Peter McGirr was born in Ireland in 1833 and immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 14 years old. He was ordained on April 22, 1861 and that same year he was sent to St. Lawrence O’Toole parish in Quincy. The parish had been established in 1839 to serve the English speaking Catholics in the city.
When Father McGirr arrived he found that the parish had fallen into some disorder. Described as a “man of powerful physique, of indomitable will power and apostolic zeal, an indefatigable worker with tact and prudence and with a kind heart that endeared him to his people,” Father McGirr immediately set out to turn the parish around.
His first task was to establish a parish school. In 1861, he engaged the School Sisters of Notre Dame to teach in a one room wooden building that that was described as “poor, indeed.” In 1863, he replaced the wooden school building with a larger, brick building. The parish continued to grow and in 1869, the old church was torn down and a new church was dedicated to St. Peter on June 13, 1870.
Father McGirr said that he first met Augustus in 1863* at the sick bed of Mary Ann Davis. Father McGirr learned that Augustus was attending a public school and ordered Martha to withdraw the child from the school and was immediately obeyed. He opened the doors of St. Peter’s School to the boy, but it seemed that history was doomed to repeat itself. Several parents threatened to remove their children from the school if Augustus was not sent away. The sisters who taught at the school informed the parents that they could do as they wished, but the black boy would remain in any event.
At St. Peter’s School, Augustus found acceptance. He fondly remembered his teachers, Sister Sebastian, Sister Herlinde and Sister Mary Eustatius and he later recalled, “I learned the alphabet, spelling, reading, &c, in St. Peter’s school and partly by hearing others read at home.”
In 1872, Augustus finished St. Peter’s School and left the Harris Tobacco Factory to work as an apprentice for Peter Smith making horse collars. That same year Father McGirr began the long, difficult task of finding a seminary that would take Augustus.
*The date of this meeting seems problematic, because we know that Augustus attended St. Peter’s School for five years, finishing in 1872. This would mean that he started at St. Peter’s in 1867.