Finding Papa

Maggie O’Brien stood at the rail and read the letter again. Her papa had sent it along with money for the passage to America. He had come to the States two years ago, with the intention of making a new start in life. Things had become so bad in Ireland that he couldn’t support his family, and upon hearing about opportunities in New York he decided to migrate. He had taken a job, working as a clerk in the Bowery, scrimped and saved passage money, and had sent it with the letter. Now Maggie clung to the railing and quietly reread the letter. How could she tell her papa that her mother had passed away and was buried at sea? It had been such a rough voyage with so many storms and extremely cold for late December. Influenza had hit hard, taking the lives of several passengers, including her mother. Now she faced the uncertainty of finding her papa in a strange place. Quite a dilemma for a fourteen-year-old young lady!

The captain had taken notice of her situation and had taken her under his wing, watching over her on a daily basis. Now he approached her, took her into his arms, and let her cry on his shoulder.

“Here now, Missy, I know you hurt so terribly bad and miss your mother. I wish I knew what I could do to help,” offered the captain.

“Thank you, Captain Potter. Yes, I do miss Mother but I have to go on. The only thing I can do is find the dry goods store where Papa works. He will be devastated when he finds out about mother.”

“Do you know where to find him?”

“He wrote in his letter that he was working in the Bowery, whatever that is. He’s a clerk at Brown’s Dry Goods Store. He said, in his letter, that he was going to meet us at the dock when the ship came in, but he has no idea when we will get here. The storms have put us behind schedule so if he’s not at the dock I will have to try and find him. That’s all I know,” she answered.

“Maybe I can help. I have connections, in New York, who can possibly help us find him. I will draft letters to a few people I know asking for help.”

“Oh, please try.”

“Don’t worry, Missy. I’ll see what I can do.”

At the end of the week, the ship docked in New York. Captain Potter found Maggie and asked her to stay onboard.

“Missy, you need to stay onboard. It isn’t safe for a young girl to wander the streets alone. I have sent my steward with letters, I have written, to be posted. We should hear something in two or three days,” offered Captain Potter.

From the deck, Maggie took in the sights of the city. It was so much different from her home in Dublin. Everywhere she looked was the hustle and bustle of city life. She saw dock workers handling cargo, peddlers showing their wares, and boys hawking newspapers. A fresh snowfall blanketed the city and smoke from hundreds of chimneys cast gloomy shadows wherever she looked. One thought instantly crossed her mind. The city was huge! It dwarfed Dublin. Finding her papa might not be as easy as she thought.

Three days later a messenger came aboard with a letter for the captain. Finding Maggie, he shared the contents.

“Missy, Mrs. Wilcox has a possible solution for you. She runs a mission for homeless children and has offered to take you in while you search. I have to put out to sea the first of the week. I wish I could do more to help you but this is the best I can offer. You have become like a daughter to me and I’ll miss you. My prayer is that you will find your papa,” Captain Potter said.

Crying and hugging him tightly, Maggie thanked him again and again.

“You have been more help to me than you could ever possibly know. Thank you, Captain Potter,” she sobbed.

That afternoon he took her ashore, hired a carriage, and delivered her to Mrs. Wilcox’s doorstep. Bidding another tearful goodbye, he returned to his ship.

“Come, Miss O’Brien, let’s get you settled in,” Mrs. Wilcox offered as she took her into her arms, “Then we’ll sit down and talk about what to do.”

After showing her to her room, she introduced her to all of the children and then led her to the parlor where they could talk.

“Maggie, do you have any idea how large New York City is? Maggie, it covers miles and miles of territory. You say that your papa works in the Bowery. My child, that’s a long way from here, but I have a friend I believe will be glad to escort you here.

“Can we start tomorrow? Please? I must find him,” Maggie pleaded with tears in her eyes.

“I believe so. Let me talk to my friend,” her hostess replied.

The next day Mr. Gilbert came to the door for Maggie. Leaving in his carriage, they went to the Bowery.

“Miss O’Brien, Mrs. Wilcox told me that your papa works for Brown’s Dry Goods. That store with half a dozen others burned to the ground not quite two weeks ago. It’s hard telling where your papa is. The only thing I know to do is go door to door and make inquiries. I’ll take one side of the street and you take the other. Maybe we’ll get lucky,” offered Mr Gilbert.

