LOWELL -- One of the missions at St. Patrick's Catholic Church is to preserve the Irish culture and remind churchgoers where they came from. Well, what better way to remember your roots than having a former president of Ireland visit?
Mary McAleese, who led Ireland from 1997 to 2011, spoke at the Lowell church, received a key to the city and met with residents on Friday afternoon. Then she went over to the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center where she received an honorary degree from the university.
"To come as a stranger and in a matter of seconds I'm welcomed as family -- it's one of the extraordinary gifts of the Irish people," McAleese said after she met with dozens of people at the church.
"For someone like me, who's traveled all around the world, the hospitality of the people is always the same. We are one people.
"And the honorary degree means a lot, of course," she added. "I'm energized and gratified that they're so interested in Ireland."
The degree was conferred by Chancellor Marty Meehan during a reception held in McAleese's honor. McAleese, who was the first person born in Northern Ireland to become president, earned a law degree at Queen's University Belfast -- one of UMass Lowell's international partners -- where she later served as the institution's first woman pro-vice chancellor.
She also said one of the main reasons for the honorary degree was brokering the peace process with Northern Island, in which she worked on bridging the differences between the communities during her two terms.
During a question-and-answer session at the church, she was asked about the chances of unifying Ireland. McAleese said that before political reconciliation can happen, the people need to accept each other and promise that the "past conflicts with so much violence cannot be repeated."
"It's about being good neighbors and friends, and acknowledging that those neighbors and friends with very different political and religious ideas are not going anywhere," said McAleese, Ireland's second woman president.
"We're going to be neighbors forever, and it would be an awful lot better for us and especially our children if we accept each other's point of view.
"The country will never reach its fullest potential until its people are fully reconciled," she added.
Stephen McCarthy, co-director for UMass Lowell's Center for Irish Partnerships, said that McAleese was very inspiring during her talk at the church, particularly when she discussed her "hope for reconciliation," he said.
"She's very determined to build that peace and put all their grievances behind. That determination and hope is special. It's inspirational," McCarthy said.
The theme of her presidency was "Building Bridges," which signified her focus on the peace process and reconciliation. As a result, Mayor Patrick Murphy made a proclamation, on behalf of the City Council, that Nov. 8 is "Building Bridges Day" in Lowell. Murphy presented her with the proclamation and gave her a key to the city.
"Today was an amazing opportunity to meet her," said Erin Caples, co-chair of the Irish Cultural Committee at St. Patrick's Church.
"You can move out of Lowell, but St. Patrick's never leaves you. It's more than a church -- it's a family. So welcome to our family," Caples said to McAleese.
The honorary degree event was presented by UMass Lowell's Center for Irish Partnerships and the Lowell Irish Cultural Committee.