A plaque mounted on a boulder at St. Rose's Cemetery

Born: January 6, 1862

Died: February 12, 1949

Reverend Richard O'Donnell was the pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church from 1889.

Essex County Republican, August 8, 1947


There are many people who have never heard of Alder Brook and the 84-year-old Catholic priest who has been pastor of St. Rose of Lima church there since September 1893. On the other hand, talk with almost anyone within a radius of 30 miles of St. Rose's, and especially to Mary Buckley, any descendent of the Keese family, the Laws, the McAuliffe's, the Huff's, the Duncans —and you'll never hear the end of the story about the Irish priest who has served a remote section of the Adirondacks for over half a century as priest, agricultural adviser and friend.

Rev. Richard O'Donnell was born at Ballybacon, County Tipperary, Ireland, on Jan. 6, 1862. He received his education in his native land at Mount Mellery Seminary, Waterford, and St. Patrick's college, County Carlow. He was ordained at St. Patrick's college on June 15, 1886, for the Diocese of Wellington, New Zealand, where he remained two years.

In 1891 Father O'Dennell arrived in Northern New York and started his ministry in the Ogdensburg Diocese as pastor of St. Matthews church at Black Brook (church built 1875 under direction Rev. James Smith and parish established 1881). September, 1893 marked the beginning of the young priest's work at Union Falls and Bloomingdale, Alder Brook lying between the two communities. St. Rose of Lima church, of which Father O'Donnell became pastor, was erected in 1854 (cemetery Alderbrook 1851) and for twenty years served as the house of worship for all that wilderness country, until increasing population brought other churches into existence. (In 1885 there were 63 Irish families, all farmers at Union Falls.)

When Rev. Richard O'Donnell assumed the pastorate at Union Falls his larger parish included not only Alder Brook and Bloomingdale, but Loon Lake, Kushaqua, Gabriels, Paul Smiths, Lake Clear and Saranac Inn. His home is in the heart of one of the most scenic areas in the Adirondacks, but access was extremely difficult years ago, especially during the long winter season, because of poor roads. Father O'Donnell did much of his extensive traveling on back of a faithful horse: Exposure to wind, rain, snow storms was regarded as a feature of life in the Saranac Valley which everybody accepted as a matter of course, and in spite of which the daily business of life was carried on, spring. summer, fall and winter.

But Father O'Donnell's daily program of work included considerably more than masses and visitations! He operated a sizeable farm, taking care of the cattle himself for the most part. He demonstrated to his farmer parishioners, progressive agricultural methods, encouraging them to better themselves, whether their acres of cleared and timber land (much of it virgin forest) lay in the hidden valley of Alder Brook, on the slopes at Sugarbush or back up against the encircling mountains. He taught them Christian precepts, prayed with them, gave them sound business advice, listened to their confessions, baptized their children even unto, the fourth generation, and made them laugh with his witty Irish yarns.

At one period Father O'Donnell's Sunday schedule included early rising to milk his cows; morning mass; distribution of mail from post office of which he had charge; selling his parishioners weekly supplies from his small store, and an afternoon of farm work. One older priest in the Ogdensburg Diocese recalls taking charge of a mission for Father O'Donnell at St. Rose about 20 years ago. Arriving at rectory the in the afternoon after some tiresome traveling, he asked Father O'Donnell if he might rest for awhile before conducting the evening service, much to Father O'Donnell's apparent disgust, who had no acquaintance with daylight ease. The visitor was later asked if he played golf and was invited out to see Father O'Donnell's nine-hole course. The two priests wandered in and out among the trees, passing several small patches of potatoes in cleared spots. Finally they started back toward the church and the visitor said, "But where is the golf course?" Father O'Donnell handed him a hoe; pointed to a potato patch, and replied, "Sure, there's nine 'o thim. Here's your club, and the petaties is your balls. It's a real game 'o golf your playin' this toime!"

