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Archive for the ‘Philadelphia’ Category

When it comes to business and commerce, my great-grandparents who immigrated to the United States in the early years of the 20th century spent their lives working for others whether it was in textile mills, bakeries, or other factories. Some of their American-born children, however, had that good old-fashioned entrepreneurial spirit. One of my maternal grandmother’s brothers owned a butcher shop for many years on E. Norris Street in Philadelphia. I don’t have any photos of the shop, or of my grand-uncle Casimir Zawodny for that matter. But I do have a great photo of two of my paternal grandmother’s brothers who used their ingenuity to become businessmen at a young age. May I introduce you to Max Bergmeister, proprietor of the Lawrence Ice Company, 920 N. Lawrence Street in Philadelphia, PA:

Julius and Max Bergmeister, the Lawrence Ice Company, Philadelphia, PA, circa 1925

Max (born 1905) is the young man leaning on the rear of the truck. His younger brother Julius (born 1908) stands at the front. I’m far from a Photo Detective and did not do much research into the time period of the photo, but based on the style of the truck and the apparent youth of the brothers I would date it to 1925-1928. The scan of the photo is not of the highest quality, but there are a number of great details in the photo if you zoom in. For example, the building directly behind the front of the truck appears to be a telegraph or telephone station (note the sign with the bell in the upper left). The store is a stationery story that sells notions – this is just visible through the windshield of the truck. The confectionary store (behind rear of truck) serves Reid’s ice cream (“It’s the Best”). Just behind Max’s head you can see signs for the Ringling Brothers Circus that was coming to town on May 16. The most interesting thing I found while zooming in on the photo is the profile of a man or woman in the window on the second story to the left of the ice cream sign.

Max started out in the ice business, but by the 1930’s he owned what was called a “soda fountain” in those days. My dad was the envy of the neighborhood because his uncle had a candy and ice cream store! He owned the business for many years. His brother Julius worked as a driver, but at some point he became a Philadelphia fireman and had a long career with Engine Co. 51 in the same neighborhood. Another driver used to deliver ice cream to Max’s store – a young man named James Pointkouski (see a 1937 photo of James and his ice cream delivery truck here). One day James noticed the girl behind the counter. Excited, he asked Max, “Who is that?” Max responded with an indifferent shrug, “Oh, that’s just my sister.” I guess I should be grateful to Max for being a businessman, because at that moment his friend and deliveryman James met his future wife, Margaret. It would take many more years before they would become known as my grandparents.

[Written for the 120th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Business and Commerce]

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“One hour, okay?”  He looked at me skeptically. “Then you have to come back to me. We have places to go!”

“One hour – got it!” Wow, even time travel has restrictions. I turned on the machine and within a minute I was back in 1940 and walking the streets of Philadelphia. I didn’t have much time, but fortunately I had a good idea of where to go. I was a bit nauseated at first, but my focus became clearer and I could see where I was – Thompson Street. I needed to turn down Venango Street to get to Mercer Street, my first destination.

The weather in Philadelphia on April 4, 1940 was warmer than the previous day – nearly 63 degrees and dry. People were going about their daily business and the streets were not deserted – people were out walking. Cars were few. I could hear faint sounds of Big Band music coming from a house fortunate enough to own a radio. The music was great, but I also love the fashions of the 1940’s – there’s a guy in a suit and a fedora walking down the street. I look great dressed up in a skirt, blouse, and pumps – and only in 1940 could I get away with wearing a hat!

I quickly found Mercer Street. I knew the real census enumerator had been there the day before; I was just an interloper. I hoped my plan would work to avoid any suspicion as to who I really was. I tried to look official and get to know the neighbors on my way to almost the center of the block – 3553 Mercer Street. As I passed by #3505, a young girl came out carrying an even younger girl.  Were they sisters? I heard the older say, “Come on, Peanut, I’ll get you home.”  Oh my, I thought, that’s Rita Mroz and – no way!  Rita lived with her 3 sisters, 2 brothers, and Polish-born parents, but the little “Peanut” she was carrying was definitely not her sister. In fact, she was heading right towards my destination!  I watched while Rita safely delivered the young girl back home.

