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The Astonishing Success of the St. Patrick’s Day Society

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On St. Patrick’s Day, hundreds of Delaware celebrants don their green apparel and flock to bars, taverns and restaurants festooned with shiny shamrocks. They order pints of Guinness and peruse special menus featuring Irish stew and corned beef and cabbage. “It’s for the Irish and those who wish to be Irish for the day,” quips Joe Farley Sr.

But Farley and more than 1,000 other Delawareans have a thoughtful side to their annual festivities. Twenty-five years ago, he and some friends founded the St. Patrick’s Day Society, which organizes a St. Patrick’s Day Communion breakfast, a parade (not to be confused with the Irish Culture Club of Delaware’s event) and a sponsors’ dinner to raise money for St. Patrick’s Center on Wilmington’s East Side.

Each year, in the space of 24 hours, the society reaches more than 1,000 people—and their wallets. “This may be one of the biggest fundraisers in the state,” Farley says. “Yet many people have never heard of the St. Patrick’s Day Society. It quietly gets done.”

But it gets done in a big way. The society’s contributions—nearly $3 million over the past two decades—account for more than 30 percent of the operating budget for the center, which serves emergency food to about 1,500 families each month.

Friendship and fellowship

The St. Patrick’s Day Society is the brainchild of Farley, a former chairman of the Democratic party in Delaware and director of government affairs for Delmarva Power; Mike Harkins, former director of the Delaware River & Bay Authority; and the late Dan Frawley, a former mayor of Wilmington.

The pals traditionally started their St. Patrick’s Day festivities with a lunch, then had a driver take them on a tour of Wilmington hotspots that celebrate Irish-American heritage. As they were about to make the rounds in 1993, they talked about adding an element that paid tribute to the namesake of the day, a fifth-century Catholic missionary and bishop.

“We wanted to begin the day around fellowship and friendship,” Farley says. “We wanted to do something significant instead of immediately running to a bar and tavern. The day is about St. Patrick himself.” Growing up as Roman Catholics, they knew that St. Patrick, who brought Christianity to the island at a time when many inhabitants were still Druids, is a primary saint in Ireland.

The friends recalled with fondness the breakfasts that followed First Holy Communions in their youth. “You go to Mass and to the church basement afterward for breakfast. It’s a big to-do,” Farley says. “I said, ‘Why don’t we start our day with that?’ We can do what we want afterward, but we start it on a good note and invite our friends.” If there was any money left over, it could go to a scholarship.

Farley, who was inspired by similar events in Boston, shared the idea with the Rev. James Francis Trainor, then pastor at St. Mary’s-St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. Trainor suggested that the society hold the communion and breakfast at St. Patrick’s. The name fit the bill.

The first meeting of the St. Patrick’s Day Society was held at Trainor’s residence. “His cook made us Irish stew,” says Harkins, who laughed when he recalled being the only Republican in the room.

Founding members included some heavy hitters who’ve had impressive careers, including John Carney, current governor of Delaware; John Casey, a former director of the Delaware Economic Development Office; Bill Kooser, executive director of the St. Patrick’s Day Society; former Wilmington Mayor Tom Maloney; John J. McMahon, currently the state Secretary of Labor; attorneys Larry Sullivan and Jim Sullivan; and Wilmington city Councilwoman Loretta Walsh, to name a few.

Harkins and Farley stepped up as co-chairs, and each committee member agreed to sell 10 tickets for the breakfast, which would be held in the church basement and catered by Gallagher & Gallagher. Unfortunately, Frawley did not live to attend the first event, which sold out. There was a small amount of money left over—about $300—so Trainor recommended that the society donate the proceeds to St. Patrick’s Center, which primarily served seniors at that time.

Given the movers and shakers who started the St. Patrick’s Day Society, it did not take long for the breakfast to attract leading figures on the state’s business and political stage, including then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden. Governors, mayors and county executives have been members of the St. Patrick’s Day Society. The event quickly became known as “the toughest ticket to get in town,” Harkins says, “and we clearly outgrew the church basement.” He talked to Charles Cawley, a founder and head of MBNA, which dominated the business and philanthropic scene in Delaware in the 1990s. Cawley wrote a check for $7,500 and offered his headquarters—which held 600—for the breakfast. In 2010, the meal moved to the current location, the DoubleTree by Hilton, on King Street.

With every year came more sponsorships and more sold-out breakfasts. The interest gave the society members the idea for a sponsors’ dinner the night prior to the main event. Originally held at St. Mary’s, it moved to St. Elizabeth Catholic Church’s hall on South Broom Street in Wilmington, where it is held today.

Comedy after communion

Annual events in churches or after communion sound like somber affairs. Far from it. Up to 450 people attend the sponsors’ dinner, which is scheduled this year for March 15. Repeat performers include the “Three Mikes”: attorney Mike Kelly, former Wilmington city Councilman Mike Hare, now with the Buccini/Pollin Group, and former New Castle County Sheriff Mike Walsh. The men trade barbs, much to the delight of the audience.

The next day, the celebration begins at St. Patrick’s Church when the choir begins to sing at 7:15 a.m. The Mass begins at 7:30. The congregation isn’t surprised to see a Del-ebrity pass the contribution basket. Former Vice President Joe Biden took a turn while still a senator. Needless to say, their presence encourages donations.

