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Sister Gabriel, a Catholic nun serving in Lilly, was killed crossing the PRR tracks in 1898



The nuns were walking across the tracks to visit my great-grandmother, Annie (McDermitt) Conrad, in our family homestead


… never heard this story

Some stories emerge when you least expect them. That is the case with this tale, one that I have never heard previously despite being raised by the St. Joseph’s nuns at St. Brigid’s School and having one in our family.


This sad event occurred when two of the nuns were walking across the mainline of the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks to visit with my great-grandmother, Annie (McDermitt) Conrad in 1898. Annie, from what my dad had told me, was very close with the nuns, and after my great-grandfather passed away in 1914, she went to live with them in Pittsburgh during the school year, where she worked as a seamstress for them, making habits and and then fixing them and anything else.

What is strange for me is that I never heard this story at any time, and it took an old article sent to me by a native of Lilly to inform me about the tragic death of Sister Gabriel.


This article is from one of the Johnstown, Pa. newspapers of that time, either the Tribune or the Democrat.


Details


This sad event took place in early March 1898 not far from our family homestead because the only crossing of the railroad tracks in Lilly was called Conrad’s Crossing, which was just across from the house.


Here is the gist of what occurred,


Sister Gabriel, a nun in St. Joseph’s Convent, connected with St. Bridget’s (sic) Roman Catholic Church at Lilly, was instantly killed on the Pennsylvania Railroad at Lilly, this county, on Tuesday evening.


She and Sister Laurentia left the Convent shortly after 4 o’clock that afternoon to go to the home of Mrs. John Conrad, a short distance from the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks. They were going from the south to the north [incorrect, had to be west to east] side of the tracks, Sister Laurentia walking at the right. While on the Conrad Crossing, passenger train No. 15 — Pittsburgh Express — running at a rapid rate of speed, flew by, striking Sister Gabriel and throwing her about thirty feet from the rails. She was dead when picked up by the trainmen, after the Express was brought to a standstill.


“Fatal Accident Occurs on the P.R.R. at Lilly Tuesday Evening,”

Johnstown Democrat or Tribune, 1898


The essential facts are correct, with a few mistakes. Here is what I can decipher from this article. Sister Gabriel and Sister Laurentia left the St. Brigid’s Convent in Lilly and walked down Main Street to spot where the crossing of the tracks was located, which would have been the only way to reach the two areas on the other side of town known as Barkertown and Dutchtown.


When they reached Railroad Street, they moved a short distance to the crossing, and started to move toward the home of John and Annie Conrad. They were struck by a train moving westbound, and those were going downhill and obviously moved fast through there. They would have crossed the two eastbound tracks and were then hit by the Pittsburgh Express, which was apparently a passenger train.


How did this happen?


Sister Gabriel was an Irish immigrant who joined the St. Joseph nuns decades before this, though that is not clear. It provides her age as being close to 60, so it was probably more than 30 years earlier that she entered the motherhouse of the St. Joseph’s nuns in Ebensburg [it is now located in Baden, Pa.]


The details of the accident are sketchy because Sister Laurentia could not remember them very well, perhaps because of the trauma of the situation,


Sister Laurentia, who is known in the world as Miss Alice Bradley, a native of Gallitzin, this county, says she does not know how the accident occurred nor how she escaped meeting a similar fate. Neither of the nuns heard the train approaching. Sister Laurentia had just stepped across the tracks, with the other Sister by her side, and she thinks the latter’s clothing may have been caught in the drivers and she [was] thrown agains the driving rod of the locomotive, which hurled the body the great distance it was found from the tracks. Sister Laurentia, who is known in the world as Miss Alice Bradley, a native of Gallitzin, this county, says she does not know how the accident occurred nor how she escaped meeting a similar fate. Neither of the nuns heard the train approaching.


Sister Laurentia had just stepped across the tracks, with the other Sister by her side, and she thinks the latter’s clothing may have been caught in the drivers and she [was] thrown agains the driving rod of the locomotive, which hurled the body the great distance it was found from the tracks.


“Fatal Accident Occurs on the P.R.R. at Lilly Tuesday Evening,”

Johnstown Democrat or Tribune, 1898


Having been raised less than a quarter mile from the mainline of the Pennsylvania Railroad, I am incredulous that they could not have heard the train approaching. However, moving across those tracks would be a challenge for people in their 60s, and they may not have been focused on the noise.


Guessing the date


When I first read the story, I gathered that it was in the late 1800s. The reason was that my cousin, who was a priest who immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland, Father Philip Brady, was the priest who said that funeral mass,


A mass or requiem was said in St. Bridget’s [sic] Catholic Church at 7:30 o’clock a.m. Wednesday by Rev. Father Philip Brady, after which the remains were taken to Ebensburg, where they were buried in the Catholic Cemetery yesterday morning, after services in the Church of the Holy Name.