St. Rose of Lima church burned to the ground one cold winter day—Dec. 6 1924. Father O'Donnell has carried on his work for nearly a quarter of a century deprived of the house of worship he loved. In spite of the fact that he has grieved continually over the loss of his church, looking day after day at the empty spot, across the roadway from his home in the woods, he has continued his ministry. Nor has failing eye-sight deterred him from saying mass in St. Rose's hall, next door, during the summer months, and upstairs in his home in cold weather. Changing conditions have made it advisable for many of the descendents of his original parishioners to leave Union Falls and Alder Brook. A number of families still remain in the parish, and occupants of summer homes in the area join them in attending the services, which Father O'Donnell delights to hold. Tall, slender, erect, the white-haired priest welcomes all who come—whether they be friends of many years' standing, old parishioners who have found comfort at St. Rose of Lima, or strangers. All take with them a memory of a true servant of the church, a practical Christian, an indomitable personality and a man who, knowing and judging human nature as he must, with a priesthood extending over a period of 61 years, is charitable and not without a sense of humor.

Lake Placid News, February 18, 1949

Services Held Wednesday For Rev. R. O'Donnell

The Reverend Richard O'Donnell, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church, Alderbrook, New York, died at about 10:00 o'clock, Saturday night, February 12th, at his rectory in Alderbrook. He had been stricken with pneumonia since the previous Tuesday.

Father O'Donnell is survived by one sister, Reverend Mother Bernard, St. Mary's Convent, County Waterford, Ireland, one nephew, Reverend Thomas Power, Ballylooby, County Tipperary, Ireland, and one cousin, Miss Mary O'Donnell, Morristown, New Jersey.

Most Reverend Bryan J. McEntegart, Bishop of Ogdensburg, celebrated the Pontifical Mass of Requiem, on Wednesday morning, February 16, at 11:00 o'clock, in St. Bernard's Church, Saranac Lake. Preceding the funeral, the Divine Office for the Dead was chanted at 10:30. Burial was in St. Rose of Lima cemetery, Alderbrook, within the site of the sanctuary of St. Rose of Lima church, which was destroyed by fire some years ago.

unidentified news clipping, c. 1979

North Country Byways

By THOMAS J. FLYNN Correspondent

This is the sequel to a column written four months ago about St. Matthew's Parish of Black Brook and will deal primarily with the life and times of a most remarkable man, the Rev. Richard O'Donnell. Father O'Donnell was born in Baillybacon, County Tipperary, Ireland, on Jan. 6, 1862. After a stint in the Diocese of Wellington, New Zealand, he spent the rest of his days in the Diocese of Ogdensburg. He was the parish priest of Saint Rose of Lima Church in Alder Brook for 58 years.

The area under Father O'Donnell's jurisdiction took in parts of Franklin, Clinton and Essex Counties. Some of the villages and towns he served were Inman, Loon Lake, Alder Brook, Union Falls, Lake Kushaqua, Gabriels, Onchiota, Rainbow Sanitorium, Bloomingdale, Roakdale, Harrietstown and many others which are today known only to God.

The St. Rose of Lima Church was already in existence when the priest was pastor of St. Matthew's Parish of Black Brook. St. Matthew's Parish had a somewhat violent history before and during Father O'Donnell's time. There were constant bickerings and what amounted to "feuds" between the settled French in the area and the newly arrived Irish. J.J. Rogers, the largest employer in the area, more or less shunted their Irish workers to the Alder Brook-Union Falls region to keep peace of a sort. There had been a history of Ku Klux Klan attacks on Catholics in the area and Wilmington was considered their headquarters. About the turn of the century the Black Brook congregation sent to the pastor the news that "...they will not have an Irish priest." There is even a story extant where one ethnic faction actually nailed the church's doors shut so the other faction could not enter. The constant rivalry prompted Father O'Donnell to move from Black Brook to the Alder Brook mission, and there he stayed for the rest of his life.

Father O'Donnell's early days at St. Rose of Lima were hectic ones indeed. The mountain pastor was liable to be called 30 miles into the wilderness on a moment's notice should a dying Catholic be in need. The various missions and stations: served by him covered an immense area of rugged Adirondack terrain. He lived for his congregation and beside his priestly duties, found time to run a farm consisting of cattle, chickens and a team of horses for plowing. He also kept a general store and a cheese factory.

