By Barb Arland-Fye
The nation’s only interstate St. Patrick’s Day Parade celebrates its 25th anniversary March 13 in the Quad-Cities, and it begins, faithfully, with Mass. So before some of the 3,000 parade participants take one step through the streets of Rock Island, Ill., and over the Centennial Bridge into Davenport, they’ll go to 10 a.m. Mass at St. Mary Catholic Church in Rock Island.
That tradition honors the Irish heritage of the founders of the St. Patrick Society Quad Cities USA, who envisioned the Grand Parade as a way to preserve, express and promote their heritage.
“What I tell people who call me is that we put on this parade to honor St. Patrick and also to remember and recognize those Irish American men, women and children who settled in this area years ago,” said Parade Chairman John Scally, a member of St. Pius X Catholic Parish in Rock Island.
This year’s parade Grand Marshal is Jim Hancock, a longtime member of the Scott County Board of Supervisors. The Irish Mother of the Year is Marjean O’Brien, a dedicated wife, mother and volunteer who married into her Irish heritage nearly 46 years ago.
Both Hancock and O’Brien say they feel honored and humbled to fill their roles this year. They’ll be introduced during the “Gathering of the Clan Luncheon.” This prequel to the parade will be held from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Friday, March 12, at the Col Ballroom in Davenport. Corned beef and fish fillets will be served for $15; organizers received a dispensation from Bishop Martin Amos to serve corned beef to Catholics on this Friday during Lent.
“Traditional Irish Catholics are the base of our organization,” says Jackie Staron, a St. Patrick Society board member. “When we have the Gathering of the Clan we start that with prayer and have a priest there to lead us.”
Following Mass on Saturday, the Grand Parade will begin at 11:30 a.m. at 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue in Rock Island, and continue through downtown and across the Mississippi River to downtown Davenport. A Post Parade Bash will be held afterward at the Col, with doors opening at 1 p.m. Admission is $15, which includes membership in the St. Patrick Society.
The roots of the “grand” event date back to St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1985, with a luncheon meeting of St. Patrick Society founders Jeffrey Charles Collins, Daniel Patrick Reardon, Dennis Michael Walsh, Thomas Joseph McGinn, Francis Joseph Coyle and Jerald Matt McCabe. Their first event was “Erin Feis,” held that fall as a fundraiser for the first parade, which took place March 17, 1986, Scally said. He and Reardon, who died in 1999, were the first parade co-chairs.
“We were clueless in terms of what to expect for crowd size. We were blown away by the crowds,” Scally recalls. Last year, he learned that the Quad-City parade was recognized as the 13th best St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the world, according to an online poll. “AOL (American Online) announced that to the world and we’re hanging our hat on that.”
“These guys framed a model that has really lasted for 25 years,” marvels Hancock, a member of St. Anthony Parish in Davenport who is looking forward to serving as this year’s Grand Marshal. “If my mother and dad were alive, my dad would be walking around town popping his buttons.”
Irish Mother of the Year O’Brien, who is battling ovarian cancer, remembers having the honor of presenting a floral bouquet to the first Irish Mother of the Year — the late Genevieve Glowacki. O’Brien has been involved with the society in the early years, but couldn’t imagine being chosen for the honor.
She was chopping vegetables for stir fry when she got the news over the phone. “I was stunned,” said O’Brien, a member of St. Anthony Parish in Davenport with her husband, Tom. The O’Briens have been actively involved in numerous organizations and volunteered at their children’s Catholic schools in Davenport. “Wherever our heart was, as a family and as individuals, we’ve tried to help out,” she said.
Staron said that’s what made O’Brien a great nominee for the award.