‘One of God’s Best Noble Men’

If society truly measures people by both financial success and charitable works, Andrew Carney ranks as one of the greatest rag-to-riches stories in America’s annals.

Before there were “Horatio Alger” stories, there was Andrew Carney. Today, we have numerous politicians and corporate kings and queens who believe that charity does not begin at home or in the boardroom. Everyone is exactly where they deserve to be in life, some will say. No exceptions.

Fortunately, in and around Boston, eminently successful businesspeople such as John Hailer, John Cullinane, Barbara Lynch, Robert Sheridan, and others have embraced many of the tenets embodied by Carney.

In contrast, Irish American Congressman Paul Ryan and a legion of like-minded citizens grumble that when Pope Francis chides the 1 percent about their responsibility to help those less fortunate, he “doesn’t understand capitalism or the American Way.” Andrew Carney understood capitalism, charity, and compassion. He would have grasped exactly what Pope Francis espouses. In the toxic political and corporate climate of May 2015, it might be fitting to look at the lessons that Carney, born in May 1794, can still impart.

The nineteenth-century historian John B. Cullen, in his book “The Story of the Irish in Boston,” aptly wrote: “Of the many representative Irishmen whom Boston can claim as an honored citizen, and refer to the history of his life with the utmost pride, none, perhaps, could have a more exalted position than Andrew Carney. … To the poor of this city in times of sickness and poverty, he was a kind-hearted, whole-souled, generous friend and protector.”

He was also a tough, pragmatic, innovative businessman who did not sacrifice ethics for fortune.

Carney was born into abject poverty in Ballanagh, Co. Cavan, Ireland, on May 12, 1794. With only a limited education, he was apprenticed to a local tailor and learned the trade. After deciding that few opportunities to rise far in Ireland existed for a poor Catholic, the 20-year-old Carney emigrated to Boston in 1816 with nothing except his trade and ambition far beyond what anyone who knew him back in Ireland thought attainable.

In Boston, he started out in the hardscrabble Irish neighborhoods of Anne and Water Streets in the North End and found work “at the bench” of Kelley & Hudson, tailors, on State Street. “He began life,” said Father John McElroy, a Jesuit founder of Boston College and a close friend, “with nothing but health and labor to rely upon.”

Carney also had something else to rely upon: his determination to be his own boss. After long years of work for Kelley & Hudson, he had saved enough to open a tailoring shop on North Street in partnership with Jacob Sleeper; the venture – equally split between an Irish Catholic immigrant and an established Yankee businessman – was an almost unheard of union in Brahmin Boston. The two entrepreneurs not only built up a large clientele with their deft and quick tailoring skills, but Carney & Sleeper, Clothiers, were also the first in their profession to unveil “ready-made suits” that were priced for all incomes. A colleague remarked that Carney “was a very keen businessman, was exceedingly shrewd, and could see money in a transaction when others would be blind to the possibilities of the occasion.”

After nearly two decades, Carney cashed out of the business in 1845, having amassed a fortune. In his early fifties, he devoted his energies to help found the Bank of the Republic and the Safety Fund Bank (now Bank of America). A director of the John Hancock Life Insurance Company, he proved instrumental in both the foundation and the funding of Boston College, which, in his day, was first located on Harrison Avenue, in Boston’s South End next to the Church of the Immaculate Conception.

As his fortune expanded, Carney, who had always made considerable contributions to the both the Catholic Church’s and the city’s charitable institutions, turned even more of his energies and his fortune to aiding the sick and the downtrodden. He gave on a scale both personal and grand. Cullen writes: “Many a poor apple-woman of his time, presiding over her ‘little stand,’ was approached by the Irish merchant and tendered a half-dollar, ‘with no change,’ in payment of his purchase of a [penny] apple. He would walk away with the exclamation, ‘Hush, my dear woman, don’t say a word about it!’”

Carney would many times find that a when he boarded a street car home at the end of a day, he had given away all the money in his wallet. In his expensive overcoat and suit, he would wait patiently for a familiar face because even though he was one of Boston’s wealthiest men, he did not have enough to pay the fare. Cullen notes that Carney would gather “a loan from a neighbor, which he always made it a rule to pay on the following day.”

In 1863, as the Civil War raged, Carney made a profound and long-lasting charitable impact upon Boston’s landscape – literally so. For the staggering price of $13,500, he purchased the Howe Mansion, atop Dorchester Heights. The house was still stunning, but had fallen into some disrepair. Carney intended to renovate the site, which provided spectacular vistas of Boston and the Harbor Islands, but not for himself. With its cooling summer breezes and its proximity to the city, the Irishman commissioned the renovation of the Howe Mansion into a hospital “to afford relief to the sick and poor.” Cullen lauded how the Carney Hospital, run by the Sisters of Charity, was tasked to receive “patients of all religious denominations. Chronic, acute, and other cases are received.”

Carney demanded that the institution bearing his name be “a hospital where the sick without distinction of creed, color or nation shall be received and cared for.” In an era when ethnic prejudice, racism, elitism, and greed ruled the roost, Carney’s views were both astonishing and visionary.

Andrew Carney would pass away the following year, 1864, his personal donations to the hospital over $75,000. Cullen and those who knew Carney speculated that his “humble beginnings in Ballanagh…[served] as the impetus for his sincere interest in the less fortunate.” It is undeniable that Carney understood that hard work, ambition, and talent are not always enough to guarantee success and that, as the adage goes, “life is unfair” for many. Despite his success, he never lost sight of those truths. Over the last three years of his life, he gave a stunning amount of money to charity.

Cullen writes that one of Carney’s business associates dubbed him “one of God’s best noblemen.” One can only wonder what the Boston Irish philanthropist would have thought of today’s tycoons and politicians who, bloated with power and wealth, have no qualms about gutting access to health care and cutting food benefits for poor children. One can only wonder how he would have viewed the anti-immigrant bile that runs through society as viciously in 2015 as it did in 1845. Andrew Carney would not have viewed such issues through a prism of the right or the left. He would have done what was morally right.