Homily for John Gordon Memorial Mass

By Rev. Bernard M. O'Reilly D.TH., PH.D.

This homily was presented at the Memorial Mass for John Gordon that was held in St. Mary's Church in Pawtucket on Saturday, October 8, 2011.

The story of John Gordon's short life in Cranston, RI has been told many times over the past ten months in different genres: First, artistically by Ken Dooley in his highly regarded play "The Murder Trial of John Gordon" in which I was privileged to play a small but significant part. Then, as the pardoning process progressed through the RI legislature, the story of the Gordon family and that of every Irish Catholic in RI was contextualized for us by historians Drs. Patrick Conley, Don Deignan and Scott Malloy. Public Defender Michael DiLauro educated us on the legal ramifications of the 1844 Gordon trial and subsequent execution in 1845, while Rep. Peter Martin guided the political process through the RI legislature, culminating in Gordon's pardoning on June 29th 2011. We, the members of the Irish-American Community, are most grateful for the time and effort put into correcting the historical record, thus restoring John Gordon's greatest attribute, namely, his good name.

Although the recognition of his innocence was delayed by 165 years, it speaks well of the clarity and persistence of the collective conscience of our community which can now claim a victory for justice over the prejudices and bigotries of that distant period.

As comprehensive as this body of work is an essential element of the saga is either missing or assumed and needs to be made explicit, namely, the spiritual nature of a simple man who took his Catholic faith seriously. The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, Pawtucket Branch, summoned us here today to focus on John Gordon's faith that, no doubt, was the source of his courage as he faced his death.

The composure with which he accepted his fate suggests to me that he instinctively knew where to look for justice and find vindication. Obviously it was not in the civil courts as his mock trial adequately indicated, but where he always found it - in the compassionate embrace of a loving, merciful God. This is the justice that mattered to him in the end, and his faith assured him that he did not have to wait 165 years to get it. And, like every other Irish Catholic, he experienced God's love and mercy - the Justice of God - while attending Mass, perhaps here at St. Mary's or at St. Patrick's in Providence. Indeed, attending Mass was and, I hope, still is in the DNA of every Irish and Irish-American Catholic; not only does it fulfill our religious yearnings, but our cultural desires as well. Ken Dooley's play mentions the fact that John Gordon attended Mass on that very day Amasa Sprague was murdered and for which John Gordon was tried, found guilty and executed in the spring of 1844.

One can only imagine how lonely and abandoned he must have felt throughout the ordeal of his trial. But as a practicing Catholic he must have sensed, even if he didn't understand, that he already had a share in the life of the risen Lord. To paraphrase St. Anselm of Cantebury (c.1033-1109), such innocent faith finds its fulfillment only in the Lord Himself ("fides quaerens intellectum").

I'm sure it wasn't the first time he turned to his God in times of need: As a Catholic in his homeland he along with fellow citizens, suffered humiliation at the hands of colonizers who tried to destroy their homes and rob their identity; he, along with fellow country folk, suffered a poverty so severe that it drove them out of their native land looking for better lives in Cranston, RI. During these tribulations their only consolation, whether at home or abroad, was their faith in God. Like the Hebrew people of old they found their sustenance in a provident God who would guide them on their hazardous journey not only across treacherous seas, but through the life's turbulences, especially experiences such as this when everything seemed lost.

Everything must have seemed hopeless to Gordon in the face of such injustice: The depth of despair, the sense of abandonment, the emptiness within must have tortured his soul as he listened to a prosecutor fabricating evidence, a prejudiced jury finding him guilty and a bigoted Judge pronouncing the death penalty on him. Where does one turn when one's life, like the wind in a punctured balloon, is ebbing away uncontrollably from one's grasp? John Gordon instinctively knew: He stood tall, faced his death with courage and placed his faith in the Lord who was always there for him. Indeed, before he faced the hangman, his final words, spoken as if from lips of Christ on the Cross - "I forgive my enemies and persecutors" - reflect the justice that only God can bestow on a just and innocent man. Not only does such Christ-like forgiveness come from belief in a forgiving God; it was, and continues to be an indirect indictment of the misguided injustices of this world.

Thanks to the good work of Ken Dooley and all the others who worked diligently to prove his innocence, our collective conscience has been awakened by your witness to the truth of Gordon's story and, by your persistence, righting the wrong that was perpetrated on him and on the Gordon family. In my humble opinion, he suffered no less than a martyr's death. Martyrs, as we know, are those who sacrifice their lives witnessing to their faith. I believe John Gordon is numbered among them and, like them, serves as a profile in faith and courage for us in counteracting injustice wherever we encounter it.

For the gift of his life, and for the many others who sacrificed their lives in the pursuit of justice, we thank you Lord. And we humbly prayer in this memorial Mass that God will grant John Gordon, his family and all our departed loved ones a place in His Heavenly Kingdom where there is justice for all. May they all rest in eternal peace! Coladh go sabh, is go ndearna Dia trocaire ar na n-ainmnacha!