“My District” gives NCSL members a chance to tell us about life in the places they represent, from the high-profile events to the virtues only the locals know about.
Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.
On March 17, when we aren’t in the middle of a pandemic, Americans from all backgrounds and heritages pull out their green ties, socks, scarves or other clothing and celebrate all things Irish with parades and festivals, music and dancing, food and drink and, of course, shamrocks and leprechauns.
But there’s only one town that can celebrate St. Patrick’s Day every day of the year: St. Patrick, Mo., a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of the capital of Jefferson City. It’s a tiny unincorporated community founded in 1833 by Irish immigrants. The town claims there are more than 1,000 churches in the world named St. Patrick, but only one town.
The village is best known as the home of the Shrine of St. Patrick, a medieval-inspired Catholic church built in 1956 through the efforts of Father Francis O’Duignan. It sits on land purchased for the church in 1838 for around $75. With a design patterned after St. Patrick’s Memorial Church of Four Masters in Donegal, Ireland, the shrine contains Celtic crosses, semicircular recessed doorways, a central rose window and a round bell tower native to Ireland.
O’Duignan wanted the shrine to be known all over the world but needed help getting it built, so, in 1936, he designed a green shamrock cachet and stamped it on 500 letters, seeking help with the project. It worked, and that tradition lives on with thousands sending their envelopes to the tiny post office every March to get the special hand-stamped cancellation.
In the U.S., along with St. Patrick, Mo., there is Irishtown, Ill., Emerald Isle, N.C., 16 Dublins, seven Clovers, six Shamrocks and 16 Patricks, according to the Census Bureau. But even though St. Patrick’s Day is widely recognized and celebrated throughout the U.S., only Suffolk County, Mass., and Savannah, Ga., have made it a legal holiday.
Missouri Representative Greg Sharpe (R), who represents St. Patrick, Mo., farms 800 acres of corn and soybeans and owns a seed dealership in Lewis County. He currently lives in Ewing, about 30 miles south of St. Patrick. We asked him to share what he knows about the tiny Irish community.
What do you know about the history of the town?
The town changed its name from St. Marysville to St. Patrick in 1857. A hundred years later, there were more residents, a few businesses, a school—and a bigger St. Patrick’s Day celebration. But today, just the post office remains, and the shrine and the Old Irish Gift Shop. The church has a Wednesday-night Mass most weeks. It can hold about 300 people, but only about 30 people live in the village today.
How does the town celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?
It’s not what it used to be. I remember going there with my wife every year, no matter what day of the week the holiday fell on and celebrating until midnight, driving home and then getting up early for work the next day. The church always has a big supper, which used to be followed by a dance. This year they are having a drive-through supper. In fact, I remember going to public school there in the church when I was in first and second grade. The church also housed a four-year fully accredited high school at one time. And they used to have a pretty big Fourth of July celebration. With COVID-19, the celebrations have really been curtailed. But it was going in that direction even before COVID. I think they may still have bowling out on the paved road.
What’s the post office’s role today?
The post office still offers a one-of-a-kind, hand-stamped cancellation during the month of March. This year the design celebrates the Irish tree of life symbol, which honors the importance of family and heritage. As a fundraiser, the ladies of the shrine will stamp your envelopes, apply the postage, insert an Irish greeting and deliver them to the post office.
What else would you like us to know about your district?
It’s the biggest House district in Missouri. It takes two hours to drive from one corner to the other. It borders the Mississippi River, Illinois and Iowa. Yet it contains no town bigger than 2,500 people. It’s heavily agricultural. A casino is probably the biggest employer. Like the rest of rural America, family farming is hurting, machines can do most of the work. There’s been attempts at developing some agritourism (before COVID-19) but they didn’t do much. There are just not enough people to sustain that kind of effort. Some folks are moving in from Illinois and Iowa, but not enough to make a big impact.
The district that’s home to St. Patrick is also served by Senator Cindy O’Laughlin (R). We were unable to reach the senator for comment.
Julie Lays is the editor of State Legislatures magazine.