There it is!  3553 Mercer Street.  A 7-year-old girl sat on the front step, looking quite unhappy that her younger sister arrived back home.

Wow, this is too much! If I could only tell Aunt Joan about this, she would laugh so hard!  “Hi!” I said, “I love your curly hair.”

“I’m not allowed to talk to strangers,” replied the girl. And with that, she ran inside.

I knocked, and a handsome man came to the door. I was momentarily stunned, but I quickly recovered. “I work for the Government,” I stammered. Well, at least that’s not a lie. I explained that although the census enumerator had been there the day before, I was a supervisor performing a spot-check to ensure that the responses were recorded properly.

“Sure,” said the man, “come on in.”

As I sat down, I tried to look around without looking like I was casing the house for a future robbery. I could smell something wonderful – Oh my God, it’s Nan’s chicken soup! I silently wondered how I could ingratiate myself to the point of being invited for dinner. I heard a female voice call out from the kitchen, “Henush, who is it? Whoever it is, we don’t want any.” I thought, Hi, Nan! If she only knew…

The Pater Family, circa 1937

Her husband yelled an explanation back and I saw her take a peek from the kitchen. She looked so young! And pretty!

“Now, let’s see,” I said. I acted professionally and began asking all of the enumerator’s questions. “Name?”

“Henry Pater.” Boy, I thought, Mom was right about those grey eyes! He’s so much more handsome than any photo I ever saw.

“Age?”

“Twenty-eight.” Wow, kudos for telling the truth, Grandpop. Once we got to the same question for his wife, Mae, I heard her yell, “Twenty-seven!”  He looked over his shoulder and whispered, “I told the enumerator yesterday 31, but she’s really 32. Just don’t tell I told you!”

I learned about 7-year-old Joan and 4-year-old Anita, the “peanut” I saw earlier. Upon hearing her name, she appeared and hid behind her father’s leg. “This is Anita,” he said, “but I like to call her Chick!”  Anita giggled.

Finally, Henry told me his father-in-law, Joseph Zawodny, also lived there. Henry told me that Joseph was married. I didn’t need to ask where his wife was – I knew she was in a mental hospital. I would visit her on another trip back to the past. Where are you, I thought.  As if he heard me, I saw an older man peer out of the kitchen and ask Henry something in Polish. If only I could answer back or get the chance to talk to him! There is so much I want to know, and I’d like to know him so much.

I knew my time was running out.  Reluctantly, I thanked the Pater family and took my leave, waving bye to little Anita on my way out. I’m off to see your future husband now.

How do I get from the Port Richmond neighborhood to Northern Liberties fast? Sometimes future technology has its advantages, and I found my way more quickly than I thought possible.  Suddenly I was walking along Germantown Avenue. I couldn’t go up and down every street with my limited time – when I saw the meat packing plant on the corner of 3rd and Thompson, I knew I was in the right place. The census-taker wouldn’t walk these streets for two more days, but fortunately my destination was right on the corner so I didn’t have to fake my way through several houses.

Right on the corner at 1300 Germantown Avenue, I spotted a young boy sitting on the front step. I was stunned and forgot where I was. “Nick?” I asked.

The Pointkouski Family, circa 1938-9

The curly-haired boy looked up at me and smiled. “No, I’m Jimmy and I’m 5. I’ll be 6 this summer,” he said proudly, blue eyes sparkling.

“Oh,” I said, “it’s nice to meet you, Jimmy! I have a nephew named Nick – he’s 4 going on 5 this summer and he sure looks a lot like you!”

Suddenly a woman came to the door and she didn’t look happy that I was talking to her son. After I explained about the census, she invited me in and once again I tried to look around the home’s interior. This house rented for $5 more than my last stop, and I wanted to see if it was worth the extra money.  I also couldn’t stop looking at the woman, Margaret Pointkouski.  As I took down the information she provided, I questioned the spelling. “That’s with a U, not a W?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied, “that’s right.”

