Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Coincidental Account of Annie Burke and Nellie Fitzgerald

There is a heart-warming story that exists in this community, and it has been relayed to me by several visitors here at the museum. The narrative is of two Newfoundland woman who, completely by chance, ended up living side-by-side in Boston. Their names were Annie Burke (nee Cadigan) and Nellie Fitzgerald (nee Gibbons).

Annie Burke (nee Cadigan) ca. 1915

Annie Cadigan was born in 1891, and grew up in the community of Logy Bay. When she was 12 years old, she fell through a fishing stage and severely injured her leg. Local doctors believed her leg was irreversibly damaged, and so advised that it be amputated. Her sister, Mary, lived in Boston, and thought it may be best to have her sister come and see a Doctor whom she knew there, Dr. O'Shea. 

Nellie Fitzgerald (nee Gibbons) ca. 1914

Nellie Gibbons was born in the Redlands on the north shore of Conception Bay in 1888. She and a fellow named James Fitzgerald were writing to one another, and the courtship landed her in Boston in 1909. 

Annie arrived in Boston in 1905. Her sister was right to put her faith in Dr. O'Shea, as Annie's leg quickly healed under his care. After her recovery, she decided to stay in Boston and work as a cook in the O'Shea household. Dr. O'Shea began to take Annie with him on house calls, and so she became quite familiar with medical practices. 

Nellie was hired by the Harrington family as a governess shortly after her arrival in Boston. The Harrington's and the O'Shea's were neighbours, and so the girls became fast friends, both being young women from Newfoundland. 

The story that both women told often, and fondly, was the fourth of July they spent together. They decided they would have a sleep over at the O'Shea's house after a day of fun. When they arrived home, the house was dark, as everyone had gone to bed. They went to Annie's room and discovered, much to their dismay, that her bed had been stripped of its linens. 

Annie went to the linen closet and palmed through the sheets in the dark until she found what she thought was a bed sheet. The girls spread it over the bed and went to sleep. When they awoke the next morning they were shocked to discover they had slept on one of Mrs. O'Shea's decorative table cloth. Fortunately, Annie was able to wash, press and return the tablecloth without anyone noticing, narrowly avoiding a scolding from the lady of the house.

Annie returned to Newfoundland in 1914 to marry James Burke. Nellie was engaged to James Fitzgerald, the man who brought her to Boston in the first place, and they intended to stay in Boston. The girls lost touch when Annie returned home.

Nellie and James' plans soon changed when his father died and they had to return to Newfoundland to care for his mother. Annie had no idea that Nellie had returned to Newfoundland, until one faithful day in 1949.  

Nellie's youngest daughter, Theresa, was brought to the home of Annie by the boy she was dating. She sat in astonishment as Annie recounted that fourth of July in Boston, when her and a friend mistakenly slept on a tablecloth. Theresa had heard that same story from her own mother so many times, she could hardly believe her ears.

Annie Burke's house, where her door was always open to visitors (ca. 2003)

Theresa went home and asked her mother the name of the woman she had been friends with in Boston, and it was indeed Annie Burke, the woman she had met earlier that day.

The kids decided they would surprise the old friends by bringing Nellie to Annie's for a visit. It had been 36 years since the women had last seen each other. Nellie was not yet out of the car, and Annie was running to greet her old friend. She swooped her up in a hug and swung her around and around. It was as if they had never been apart at all.

Annie died in 1981 at 91 years old, and Nellie followed in 1983, at 94 years of age. Their children kept in touch over the years, and their great-grandchildren even attended school together.

As an aside, Annie put her experience as Dr. O'Shea's helper to good use. She was a midwife in the community for many years, and delivered hundreds of babies. If you ask someone in the community if they know of Annie Burke, they will likely tell you one or more of their relatives were delivered by this exceptional woman. 

Annie was also believed to have "the gift of second-sight." She often invited people into her home to read their tea leaves or cards. Many people still talk about her gift to this day.

-Katie Harvey

Source: The Story of Annie (Cadigan) Burke and Nellie (Gibbons) Fitzgerald by Maria Clift and Hayley Walsh

We have this heritage project in our resource room here at the museum, if you would like to learn more about this incredible story, drop by and take a look.

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