Besides his pastoral duties and other chores he was a student of folk medicine and folklore.

He had a few odd quirks too — in his view, a family didn't begin until there were from ten to twelve children. He was also opposed to the common practice of giving people middle names. Most of all, this good priest is remembered as a kind and gentle man who lived entirety for the good of his little parish community.

A few days ago I drove to the Alder Creek area and found the cemetery where Father O'Donnell is buried. There is an imposing statue over his grave; the grave itself reposes on the site where his beloved St. Rose of Lima Church formerly stood.

It was an Irish settlement all right. Upon walking through the entire cemetery, we found only two French names on approximately 200 tombstones. We read many of the monument inscriptions and noticed that the particular county (ie. Tipperary, Antrim, etc.) where the deceased was born was inscribed thereon.

There were three touching inscriptions that are worthwhile documenting, all of which involved young people. They read:

"Sands of time may wear upon us And never never can efface from Our hearts our dear dear Tommies Pleasant kind and loving face."

"I hear a voice you cannot hear That says I cannot stay I see a hand you cannot see That beckons me away."

"Willie Fox 1881 — one year and six mos. Budded on earth to bloom in Heaven."

It is really impossible to see all of this beautiful countryside in one day. The roads are good and there are many scenic sights such as Franklin and Union Falls. If one ventures that way for a day's outing or fishing, I would suggest bringing sandwiches and coffee along, as the Alder Brook general area is still wild and wooly, and the A&P's are far apart.


2012-08-30 20:45:23   Many stories of Fr O donnell are still heard today. My father, Joe ryan was an alter boy for the priest, he used to tell the story of how the good priest asked his alter boys in for a drink one day. He brought out a bottle with clear liquid and proposed a toast. He was first and he turned his head and gasped after passage of this 'strong drink'. My father and his brother Frank took their turn and they did the same despite the obvious realization that it was only water. This was his penance to suspects of the stolen whiskey. —

2013-08-11 17:25:06   I read with great interest the account of the life of my late grand -uncle ,Fr Richard ODonnell R.I.P.In the past, I have made two unsuccessful efforts to learn something of his life and times . Like him , I too, was born at Kilmaneen , Newcastle, in the parish of Ballybacon the eldest of a family of 4 children. I would appreciate any further information which you or anyone may have.It is unlikely that anyone is still alive who can remember him. Thanks to all concerned. Anne ODonnell, grandniece. —

2013-08-12 10:12:45   To Anne O'Donnell: I passed on your query to Howard Riley, and this is his reply. "Emma Law Berghorn - 891-2436 - is the last of the 12 Law offspring. She may have been too young to know Father O'Donnell - but she gave me a lot of the information about him that I recorded in my book." —MaryHotaling

2013-08-17 19:03:46   To Mary Hotaling.Thank you for your prompt reply. I would love to buy a copy of your book. Please let me know cost of book and postage plus your address and I will forward the amount to you in dollars. would Emma Law Bergham be well enough to speak with me on the telephone as she is - presumably - quite elderly . I would also need the the New York state and local prefixes to enable to speak with her,assumung her family were happy for me to do so.This evening , I visited other cousins who gave me to keep a lovely photograph of Fr. Richard as a very young priest. —

2013-08-18 10:35:33   To Anne O'Donnell: The book Howard Riley referred to is a compilation of his history columns in the local newspaper. The phone number he gave me for Mrs. Berghorn would be 518 891-2436. If you were calling from out of the country, you would also need the US country code. I'm not sure what that is. I will pass your message on to Howard. Perhaps you would like to speak to him first. His number is 518 891-0358. It would be great to have a copy of your photo of Fr. Richard if it could be scanned. —MaryHotaling

2013-08-18 11:01:21   To Anne O'Donnell: Howard Riley can also be reached by email at [email protected]MaryHotaling

2013-08-18 18:01:46   To Mary Hotaling: Thank you for your prompt reply. I would be delighted to scan - if that is possible witha 27 year old tinted photograph , or failing that . post acopy of this photograph to you. I hope that it is possible to buy a copy of Howard Rileys book. I shall email him with this request. Anne ODonnell —