Margaret looked so – what was the word? Young! She was 28 years old – well, that’s what she told me, but I knew her 28th birthday would actually be the following week!  Just then the door opened and a young man entered. “Well, hello!” he said as he tipped his hat and leaned over to kiss Margaret.

Just as with Henry, the 29-year-old James looked so much more handsome than any photos I had ever seen. I couldn’t help but smile back.  When he heard who I was, or at least who I was pretending to be, he commented that he didn’t know there were “lady census takers”.

At that, Margaret rolled her eyes, “Oh, Pop!”

I said, “They thought some people might answer more questions from a woman.”

“Sure,” the elder Jimmy said, “I’ll tell you anything!”  He added, “I hope you get all of your info recorded.”

“Oh, I will,” I assured him. Just maybe not today.

The Pointkouski household was small with only the couple and their young son, Jimmy. I was bursting to tell Margaret that she would get pregnant late the following year and have a daughter, but I knew it wasn’t my place to speak of such things.

I asked my questions – not the ones I wanted to ask; I could not ask those questions. Like where are your siblings living right now? I hadn’t visited them yet. Oh, there were so many questions I could not ask. But I asked the “official” questions and I was very happy to hear the answers. All I kept thinking was: this is so cool!

I said my good-byes to 1940 and powered down the machine. Suddenly my boyfriend appeared, “Time’s up – let’s go out to eat. Did you find everyone you were looking for?”

“Not everyone, but it’s a start.  They’ll all still be there when I go back.”

###

[Written for the 117th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: 1940!]

I actually wrote this the night before the carnival topic was announced. I’ve told a few stories on this blog, but I never presented factual information in such a fictional way.  Technically, I’d call this creative non-fiction. To me, talking about finding a genealogical record (on my “machine”, aka my laptop) can sound a little boring, at least to non-genealogists. But how could a science fiction lover like myself resist seeing that search for the record as time travel! The idea took hold and would not let go.  Face it – bringing up those images, walking through the neighborhoods, reading all about the families – it is the closest thing we can get to time travel!

The Census facts came from the actual 1940 Census (source citations upon request, I used Ancestry to access). I saw the path the enumerator took and learned about the neighborhood layout from a combination of current maps and a 1942 map of Philadelphia courtesy of the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network. What was the weather like on those April days in 1940? Well, I learned about temperature and precipitation totals from The Franklin Institute! I knew about fashion from the movies and my parents. I have an idea what the characters looked like from photographs. As for the personalities of the individuals – everything I know, I learned from my parents. Of my grandparents, I knew my maternal grandmother the best.  Second would be my paternal grandmother, with my paternal grandfather third.  Least of all, I knew, or rather didn’t really know, my maternal grandfather – he died when I was five years old and I only met him a few times. I’m glad I could get to know them all in the 1940 Census!

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Recently Ancestry.com put up a new set of records called “Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records.” The collection contains a wide variety of miscellaneous records from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.  I actually found a few items of interest in the collection.  One subset of records comes from the Wackerman Funeral Home, a funeral home which still exists today but is no longer in its former location.  In these records, I found information on the funeral arrangements for my great-grandmother, Marie Bergmeister, who died in 1919 at the age of 43.  Marie (or more usually, Maria) left behind a husband, Joseph, and five children – including my grandmother Margaret, the youngest, who was not quite six years old.

The funeral home record for the costs of Marie Bergmeister's funeral, 1919.

I knew that my grandmother’s family was poor, but it was interesting to compare the bill for my great-grandmother’s burial to some of the others who died at the same time.

Casket

  • $55 – Gray crape
  • $65 – Chesnut
  • $90 – Square chesnut with ext handles
  • $125 – Solid maple
  • $200 – Solid mahoghany

Case

  • $14 – Pine
  • $35 – Chesnut

Hearse

  • $10.50 to $13.00

Service

  • $5 – Low Mass
  • $25 – Solemn Requiem

A more costly funeral found in the same records.

