Family Lore and Small Town Gossip on an Interfaith Marriage in 1898

I am the latest of a long line of Catholic women who married Protestant men. The stories of our weddings show how interfaith marriages have changed over time. This post is the story of the first such marriage of my ancestresses that I know about.

In Sacramento, California, in 1898, my great-grandmother, Cecelia Ryan, an Irish Catholic woman, married James Strachan, a Protestant Scotsman. I recently found newspaper references to the wedding, which took place on November 16, 1898, at the home of Cecelia’s parents. (Note that Cecelia was called Celia in these newspaper accounts, but her real name was Cecelia, and that is the name passed down to her daughter and more recently to my daughter.)

(Articles referenced from the Sacramento Record-Union in 1898 can be found at the Library of Congress Chronicling America site, see


Sacramento Record-Union, August 19,1898, page 3, with letter from Hugh M. Strachan

There are many references in the Sacramento Record-Union issues from 1898 to the Strachan and Ryan families, including a very interesting letter from a son in the U.S. Army Signal Corp. in Honolulu to his father, published in the August 19, 1898, issue.

The young people in the Strachan and Ryan families apparently socialized, and there are descriptions of parties that Cecelia and James both attended. Several of James’s siblings (including sisters Jean, Margaret, and Tot) went to these parties also, and the paper also mentions a trip that Cecelia and one of James’s sisters took to San Francisco in mid-1898.

It’s all very gossipy, like small-town America was over 100 years ago, when the daily happenings got publicized in the local newspaper. (Indeed, the Record-Union’s column where most of these entries can be found was entitled “Social Gossip.”) Sort of the Facebook of yesteryear.

The Ryans and Strachans seem to have gotten along quite well together, despite their religious differences. Yet, family lore tells a different story about the wedding between Cecelia and James.

The Sacramento Record-Union contained a simple announcement of the upcoming Strachan/Ryan wedding in its Sunday, November 13, 1898, edition.

Strachan Ryan wedding description

Strachan Ryan wedding description, Sacramento Record-Union, November 17, 1898, page 4, later corrected as to location of wedding

The wedding itself was described in the November 17 issue of the Record-Union (see last paragraph of the article I’ve included), with a correction made on page 3 of the November 18 issue. The November 17 issue had erroneously stated that the wedding occurred at Cecelia’s brother’s house.

(The newspaper might be forgiven for focusing on her brother, Frank D. Ryan, who had probably been in the news quite a bit in 1898. He lost the election for the U.S. House of Representatives seat for Sacramento just days before his sister’s wedding. He had been the Republican candidate, but only received 44.7% of the vote. Frank was an attorney, and had been the Chief Clerk of the California Assembly from 1885 until 1888. In 1891 he became District Attorney of Sacramento County. I had not realized that my legal roots went back so far.)

Many years later, my mother told me the reason that Cecelia and James got married in the Ryan’s home was that Catholics could not marry Protestants in a Catholic church in those days. The Reverend Father Walsh officiated, according to the newspaper account, so it was a Catholic wedding, but not in a church. I found it interesting to read that “Only relatives of the bride and groom were present,” as if there were something to hide. Three generations later, I married a Protestant in a Catholic church with a full nuptial Mass.

The November 17 story also mentions that James and Cecelia went to Los Angeles for their wedding journey. On November 27, the paper reported that Mr. & Mrs. James Strachan had returned from their wedding tour and would be at home to their friends on Thursdays at 2402 J street. I’d never heard any stories about their honeymoon, so I was pleased to find out they had one.

But, according to my mother, James’s mother did not take advantage of their “at homes.” I was told that James’s mother would not enter her daughter-in-law’s house, because Cecelia was Catholic, and old Mrs. Strachan was a strict Protestant (probably Presbyterian). I can’t verify the family lore on this point, as I can the facts of the wedding, but that’s the story I was told.

My understanding is that Cecelia remained Catholic and raised her children as Catholics until her death. Her daughter, my grandmother, was certainly a faithful Catholic. Cecelia was the only Catholic great-grandparent I had.

Cecelia died when my grandmother was a teenager, and my grandmother took over running the household for her father and twin brother until she married. James lived until around 1945, and my mother told stories of him as a “little old Scotsman who danced a jig with a pillow on his head.”

Both Cecelia and James came from large families. I can remember visiting both Strachans and Ryans in Sacramento when I was a child. In particular, I remember Jean and Margaret Strachan, two of James’s sisters mentioned in the 1898 newspaper entries. Neither sister ever married, and by the time I met them they were in their nineties. One was blind and the other deaf, but I can’t remember which was which.

Once again, I am amazed at what I can find with a little Internet research. Many of the facts of our family histories are there, but the stories of family myth – of social acceptance and prejudice, of birth and aging and death – are not.

What stories from your family history might you verify with a little research?

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  1. Isn’t it fascinating, Theresa? I have just uncovered the gravesite of my grandfather who died at the age of forty-nine. He was a blacksmith on Southwest Boulevard and passed when my father was barely fifteen. Dad had to leave school in order to take a job to help support his mother. I am intrigued with the massive upright marker of which the cemetery has no record. I had to walk the entire cemetery to find it, followed the path of childhood memory. Voila! There it was like a shadow of my past looming in front of me. How was such a massive marker of granite afforded in 1911? Did someone owe and barter with my shoer grandfather?

  2. The story goes that my mother’s parents were married in her family home in Nevada, MO. Grandpa was almost late for the wedding because he had to tend a sick calf on his farm twelve miles away outside Walker, MO.

    Fifty-one years ago we were married in a Presbyterian church. I asked my friend, Judy to be my maid of honor. She asked the priest for permission.

    He told her, “You may participate in the wedding but you may not be the maid of honor because the Catholic Church would not recognize the marriage.”

    I asked another friend to fill the maid of honor spot.

    • Sally,
      I was the matron of honor for a non-Catholic friend of mine — perhaps another sign the times have changed. Or perhaps it’s because I didn’t ask anyone for permission!

  3. My paternal grandfather died when my father was seven months old. My paternal grandmother never talked about her first husband’s family except disparagingly. She didn’t think much of his one sister, Margaret, whose nickname was “Pid.” That woman married a St. Louis jeweler and they offered to adopt my father and raise him to relieve my widowed grandmother of the responsibility of caring for a baby. My grandmother was incensed at the idea and never spoke to Pid or her husband again.

    I could research marriages in St. Louise or look for Margaret “Pid” Chrisman. I’ve found her in one census, but never followed up. I would be interested to know what happened to her.

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