Phelan, John Garvin (Judge)

     Judge John Garvin Phelan is one of the most popular residents of Wallingford, where he has made his home since 1881. There are various reasons for this popularity. In the first place, he is an enterprising business man, and also because he has figured prominently in political and in military circles here for many years and because through all the relations of life a genial nature and cordial disposition have made him personally well liked.

     Judge Phelan was born in New York city, April 1, 1848, and was the only son in a family of five children born to Thomas and Mary (Garvin) Phelan. The former was a native of County Kilkenny, Ireland. His father was a political refugee who came to America about 1825, when Thomas Phelan was a lad of twelve years. The latter spent his early life in New York city and in Halifax, where he learned and followed the trade of a pump boot maker and enjoyed the distinction of being one of the two best workmen in that field in New York and in Boston. At the outbreak of the Civil war he responded to the country’s call for aid in preserving the Union, enlisting as a member of Battery M of the First Connecticut Artillery, with which he served for three years. During the last year of the war he was with the Twenty-fourth Regiment of the Veteran Reserve and was on duty in or near Washington. He had become a resident of Connecticut in 1849, at which time he took up his abode in New Haven, where he resided until 1857, when he removed to Northford, where his remaining days were passed, his death occurring in 1886, when he had reached the age of seventy-two years. He was a man of very liberal education, constantly promoting his knowledge by wide reading, and he possessed a remarkable memory. His wife, who bore the maiden name of Mary Garvin, was a daughter of James and Ann Garvin, who came from County Fermanagh, Ireland, on the banks of the Lough Erne. The death of Mrs. Phelan occurred in Northford about 1902.

     Judge Phelan was brought to Connecticut during his infancy, being little more than a year old at the time the family home was established in New Haven. He began his education in the old school that stood at the corner of Putnam and Liberty streets in New Haven and continued his education in the old South District school. When his father enlisted for service in the Civil war in 1862, the Judge, being the eldest of five children, was obliged to assume the responsibilities of the family and secured employment in a grocery and general store in New Haven, where he remained for a year and a half. Because of the fact that liquor was sold there he left his position and returned to his old home at Northford, the family having some years before removed from North Haven to Northford. Judge Phelan then entered the employ of the Northford Manufacturing Company under Judge Bartholomae, working at a salary of fifty cents per day. He remained with that company for fourteen years and won rapid promotion with constant advancement in salary. The company was engaged in the manufacture of tinware and japanned goods. Upon the introduction of stamped ware, which revolutionized the tinware business, he established a mail order business in card printing and in the manufacture and importation of colored and embossed cards. In this business he continued successfully for a decade. In the meantime he had done considerable writing for newspapers and during the next few years he was a contributor of special articles for the Northwestern Newspaper Syndicate. In 1894 he entered into a contract with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company of New York to assume duty at Wallingford, to which place he had previously removed. He has been offered promotions but has declined, as they would necessitate the establishment of his home elsewhere and he prefers Wallingford as a place of residence. He is today the oldest insurance man of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in his district.

     Aside from business connections Judge Phelan is known by reason of his active public service and his military record. He has never voted any other than the democratic ticket but is popular with people of all parties and, as he humorously expresses it, is fond of his republican friends on every other day than election day. For four years he was chairman of the democratic town committee and he has put forth every effort in his power to promote democratic successes. For a decade he filled the office of justice of the peace and for two years he was deputy judge.

     Since 1916 he has been secretary of the park commission and he puts forth the most earnest and helpful efforts for the benefit of the city along various lines of public progress and improvement. He is now one of the finance committee of the Red Cross, of which the Rev. A. P. Greenleaf is the head.

     His interest and activity in military affairs cover a most extended period. He was a member of Company A, at Durham, two years before his removal to Wallingford. For sixteen years he was a member of Company K and served on the regimental color guard and on the rifle team for several years. He has held the rank of major in the camp of the Sons of Veterans and he has done everything in his power to promote a military spirit and advance the high standards of the National Guard organization in this section of the state. His cooperation with plans and movements for the public good is further indicated by his membership in the chamber of commerce, of which he is a director and the treasurer of its building fund. Judge Phelan belongs to the Wallingford Club and is a charter member of Court Robert Wallace of the Knights of Columbus--a fact which is indicative of his connection with the Catholic church, being a communicant of Holy Trinity church. He was president of the T. A. B. Society for a number of years and was a member of the building committee that erected the present building in 1885. For ten years he was also secretary of that society. Mr. Phelan is an ardent advocate of woman suffrage and says that he feels satisfied the great moral questions will be decided rightly when woman takes her place before the ballot box with the right to vote as her conscience dictates. He was one of the faithful and able workers through several months on the various committees connected with the celebration of Lyman Hall day in Wallingford. It was through his efforts that Lucien Knight, the southern orator, was prevailed upon to come to Wallingford and dedicate the memorial boulder to the memory of Wallingford’s illustrious son. It was also Judge Phelan who suggested that the new high school be named the Lyman Hall school.

     On the 5th of June, 1876, in the old Catholic church in Wallingford, Judge Phelan was united in marriage by the Rev. Father Hugh Macham to Miss Margaret Coffey, a daughter of Mrs. Ellen Coffey, who was the first Catholic married in Wallingford. Mrs. Phelan passed away in 1881. The three surviving children of that marriage are: Evangeline, who is the wife of Victor Valenti, of West Haven; James, who is a tool maker with the R. Wallace & Sons Manufacturing Company; and Agnes, who is in Milton, Massachusetts. For his second wife Judge Phelan chose Emma Genevieve Hine, of North Haven, who passed away two and a half years later. His third wife was Annie Murphy, of Wallingford, and they have become the parents of eight children: Maud; John T., who is employed by the Federal Line, sailing between New York and European ports; Alice, at home; Paul, who is a member of the Naval Reserve; Celestin, who is in charge of the sheet music department in the store of M. Steinert of New Haven; Madeline, who is in high school; Dorothy, in the grammar school; and Russell, a student in the parochial school. All of the children with the exception of the three youngest, who are yet students, have graduated from the Wallingford high school.

     The family residence is at No. 472 North Main street. Judge Phelan is devoted to the welfare of his wife and children and counts no effort or personal sacrifice on his part too great if it will enhance their comfort or aid in their character building. He takes the keenest interest in local history and is considered the best posted man in Wallingford on that subject. He has ever been a wide reader and an able writer. Some of his most pleasant hours are spent in his library in association with the men of master minds of all ages and at the same time he keeps in touch with the trend of modern thought and upon the great political, sociological and economic questions of the day is abreast with the best thinking men of the age.

Modern History of New Haven
Eastern New Haven County


Volume II

New York – Chicago
The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company 

pgs 778 - 780

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pages / text are copyrighted by
Elaine Kidd O'Leary &
Anne Taylor-Czaplewski
May 2002