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In my quest to prepare for the 1940 Census by documenting all of my relatives and their potential 1940 addresses, I realized there was a relative or two I never found in earlier censuses.  One such relative was my great-grandfather’s half brother, Herman Goetz. Herman and his brother, Julius Goetz, left a rather good paper trail except I was never able to locate Herman – with certainty – in either the 1920 or 1930 Census.  The name “Herman Goetz” was not exactly “John Smith” but it was a common name among German immigrants, and I never really tried to determine if any of the Herman’s I found was “my” Uncle Herman.  Did he move out of state?  Did he return to Germany?

In genealogy, as in life, sometimes the simplest answer is the correct one.  I couldn’t find Herman in the 1920 Census because he died.  It’s almost comical that I never considered that possibility until I discovered it, quite by accident, in one of Ancestry’s newer databases: Pennsylvania, Church and Town Records, 1708-1985.

There does not appear to be a complete list of what records are included in this collection, but in my searching of various surnames I’ve found some hits in funeral home records and some Catholic cemetery records.  I found Herman in the Record Books for the John Kimmerle Funeral Homes.  He died on 11 October 1918 from pneumonia and was buried at Mt. Moriah Cemetery on 18 October.  His sister, Hilaury “Laura” Bergmeister Thuman, paid for the burial.

His death in 1918 finally answers the question of why my father never heard of him – my grandmother barely knew him since she was only 5 years old when he died.

When I first began my genealogical research, I asked my dad about relatives and he said to look for his mother’s “Uncle Julius Goetz”.  Neither of her parents was named Goetz, so I wasn’t clear how he was an uncle until I found her parents’ marriage record. Joseph Bergmeister and Maria Echerer were married in November 1897 in Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Oberbayern, Bayern (Bavaria), Germany. The record indicates that the bachelor Joseph was the son of the “deceased flour merchant Joseph Bergmeister of Munich and Ursula Dallmeier (who later married a Goetz), residing in Regensburg.”

Portion of the 1897 marriage record that details the status of Joseph Bergmeister's parents.

My great-grandfather’s mother re-married a man named Goetz, so any children from her second marriage are half siblings to my Bergmeister’s.  While I have a record in Julius’ hand that lists Ursula as his mother, I only have circumstantial evidence that Herman is also her son. (The circumstantial evidence is his “connection” to both Julius and the Bergmeister family – I can now send for his death certificate to verify his parents’ names.) Even if he was a step-brother to both Julius and the Bergmeister children, he was certainly involved in their lives based on the documents I have found. Here is Herman’s “paper trail” in the United States:

22 Apr 1911 – Herman sets sail from Antwerp aboard the S.S. Finland.  He is listed as Herman Götz, a 26-year-old locksmith from Regensburg whose father, also named Herman Götz, lives in Regensburg. He is traveling to his brother, Julius Götz, who is living at 500 Lehigh Avenue in Philadelphia, PA. On 03 May 1911, Herman’s ship arrives in New York City.

24 Mar 1913 – Herman receives a marriage license to marry Florentina Bottner. He is living at 6078 Kingsessing Street (the address of his half sister, Hilaury Bergmeister Thuman, and her husband, Max) and was born on 14 May 1885 in Germany. Florentina lived at 3458 Amber Street and was born on 14 Aug 1877 in Germany.  Parents’ names were not requested on the license, and neither had been married before.

11 Apr 1913 – My grandmother, Margaret Hermina Bergmeister, is born and apparently named after her Uncle Herman. She is baptized on 13 July 1913 and her godparents are Uncle Herman Goetz and Aunt Laura Bergmeister Thuman.

12 Aug 1914 – Herman’s wife dies. Her death certificate lists her name as Mrs. Flora Goetz with the same birth date as the marriage license above. Although she is listed as married, the information is provided by her mother and the address given is that of her mother’s and the same as provided in her marriage license. She died from peritonitis “due to ruptured uterus during child birth”.

