Brother Andy's Irish eyes are always smiling

News-DemocratMarch 16, 2014 

Brother Andy Lawlor has dressed up as St. Patrick for the past 12 years for the annual St. Patrick's Day parade in Belleville. Here he is shown at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, where he made a surprise visit to a storytelling group for preschool children.

TIM VIZER/BND

Brother Andy Lawlor is an imposing figure in his green bishop's vestment, tall headdress, giant Celtic cross and pastoral staff.

One preschooler dove under a table when he showed up for storytime at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows recently. Another hid his head in his mother's lap.

But a few excited children lined up to meet St. Clair County's honorary St. Patrick. Some posed for photos, and one girl gave him a pot of gold made of construction paper.

"It's like (a visit from) the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus," said storytime leader Ashley Byrd. "The kids love it, and it helps them relate to the holiday."

Two-year-old Caleb Cook was among those who wanted nothing to do with the gray-bearded visitor until Brother Andy broke out in the chorus of "When Irish Eyes are Smiling." Suddenly, the toddler was willing to shake his hand.

Then Brother Andy struck up a conversation with Terry Stacy, 66, of South St. Louis County, a friend of Caleb's grandmother, Sharon Luna.

"Are you Irish?" asked Brother Andy with his soft-spoken Irish accent.

"Yes," Terry replied with a grin.

"I thought I could see the Blarney Stone in you."

"Is that what you call it?"

Brother Andy, 66, is a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a Catholic society that operates the shrine. He works in hospitality.

Brother Andy has been leading Belleville's St. Patrick's Day Hibernian Parade since it began in 2003. He and a bagpiper also preside over an Irish flag-raising outside the county courthouse.

"He's the best," said Gish Johnson, 82, of Lebanon, standing committee chairman for the St. Clair County Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish Catholic organization.

"He does a marvelous job. His communication with the people along the parade route is something to see. He motions to them, and they call back to him, and he reacts. He's really good."

Brother Andy grew up in Ireland and moved to the United States in the 1970s after visiting his sister in Virginia. He cooked for the Oblates in Washington, D.C., for nearly 30 years before joining in 1994.

"I got kind of burned out (on cooking), so God called me to do something else," he said.

Brother Andy marched with the local Hibernians in the St. Patrick's Day Parade in St. Louis for a couple years, but it involved too much walking.

The first parade in Belleville consisted of one car and about 20 pedestrians going from the former Castletown Geoghegan pub to the square.

Brother Andy serves as chaplain for the local Hibernians. The late Richard "Foz" Ryan recruited him to portray St. Patrick since Brother Andy grew up in Ireland.

"He also can jig," Gish said. "He can definitely jig. It's something to see, especially when he's dressed up in his miter (bishop's hat) and his green outfit."

Historians really don't know what St. Patrick looked like. Paintings show the 5th-century bishop with a beard, so Brother Andy grows one in March.

"A lot of what we know is legend," he said. "We know he existed, and he brought Christianity to Ireland. He used a shamrock -- the symbol of Ireland -- to teach the trinity."

Belleville's St. Patrick's Day Parade, which was held Saturday, is much bigger now with 35 clans represented, as well as floats, bands and bagpipers.

Brother Andy has been a U.S. citizen since the early '90s, but he visits family in Ireland every year. He hopes to move back to his homeland after retirement.

"The people in Ireland are so different," he said. "They're so homey and welcoming. Whenever you go visit somebody, you have to have a cup of tea. It's part of our Irish charm."

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