“A fire! Oh, No,” Worry etched her face as she silently prayed that her papa was all right.

Starting their search, they talked to shop proprietors and stopped people in the streets, but none of them had heard of Michael O’Brien. They spent most of the day searching, grew weary, and returned to the mission.

“There now, my child, you mustn’t get discouraged. You’ve only searched one day and covered just a small part of the Bowery. And besides that, you have no idea if your papa is still in the area. Mr. Gilbert told me he would be glad to take you there again tomorrow. Now in all of your concerns had you forgotten that Christmas is only three days away? The children have been stringing popcorn for decorating the tree. Why don’t you come along and help them? It will do you good to take your mind off things for a while.”

“You’re right, of course. I’ll be glad to help with the tree. We didn’t have one in Ireland. We were so poor we couldn’t afford a goose for Christmas dinner, let alone a tree or give gifts. Maybe this will cheer me up,” answered Maggie.

She spent the evening stringing popcorn, singing carols, decorating the tree, and having her first taste of coffee, a luxury in Ireland her papa couldn’t afford. Going to bed that night, she felt so overwhelmed with what she was attempting to do that she offered up a simple prayer.

“Dear God, please help me find my papa. I miss him terribly. It’s been two years since I’ve seen him. I don’t know what else to do,” she prayed as she drifted off to sleep.

Mrs. Wilcox gently shook her awake the next morning, “Mr. Gilbert will be here in an hour. You need to get up, get dressed, and have some breakfast.”

For the next two days, they knocked on doors and talked to policemen, saloon keepers, and anybody that they thought could possibly help. But Michael O’Brien was not to be found, in fact, no one had ever heard of him. Cold, dejected, and heartbroken, she returned to the mission. The following day was Christmas and Mr Gilbert wanted to spend it with his family. She thanked him for his help, ate a good supper, and went to bed. Lying in bed, she continually asked God for guidance. Praying herself to sleep, she tossed and turned the rest of the night.

Morning came quickly and she arose early. Something compelled her to get dressed. She left a note for Mrs. Wilcox and quietly left the house. A light snow was falling, making everything look fresh and pure. It was Christmas morning and she had to find her papa! From her previous journeys, she remembered the way and was determined to search again. She knew she shouldn’t go out alone but felt strongly that she must. It was an incredibly long walk and if it hadn’t been for a delivery wagon, stopping and picking her up, she never would have got there. With the snow and a brisk wind blowing, she began her search. In the distance, she could hear bells ringing in the morning air. As most of the shops were closed for Christmas she was able to make good progress. Rounding a corner, she found the source of the ringing. A large church stood at the end of the street. Sensing the need to pray, and also get warm, Maggie entered and sat in the back pew. Dropping to her knees, she tearfully paid.

“God, it’s Christmas morning. I know that you sent your Son to earth for me and I know that it's time to celebrate. But God, I can’t. I have to find my papa. I’ve never asked you for much but I don’t know what to do. Will you please help me find my papa? I’m afraid and so lonely. Please hear my prayer,” Maggie pleaded tearfully.

After finishing her prayer, a gentle peace and warmth came over her, calming all of her fears. Looking up, she felt prompted to look towards the front of the church. The sight she saw amazed her. On a drab, snowy December something unexpected had happened. A beam of sunlight shone through an upper window upon the front row of pews. A heavily bundled person could be seen bowed in prayer. Curiosity getting the better of her, she shyly approached the person. Drawing near, she realized it was a man’s voice she was hearing.

“Dear God, I am so lonely. My family is in Ireland. I sent passage money for them to come here but I haven’t heard a word from them. I miss my wife, Colleen, and my daughter, Maggie, terribly. Now it’s Christmas again and we’re still apart. I don’t know if they’ve sailed or if there are still in Dublin, and if they’ve sailed then I have no way of letting them know how to find me. God, what can I do? Will you please hear my prayer and reunite me with my family?” the man sobbed.

“Papa” Is it you? Oh, papa!”

For God does answer prayer in his own time and place. And for Maggie and her papa, it was on their knees in a Bowery church on Christmas morning.

August 21, 2020