12 Sep 1918 – Herman registers for the draft. His draft card shows he is living with his sister and brother-in-law at 6078 Kingsessing Street and Laura is listed as his nearest relative. He was born on 14 May 1885.  He is naturalized, although I have not yet found his papers. He is employed as a machinist at Standard Roller Bearing Co. at 49th and Merion. His physical description: tall, stout, grey eyes, red hair.

Front of Herman Goetz's WWI Draft Registration Card.

11 Oct 1918 – Herman died from pneumonia based on information found in the funeral home records. His address is the Thumans’ address on Kingsessing Street, which is directly across the street from the cemetery in which his is buried on 14 Oct 1918, Mt. Moriah Cemetery.

What little I do know of “Uncle Herman” is sad – although he quickly found love in his new country, his wife died in childbirth the following year and he died only four years later at the age of 32.  It is also the beginning of a very sad chain of events for my great-grandfather, Joseph Bergmeister. First, in October, 1918, his half-brother Herman dies.  Less than six months later, in February, 1919, his wife Maria dies at the age of 43, which leaves him as the single parent of five children.  Later that year, in November, his brother Ignaz Bergmeister dies at the age of 43.  Joseph would only live to 54 himself, dying in 1927. Of the Bergmeister and Goetz siblings, despite the young deaths of Herman Goetz and Joseph and Ignaz Bergmeister, their sister Laura Thuman lived to 73 and Julius Goetz lived to 84. There was a 16-year age difference between Hilaury and Julius, however, so Julius was the sole surviving sibling for many years after Laura’s death in 1943.

Although my grandmother never knew her “namesake” Uncle Herman, I assume she had some familial relationship with Uncle Julius.  Although my father knew who he was, he didn’t recall meeting him and their lives overlapped by quite a bit – Julius did not die until 1971.

If it wasn’t for the “accidental” searching of this new record collection on Ancestry, I would not have solved the mystery of what happened to Uncle Herman any time soon. Although Pennsylvania death indexes were recently made available, I would not have ordered any record for a man with the name Herman Goetz without more evidence as to the correct one, which I now have. I hope to eventually find a photograph of both Uncle Julius and Uncle Herman – I recently learned the name of Julius’ grandson and plan on contacting him soon.  Even if I can’t see what Herman looked like, I’m glad I learned what I did about him so his too-short life can be remembered. That’s what family is for…

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Faith of our fathers, holy faith!
We will be true to thee till death.

~ Faith of Our Fathers1

The theme for the 99th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy is Religious Rites.  My ancestry is mostly Polish and a quarter Bavarian.  Since Poland is about 99% Roman Catholic and Bavaria is the Catholic region of Germany, it is no surprise that my family is Catholic.  I come from a long line of Catholic ancestors with the exception of one great-grandmother who was Protestant.

For my Catholic ancestors in Poland and Bavaria, religion played a major role in everyday social and cultural life of the towns and villages.  All of the vital records I’ve found for these ancestors come directly from church records of baptisms, marriages, and burials.  It is easy to see that my ancestors’ lives were intertwined with the church’s rites – many of my ancestors were baptized, married, and laid to rest in the same parish.  It is impossible to know if my ancestors had a strong faith or if the church merely represented a cultural presence in their lives.  Regardless of the answer, I am Catholic today by choice, but also in part due to the faith of all the fathers and mothers in my family history.

Top Row: My Grandmother and her two children - my father and aunt. Bottom Row: My brother, me, and my niece. All photos were taken on the day we received First Holy Communion.

Once my ancestors immigrated to the United States, they continued to practice their faith and their American-born children were baptized, made communion, confirmed, and married in the church.  Whether or not my great-grandparents or grandparents had a strong faith, it was still passed down.  Today, my parents, brother, and I all share a deep love for our Roman Catholic faith.  For us, the celebrations of baptism, Holy Communion, confirmation, and marriage are not merely excuses for a worldly celebration, but they represent defining moments in our walks with God.

