Gloucester City gets a St. Patrick's Day parade, finally

Msgr. William Hodge, who became pastor at St. Mary’s parish in July, holds the flag of Ireland outside his Gloucester City church. “I just couldn’t believe they didn’t have a St. Patrick’s Day parade,“ he said. “I figured the people here would react very positively.”

Gloucester City is proud to be blue-collar, but when March comes, this river town of 11,000 turns bright green.

It's the emerald green of plastic shamrocks shimmering on rowhouse doors.

It's the Kelly green of little molded leprechauns dancing on front lawns. It's the moss green of banners reading "Happy St. Patrick's Day" and "Erin go bragh," and of those iron-on patches for sale at a local gift shop that read "Gloucester City: Bleeding Green Since 1623."

But it wasn't green enough for the new pastor at St. Mary's Catholic Church.

"I just couldn't believe they didn't have a St. Patrick's Day parade," Msgr. William Hodge marveled last week.

For a town claiming the third-largest Irish population per capita in New Jersey, it was like a dog without a bark, Sunday Mass without Holy Communion.

It was a situation that had to be rectified, and so it was. At 1 p.m. Sunday, whistles will tweet, bagpipes will skirl, drums will thrum, and Gloucester City will host its very first St. Patrick's Day parade.

"I figured the people here would react very positively," said Hodge, 65, who in July became pastor of St. Mary's, the oldest parish in the Diocese of Camden.

He hit on the idea for a parade in December, and by February had a parade permit. "It's all happening so fast," said funeral director Patrick Healey, one of the parade organizers.

"I'm excited. Everybody's excited, because it's so long overdue," said Kathy Reddy, owner of Sunshine Flowers & Gifts on North Broadway.

In addition to those "bleeding green" iron-on patches, her shop this month is selling shamrock-shape sunglasses, ceramic statuettes of St. Patrick banishing snakes from Ireland, a stuffed bear that sings "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," green plastic top hats, and bags of genuine dirt from Ireland at $9.95 a pound.

"We sell those all year round," she said of the dirt. "People like to sprinkle it on graves."

In the 800 block of Monmouth Street, eight of 13 houses on the north side of the street were displaying an Irish emblem this week.

"I think a lot of people are looking forward to the parade," said Tom Kerchersky, 59, whose home's exterior was decorated with shamrocks.

Inside, the walls displayed numerous Irish blessings. The dining and breakfast tables wore shamrock-shape place mats, green bunting hung from the ceiling, and the kitchen counter featured plaques reading "Irish whiskey makes me frisky" and "When Irish eyes are smiling, they're usually up to something."

"These are my wife's," explained Kerchersky, whose wife, Maria, grew up in town. "They usually go up around Feb. 15."

She is the sister of Gloucester City's mayor, William James, who predicted the parade would be "good for the city."

"It's a great way to show us off to people who don't know us," said James. He was not concerned, he said, about rowdiness or public drunkenness during the parade "because it's just a quarter-mile," from King Street down Monmouth Street to the foot of St. Mary's stately spire.

"It's our first one," Hodge explained. "I didn't want it to look anemic," he said, and so opted for a short route with dense crowds.

The Camden Diocese's Bishop Dennis Sullivan will be grand marshal, and marchers will include the Knights of Columbus, the Camden County Emerald Society Band, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, two Mummers string bands, the Gloucester City Irish Society, several school bands, and elected officials.

The city has put up $4,100 to pay for police and cleanup, and Camden County's Department of Parks and Recreation has contributed $5,000, said Freeholder Bill Moen, whose "father's side is from Gloucester City." He expects to march, too.

The parish will offer an 11:30 a.m. "Irish themed Mass" before the parade, and an ecumenical prayer service on March 16, with the youth pastor of a Protestant evangelical church giving the Lenten homily.

Gloucester's standing claim as New Jersey's third-most-Irish municipality appears to be based on 2000 census data, which Wikipedia still reports.

But with 38.6 percent of the city's population claiming Irish heritage, the 2010 census ranks it 15th among all the state's municipalities in Irishness, ninth among those with populations over 1,000.

Close to half the parish's 1,500 families claim Irish heritage, according to Hodge. St. Mary's was founded in 1848, "at the height of the famine," he said, that drove so many Irish to America.

While Gloucester has a long history of honoring its Irish traditions, such as the autumn Shamrock Festival, the monsignor discovered a few had languished, like the parish's Irish Night.

And so he has revived that, with a buffet dinner March 11 at Gloucester Catholic High School's gym. Besides marking the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion in 1916, when armed revolutionaries seized sites around Dublin in hope of overthrowing British rule, Irish Night will feature Irish dance, traditional musical instruments, a raffle, and a certain Irish tenor in a Roman collar.

"I will sing 'Irish Soldier Boy,' 'Irish Soldier Laddy,' and 'Shall My Soul Pass Through Old Ireland,' " said Hodge, who jokingly predicted it will be a "two-hankie performance."

He said he "grew up in a musical family" in Atlantic City, where his uncles operated a cabaret and St. Patrick's Day parades are a long-standing tradition.

"We're hoping it becomes a tradition here, too."