“Fatal Accident Occurs on the P.R.R. at Lilly Tuesday Evening,”

Johnstown Democrat or Tribune, 1898




Father Brady was my cousin who brought my grandmother, Katie Brady Conrad, to the U.S. in 1880. He was either pastor or assistant at St. Brigid’s at the time. However, around the turn of the century, he was transferred to a church in Latrobe, which was the start of our family of relatives in that community and Westmoreland County.

The article was sent to me by Sue (Sweeney) Kreschalk, daughter of the late Bob and Stella Sweeney of Lilly. She received it from her son-in-law, Cody Williams. The tombstone of Sister Gabriel was tracked down in Holy Name Cemetery by Nick Lasinky and his grandfather, Tom Bortel.


My thanks to all of them for providing this article to me.


“Fatal Accident Occurs on the P.R.R. at Lilly Tuesday Evening,”

Johnstown Democrat or Tribune, 1898

Ellen O’Kane

Here is what is provided about the life of Sister Gabriel,


Sister Gabriel was known to the world as Miss Ellen O’Kane. She was bout 60 years old, and was born in Ireland, coming to New York many years ago. Later, she located in new Brighton, this State, where her only brother died. Her parents are also dead.


In 1878 Miss O’Kane entered the Order of St. Joseph of the Sisters of Charity [St. Joseph’s] at the Mother House in Ebensburg, having arrived there from New Brighton. Rev. Father John Boyle, of St. John Gualbert’s Roman Catholic Church, this city, was post of the church of Holy Name in the county seat at that time.


“Fatal Accident Occurs on the P.R.R. at Lilly Tuesday Evening,”

Johnstown Democrat or Tribune, 1898

Annie was the wife of John Conrad, and the mother of my grandfather, Charles, along with Sister Hilary, Mary Rosanna, and Carrie.


They lived in the family homestead that was constructed by James Conrad in 1859.


Here is the complete text of the article,

Fatal Accident Occurs on the P.R.R. at Lilly Tuesday Evening

1898


Sister Gabriel, a nun in St. Joseph’s Convent, connected with St. Bridget’s (sic) Roman Catholic Church at Lilly, was instantly killed on the Pennsylvania Railroad at Lilly, this county, on Tuesday evening.

She and Sister Laurentia left the Convent shortly after 4 o’clock that afternoon to go to the home of Mrs. John Conrad, a short distance from the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks. They were going from the south to the north [incorrect, had to be west to east] side of the tracks, Sister Laurentian walking at the right. While on the Conrad Crossing, passenger train No. 15 — Pittsburgh Express — running at a rapid rate of speed, flew by, striking Sister Gabriel and throwing her about thirty feet from the rails. She was dead when picked up by the trainmen, after the Express was brought to a standstill.


Sister Laurentia, who is known in the world as Miss Alice Bradley, a native of Gallitzin, this county, says she does not know how the accident occurred nor how she escaped meeting a similar fate. Neither of the nuns heard the train approaching. Sister Laurentia had just stepped across the tracks, with the other Sister by her side, and she thinks the latter’s clothing may have been caught in the drivers and she [was] thrown agains the driving rod of the locomotive, which hurled the body the great distance it was found from the tracks.

Mr. Fletcher C. George immediately after the accident furnished a cot from his store and had the remains of the nun carried to the convent, where they were prepared for burial by Undertaker Joseph Rainey.


A mass or requiem was said in St. Bridget’s [sic] Catholic Church at 7:30 o’clock a.m. Wednesday by Rev. Father Philip Brady, after which the remains were taken to Ebensburg, where they were buried in the Catholic Cemetery yesterday morning, after services in the Church of the Holy Name.


A solemn high mass of requiem was observed, at which Rev. Father McHugh, of St. Agnes’s Church, Soho, Pittsburg [sic], was celebrant, Father Philip Brady, of Lilly, Deacon; Father Ryan of Wilmore, Sub-Deacon, and Father Patrick Smith, of Altoona, Master of Ceremonies. Father Smith also preached the funeral sermon.


Among the other priests in attendance were Father Martin Ryan, of Gallitzin, and Fathers Boyle and Corbinian, of Johnstown. Many nuns were present from all parts of the county. Father Deasy, of Ebensburg, could not attend being confined to his home by an attack of the mumps.

Sister Gabriel was known to the world as Miss Ellen O’Kane. She was bout 60 years old, and was born in Ireland, coming to New York many years ago. Later, she located in new Brighton, this State, where her only brother died. Her parents are also dead.


In 1878 Miss O’Kane entered the Order of St. Joseph of the Sisters of Charity [St. Joseph’s] at the Mother House in Ebensburg, having arrived there from New Brighton. Rev. Father John Boyle, of St. John Gualbert’s Roman Catholic Church, this city, was post of the church of Holy Name in the county seat at that time.


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