Faith is a rather serious topic, and since my genealogy adventures are usually on the lighter side, I’ve decided to approach the topic a little differently.  In honor of the seven sacraments2 celebrated by Catholics, I present a list of unique, odd, or curious facts about my family’s participation in religious rites!

7 Sacramental Fun Facts About My Family

1.       My maternal grandfather, Henry Pater, did not know he was baptized at all much less in the Catholic Church.  When he and his wife had their civil marriage blessed in the church, the record indicates that he received a dispensation, presumably for not being Catholic.  However, I found the record of his baptism at Our Lady of Grace Church in Langhorne, PA.  My mother theorizes that since his mother was the Protestant in the family and they were living with his father’s Catholic parents and grandmother, the Catholic half of the family must have had him baptized without his mother’s knowledge!

2.       We do not know where my paternal grandfather, James Piontkowski (later known as Pointkouski), was baptized.  I plan on searching the churches near the address the family lived in 1910 when he was born, but Philadelphia is a very large city with many Catholic churches.  The irony of not knowing where he was baptized in the city is that I found his brother’s baptismal record at Św. Stanisława in Warsaw, Poland – another very large, very Catholic city.  I thought that would be impossible to locate the correct church, but it was an easy find.  Surprisingly, I found out that Philadelphia has more churches than Warsaw!  According to the 1912 Catholic Enclyclopedia3, Warsaw had 414,620 Catholics and only 40 churches and chapels.  In comparison, the 1911 entry for Philadelphia4 indicated that there were 525,000 Catholics in the city in 1910 with 434 churches!

3.       My mother and aunt have the unique designation of being the oldest baptismal candidates in my family tree.  Their father was the agnostic son of the Catholic-Protestant marriage, and their mother was the lukewarm daughter of Catholics.  For whatever the reason, my aunt, who was born in 1932, and my mother, who was born in 1935, were both baptized together at Nativity B.V.M. – around 1938-39, likely at the insistence of their maternal grandfather.  My mother was old enough to remember walking into the church, and she remembers her horror when the baptismal waters wet her fancy new dress.  My aunt just remembers being embarrassed that she was so old and getting baptized like a baby.

4.       In Philadelphia, or upon meeting a fellow Philadelphian, it is common to ask, “What parish are you from?” rather than “What neighborhood are you from?”  The Catholic identity was so strong, and the parish boundary rules were so strict, that parishes and neighborhoods were one and the same.   I received the sacraments of Baptism, Reconciliation, Holy Communion, and Confirmation in the same parish (Our Lady of Calvary).  While my parents and grandmothers also received the sacraments in the same parishes (St. Peter’s, Nativity B.V.M., and St. Adalbert’s), my brother and grandfathers did not.  My maternal grandmother can add to her list one more sacrament received at the same parish – Marriage.

5.       I never thought to ask my parents about their Confirmation names until writing this post.  In the Catholic tradition in the U.S., the candidate often adopts the name of a saint that they admire.  In my family, the confirmation names of my father, mother, brother, and me are John, Patricia, Richard, and Jamie.

6.       If it was not for the baptismal record of a collateral relative, I never would have found the birthplace of my Bavarian great-grandparents.  All other records including passenger lists and death records did not list the town from which the Bergmeister’s came.  It was only in looking for their children’s baptismal records that the town was identified; their oldest son’s record listed the town name!  This information may not always be included, but the fact that they attended a German-speaking Catholic church helped (St. Peter’s).

7.       According to Canon Law, a person’s baptismal register should also include annotations for their confirmation and marriage or holy orders.  I’m not sure when this rule was instituted – I’ve occasionally seen it in my ancestors’ records, but not always.  But I have a rather curious honor – I entered my confirmation date into my own baptismal record!  In 1981 my friend and I were helping out at school, and one of the tasks that Sister needed help with was the recording of confirmation data in the parish registers, including our class’s confirmation from 1979.  Since I was baptized in the same parish (my friend was not), I got to annotate my own baptismal record.  I don’t think too many folks can say they’ve done that one.

