Uncle Frank: Illegal Immigrant?

Was my Uncle Frank an illegal immigrant? Not exactly. But the circumstances surrounding his citizenship involved a misdemeanor at least, one that, had he decided to go into politics, would have doomed him for sure. And as scandals go in the genealogical history of the Brock Flock, this is about as good as it gets.

Like most of the families in the community in which I was raised, mine had living relatives who were immigrants. My dad was born in the U.S., but his oldest brother, my Uncle Frank, was born in Ireland. Shortly after his birth, his parents, Michael and Brigid Theresa McDonough Brock, said goodbye to their dairy farm and set sail for America, entering through Ellis Island and settling in New York, where they brought six more children into the world, including my dad, Tom Brock. Frank would eventually become Fr. Francis Xavier Brock, a member of the Jesuit order of priests; I remember him as a scholarly, urbane man with an ever-present pipe who somehow–divine intervention?–always came out on top in family card games. As a youngster, I was proud to have an uncle who was a Jesuit priest, but my greatest source of pride was his Irish birth, and I fancied myself being just one generation removed from the storied land of my ancestors.

A few years back, all of what I had believed about my one-generation connection to the Brock ancestral home came into serious question as I happened upon a photocopy of the 1920 U.S. census page listing my paternal grandparents and their seven children. What a thrill it was to see my dad’s name next to the notation of his 1918 birth in New York City. And what a shock it was to see, a few lines above, the entry for Francis X. Brock, born in 1904 . . . also in New York City! But–so I had been told, and so we all had believed–Uncle Frank was born in Ireland! How could the U.S. census have gotten it wrong?
Thankfully, at the time of this discovery there was one remaining sibling, our last connection to my dad’s generation, my Aunt Mary, well into her nineties but still quite alert. If anyone knew the truth of the matter, it would be Aunt Mary . . . and in due course the closest thing to a good scandal in the family was revealed. Uncle Frank was indeed born in Ireland. But when the census folks called at the apartment of Michael and Brigid Brock in 1920, my grandmother–a woman of whom my only memories are of her kneeling in prayer in her bedroom, fumbling with rosary beads before a statue of the Virgin Mary–lied! This pious immigrant woman, when asked for the country of birth of her firstborn child, told the census takers that he was born in America, not in Ireland. Why did she lie? Because, Aunt Mary explained, eyes twinkling, Brigid Theresa Brock wanted her son to become president of the United States, “and you can’t be president of the United States if you’re born in Ireland!”

No, Uncle Frank was not an illegal immigrant, just someone whose immigrant status was falsified by his mom so he could one day become president. Like so many other immigrants, documented or undocumented, Grandma wanted the best for all her children and, with Uncle Frank, had set her sights on what many an immigrant mom might want, the highest possible achievement for her non-native son. Of course, Uncle Frank did not become president; he had to settle for Plan B, becoming a Catholic priest.

But you’d think with all his mom’s lofty aspirations he’d at least have become pope!