After Mass, the attendees form an informal parade behind bagpipers wearing traditional garb and mounted police officers. They head down King Street to the DoubleTree, where up to 700 sit down for the breakfast. Not everyone at the breakfast attends the Mass. The church can’t accommodate so many worshippers, and not all the participants are Catholic. Nor is everyone Irish-American; there’s a mix of backgrounds.

For 25 years, Farley has taken the stage as the master of ceremonies. This year will be his last. “We tell jokes, and people are nice enough to laugh,” Farley says. “I’ve told the same jokes for 25 years, and they’re a great audience.”

Along with the meal, attendees enjoy a 30-minute comedy routine. Past headliners have included comedians Joe Cuddy, Joey Callahan, Joe Conklin and Big Daddy Graham. (A ribald joke once slipped into the routine while the bishop was in attendance, much to the members’ surprise.) Many of the performers are Irish-American, a few are from Ireland and, over the years, many have performed for free.

Perhaps it’s the cause. Or maybe it’s the comedy. Either way, it’s not uncommon to see opposing attorneys chuckling alongside each other and political rivals sharing a table.

In addition to the meals, the society each year awards the Daniel Frawley Community Service Award and the Father James Trainor Scholarship Award, which honors the pastor, who died in 2004.

Striving to meet the need

The dinner and breakfast have a steady attendance. Breakfast tickets are $50, and sponsorships start at $500. Securing a corporate sponsorship has become a challenge in these post-recession days, says Joe Farley Jr., who, with Hare and Sean Healy, is co-chair of the St. Patrick’s Day Society. Not only are there fewer sponsors to go around, there are more nonprofits vying for them, Farley Jr. notes.

“They have a tougher job in a more difficult economy, and they’re still hitting their numbers,” Farley Sr. says with pride. “They’re more engaged in social media, and they know what to do to stay relevant. They’ve done one hell of a job.”

Meanwhile, the St. Patrick’s Center has experienced a higher demand for services. Founded in 1971 on Wilmington’s East Side, the center opened to provide social, physical and emotional support to seniors on fixed incomes. But as the community changed, the center broadened its reach.

“We are still serving seniors on a fixed income, but they are increasingly raising their grandchildren,” says Michael McDermott, a society member and chairman of the board of St. Patrick’s Center. “There is a need for emergency food, supplemental food for families. There is an inferno of food insecurity on the East Side of Wilmington.”

More than 800 people regularly use the center’s services. About 25 people alone use the clothing bank. The center’s grocery club has 587 regular members and serves more than 360 children a week. The center also provides a fresh produce program.

The center provides a place to rest, counseling and transportation. There is a breakfast program and respite for the homeless, who can visit during the day and wash their clothes. “It’s people in need serving people in need,” McDermott says. “Most of the part-time employees punch out and then get in line.”

Farley Jr. says it helps to take prospective sponsors to the center to witness the services and the need for them. “If you can just get them over to see the place, they’re blown away,” he says. “I don’t know how the center does what it does on a daily basis. There’s not enough money. No matter how much we raise, it’s not enough.”

But that doesn’t stop them from trying. “It’s too important to walk away from,” Farley Jr. says.

Executive members of the St. Patrick’s Day Society include (from left) state Rep. Helene Keeley, Sean Healey, Mike Hare, Joe Farley Jr., Joe Hickey, Kira McDonnell, Colleen Corrado and Shawn Randall.//Photo by Leslie Barbaro

The Delaware way

What’s the secret of the society’s enduring success? Harkins says it’s the society’s ability to recruit influential board members, who are required to sell tickets and secure sponsors.

The society, which now numbers 90 people, gets together in the fall to start planning. There are committees and subcommittees, monitored by captains. Every member is a volunteer, and there is no executive director, so there is little overhead.

Though three men came up with the idea, the society includes women. “Some of the strongest and most vocal members of society over time—and the highest performers in terms of herding and staying on message and focused on the mission—have been women like Loretta Walsh and Rep. Helene Keeley,” McDermott says. “Women who have long served the city in various capacities have come to recognize the value of the society and the mission it accomplishes.”

Longtime society members are passing the torch to the next generation. Joe Farley Jr. became a society member in 1997 when he was 23. “These young men are in their 40s, and they’ve taken an active interest in our community,” Farley Sr. says. “Thanks to their interest, this event continues.”

McDermott sees fathers and sons working alongside mothers and daughters. There are siblings and cousins on the board. “They rally together because they know how important the cause is and that it’s enduring,” McDermott says. “That’s the beauty of it.”

The members and their families do more than organize the dinner and breakfast. They take clothing and other supplies to the center and volunteer. In doing so, they connect as a family and as neighbors. “It’s a link to Wilmington,” McDermott says. “It’s close to my heart.”

Farley Sr. would agree. On the day of the breakfast, suburbia is supporting the city, and corporate America is supporting the poor who live in the shadow of the city’s high-rise office buildings, he says.

When Farley, Harkins and Frawley first hatched the idea for the communion breakfast to salute St. Patrick’s Day, they never “in a million years” would have predicted that the event would raise so much money for such an important cause for so many years, Farley says.

“It was a simple idea,” he concludes. “Now it’s part of Delaware culture.”

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