspapers in Milton. “My mother said to me that I’d be the first to get the news, and if the newspapers had a story about the invasion, I was to call her right away.”

Politically, the Learys look back yearningly on their generation as comfortably swaddled in the Democrat Party. “I don’t recall anybody in my family being Republican,” said Joe. “Perish the thought,” chimed in Kevin’s wife Mary.

Although they agreed on 99 percent of political issues, being Irish, the family would ferret out the one percent and argue it to death.

To the discomfort of the Learys, the political alliance has shifted.

“In the next generation, among our nine children and the cousins, there are a lot of Republicans and bitterly conservative people,” says Joe, ruefully.

“We had a dining room table,” he continued, “and we’d sit down on Sundays for dinner with aunts and uncles, and there was no inhibition on conversation except that my father would never permit disparaging remarks about Jewish people or black people. In the Irish community, there was a lot of bigotry at the time, and there may still be, although probably less, but not at our table, never, never, never.”

“If my father heard it, you were in trouble,” said Kevin.

How would he express disapproval?

Patsy rises from her seat, picks up a spoon from the table, and approaches her questioner menacingly, and when near, she snaps the spoon like a captious nun. “CRACK!” she says. “You’d get a rap on the knuckle.”

“The one thing we did know about everybody who lived on our street,” says Joe, “was who was Catholic and who was Protestant. If there was a dividing line, that was it: religion. Remember, at that time, we were not permitted to go into any Protestant church, even for a wedding. I did go to a Jewish wedding, but only after I got permission from the church.”

The oldest sibling, Joe made his mark, first, as an executive at Gillette for 30 years, and then for 28 years as president of the Irish American Partnership, a non-profit that supports education, job training, and economic development in Ireland, North and South. Headquartered in Boston, the Partnership, with more than 5,000 members, is one of the largest Irish American organizations in the United States.

Joe was recruited by Charles Feeney, the philanthropist, and although it took the new president three visits, the person he recruited to be chairman was former Marine Corps Commandant Paul X. Kelley, whose military manner made an impression in Ireland.

One of Joe’s first stop was the office of House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill, although the first moments were bumpy.

“You IRA, Leary?”

“No, sir.”

“How do I know that?”

“Call the British and the American Embassies. They’ll tell you.”

O’Neill’s endorsement helped raise money in mail campaigns and at golf tournaments. Leary shuttled to Ireland more than 70 times and listened to lectures by Cardinal Cahal Daly, who wagged his finger, barking in a brogue: ‘We’ve got to bring the IRA into the government.

Over 15 years, the Partnership issued grants of $20 million to almost 300 projects in Ireland.

Having retired Aug. 31, Joe no longer worries about meeting a payroll, raising funds, maintaining a public image, and balancing the seesaw of Irish politics. He’s embarked on a new passion, Boston history, particularly before the Revolution. He’ll also continue to write a monthly column about Ireland for the Boston Irish Reporter.

What would their parents say today about the four Learys and about the award from Boston’s Irish community?

Joe does not hesitate. “They would wish better health for my brother, Kevin, but they’d be happy that we’re all together, and about my sisters and brother, Patsy, Betty, and Kevin, my parents would be proud of their success, their generosity, and their goodness.”

The poignant silence that follows is broken, at last, by Kevin.

“They’d be proud of you, too, Joe.”

“I hope so.”

Jack Thomas was a reporter, editor, columnist, and ombudsman during a 40-year career at the Boston Globe.