Down in adoration falling,

Lo! the sacred Host we hail,

Lo! o’er ancient forms departing

Newer rites of grace prevail;

Faith for all defects supplying,

Where the feeble senses fail.

~ Tantum Ergo5

References:

1Faith of Our Fathers is a hymn with words by Frederick W. Faber, 1849 and the refrain (cited above) by James G. Walton, 1874.

2Get out your catechism, class!  If you forgot what all seven are (or if you are not Catholic), they are: Baptism, Reconciliation, Holy Communion, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick.

3Palmieri, A. (1912). Archdiocese of Warsaw. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved October 30, 2010 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15555a.htm

4Loughlin, J. (1911). Archdiocese of Philadelphia. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved October 30, 2010 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11793b.htm

5Tantum Ergo is a hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas written in 1264.

[Submitted for the 99th Carnival of Genealogy: Religious Rites]

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…and detailing their labors

Recently I finally admitted defeat with my complete lack of organization of all things genealogical, so I’m on a crusade to rebuild my database from scratch and take care of some of those pesky little details like, oh, you know, source citations and whatnot.  In addition to documenting the sources I’ve used, I also wanted to make sure I document all of the details from documents that I may have previously neglected.

In light of this, I had a few minutes of my lunch hour to spare today so I decided to make sure I had some digital copies of certain records.  For no reason in particular, I decided to copy the U.S. World War II Draft Registration cards for my great-grandfather, Louis Pater, and his brother, Stephan.  I’ve had good luck in researching the Pater family – I know where and when they were born and can trace the family back a few generations.  But in looking at the draft cards, which undoubtedly I had already seen at some point in my research, I came upon the curious fact that in 1942 the brothers worked for the same company.

But that’s not the spooky part…

The Pater brothers worked for the Ardross Worsted Company.  The company name meant nothing to me.  But the address made my eyes widen in disbelief…it is about a half a mile from where I was sitting at my desk in work.  What are the odds of that?

Employer information from the World War II Draft Registration card for Stephan Pater. Source: Ancestry.com

I knew the entire Pater family worked in the textile mills – not only in Philadelphia, but in the town in Poland from which they immigrated, Żyrardów.   But I assumed the factories were in the neighborhood in which they lived – which is not close to the neighborhood where I work (at least when you consider that they didn’t have a car).  This factory, which is no longer standing, was literally blocks from where I work.  In another coincidence, my career involves today’s shrinking U.S. textile industry, so in yet another way I am “connected” to my ancestors (and how I knew that a “worsted” company was a textile manufacturer).

Last January I wrote a post entitled Fun with Maps in Philadelphia in which I highlighted the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network.  This is a wonderful resource, and it allowed me to see my current work neighborhood through the eyes of my great-grandfather and his brother.  One of the available maps is a “Land Use Map” compiled by the Works Progress Administration in 1942 – the same year the Pater brothers registered for the “Old Man’s Draft.”  The map is available courtesy of the Map Collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia, but the GeoHistory project provides it as an interactive map with an overlay for current map images.  Here is where the Ardross Company resided in 1942:

Location of Ardross Worsted Company, Philadelphia, in 1942.

Just when I think I have gleaned all the information I can from some particular document, I am surprised by some detail that I overlooked.  It was a pleasant surprise to find out that my great-grandfather and I worked in the same neighborhood sixty years apart!

Have you seen, virtually or in reality, the workplaces of your ancestors?  You might be surprised by what you find!

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The Philadelphia Church Project is a unique website that describes itself as a “wild and wacky guide to the best religious architecture the city has to offer.”   The site offers the following questions for readers to ponder:

What does a building mean to you? Is it just a thing, a purely physical being? Or is there substance beyond the bricks and mortar? Might there be something more there—something more than the sum of its parts?

