The Breens

Education and the Parents’ Religion During the 19th Century: A Case Study of the Breens

T. Michelle Tucker, MA

Abigail Adams, wrote “Learning is not attaining by chance; it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence,” from 8 May 1780 in a letter to her husband. Abigail, a well-known promoter of her own education, her four children’s education, offers this enlightenment on education. We educators who know the vital importance of learning remain only guides, a compass to point the way. Parents with familial bonds initiate appreciation and the search for learning “with diligence” as phrased by Abigail Adams. This pursuit “with ardor and attended to with diligence” can apply to parents, guided by their moral compass, their religion, to find the optional situation for their children.

This article applies the religious history lens and the first amendment, freedom of religion, in a look at the history of one immigrant couple. Patrick and Margaret Breen sought the optimal environment in which to raise their growing family. They immigrated from Ireland before the terrible famine. A couple of years or so after being in the township above the future city of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, the couple marry. On the day after St. Valentine’s Day, Reverend Edward Gordon, an itinerant Roman Catholic priest, performs the marriage on February 15, 1831 at the York Mission in the townships above Toronto in the county of York with three friends standing as witnesses, Wm Kennelly, John O’Grady, and Michael O’Neil according to the Marriage Certificate.2

The Breens repeatedly moved to leave areas due to lack of a permanent priest at the Catholic church or an area that was predominately Protestant without Catholic church where there would be services, such as children’s catechisms. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the definition of a catechism is oral instruction, or a summary of religious doctrine often in the form of questions and answers.3 Catechism was a method by which Catholic children learned the beliefs of their faith. Being devout Roman Catholics, the Breens would uproot their family until they found the ideal environment. Moreover, Patrick Breen knew that California, with its Spanish Catholic heritage, was friendly to Catholicism.

If you know the history of the Donner Party, you know that the Breens joined their wagon train in 1846 and endured immeasurable hardships. In a cold cabin with ten other people for almost half the year, Patrick Breen kept his faith. He wrote, “1847 Feb. have nothing but hides  all are entirely out of meat but a little we have  our hides are nearly all eat up but with Gods help spring will soon smile upon us.”4 When they arrived, they were penniless at Mission San Juan Bautista. The priest let them stay until they could get back on their feet. Margaret Breen expressed her thanks to God for saving them that she went to the Catholic church there every day to pray.

Eventually, with the gold their son John struck at Mormon Island, they lived in the adobe across from the mission and Catholic church and had farmland to support them. This gave them enough money to ensure the education they wanted for their children. The sisters at the mission gave their daughter piano lessons. Then, Isabella attended Catholic academy in Monterey and Berenicia.5

In conclusion, the Breen’s Christian values prompted them to raise their children to be decent people. Their faith sustained them through the terrible entrapment and starvation in the Sierras over that winter. After the community of San Juan helped them, they turned around and gave in donations and service to make their community better. “A more honest and incorruptible man than John Breen never lived,” said a neighbor and author Isaac L. Mylar, “in San Benito county….owes much to John Breen, for due to his careful manipulation of its finances, coupled with a desire to advance its progress, it owes much of its present prosperity.”6 It was so much so that people said of John Breen, the oldest son who struck gold, that he had a “heart of gold.”


1. Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 8 May 1780.

2. Rev. Edward Gordon, Marriage Certificate, County of York, 15 February 1831.

3. “Catechism, noun,” Merriam-Webster, accessed September 30, 2018,

4. Patrick Breen, Sr. Diary of Patrick Breen One of the Donner Party, Frederick J. Teggart, Ed., Silverthorne, CO; Vistabooks, 1996, 14.

5. Joseph A. King, Winter of  Entrapment, Toronto: P.D. Meany Publishers, 1993.

6. Isaac L. Mylar, Early Days at the Mission San Juan Bautista, Watsonville, Ca.: Evening Pajaronian, 1929, 125.

Citation: T. Michelle Tucker. “Education and the Parents’ Religion During the 19th Century: A Case Study of the Breens.” Explore Historic Sites History and Her-story. The Breens: A Frontier Family. Posted on October 1, 2018,