The site author visits various churches in and around Philadelphia and provides a glimpse into the history, architecture, and current status of the parish.  Most of the churches are Roman Catholic, but several Protestant churches have also been visited.  While the primary focus is the wonderful architecture of these old churches, the site also offers a comical take on the neighborhood or history of the area.

In addition to the Philadelphia Church Project website, there is also a Philadelphia Church Project blog.  The blog offers additional photos – sometimes of the vintage variety – and information.  Sample the site with these posts:

As a genealogist with solid Catholic roots in Philadelphia, these sites are wonderful in documenting some of the grand churches of my ancestors’ neighborhoods.  Take, for example, the Project’s page on St. Adalbert’s.  The parish was founded in 1904 – and my great-grandfather was one of the founding parishoners.  While you won’t find out that sort of information on the Project’s pages, they will help you “see” some of the churches of your ancestors!

Even if you are not from Philadelphia, if you have an interest in architecture I encourage you to browse the site and see what our city has to offer.

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At the entrance to Greenmount Cemetery in Philadelphia

At the entrance to Greenmount Cemetery in Philadelphia

Earlier this month I visited Greenmount Cemetery in Philadelphia.  I was hoping to find a tombstone for a couple that is connected, though likely not related, to my family – Carl and Sophia Mach.  I have been researching this couple for an upcoming post, so I thought a visit to their grave would be appropriate to “end” the story, so to speak.  While there, I wanted to re-visit the grave shared by my great-grandfather, Louis Pater, and his father, Joseph Pater, even though their grave is not marked with a stone.

Greenmount Cemetery is located at 4301 N. Front Street in Philadelphia (phone 215-329-4747).  I hoped to find out more about the history of the cemetery, but so far I have not been able to discover much information.  I was surprised by the sheer size of the cemetery – approximately 75 acres.  There are thousands of graves, and it is still being used today as a “active” burial ground.

The cemetery was opened around 1875.  Much like the neighborhood it resides in, the ethnicity of the cemetery “residents” has changed over the years.  Some of the oldest graves from the early 1900’s have German names as well as Irish and Polish.  The newer graves have many other nationalities including those with ancestry from various Asian and Latin American countries.

I was pleasantly surprised that the office was not only open and staffed, but eager to assist me.  A gentleman looked up my family names in a card catalog and checked to see if there were others with the surname besides those I mentioned.  This was fortunate, because I had forgotten that in addition to my great and 2nd great-grandfather, my great-grandmother was also buried here with her son.  If the staff member had not asked me if she was a relative, I would have missed the opportunity to visit her grave, which held an even bigger surprise – a tombstone!  This was surprising for two reasons – first, not many of my relatives have tombstones, which is why I don’t show any photographs of them on this site.  But I was more surprised because I thought I remembered visiting this cemetery before in the early 1990s, shortly after beginning my genealogical research.  And if I am correct in that memory, I distinctly remember that there was no tombstone – which means I either just thought I visited this particular cemetery or I somehow didn’t find the right grave when I did!

One of the few tombstones in my family: my great-grandmother, Elizabeth PATER, and her son Louis

One of the few tombstones in my family: my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Miller Pater, and her son Louis

Another reason that the card information was helpful is that, in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Mach, their grave contained two other individuals that did not have tombstones.  I was able to surmise the relationship of these individuals to the Mach’s because of my earlier research.

Besides looking up the family information, I was provided with detailed maps of the sections that held the requested graves and directions on how to find the sites.  Not all cemetery offices are this friendly to researchers, so this was a delight – especially since I was short on time for the visit.  The cemetery is so large that graves would be next to impossible to find without a map.

Although there is little historical information about this cemetery on the internet (or an official site for the cemetery itself), some of the internment records are available on microfilm from both the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and Family Search.  The FHC film rolls are:

  • Cemetery records, A-G 1880-1929 –  FHL US/CAN Film [ 503333 ]
  • Cemetery records, G-K 1880-1929 –  FHL US/CAN Film [ 503334 ]
  • Cemetery records, L-M 1880-1929 –  FHL US/CAN Film [ 503335 ]
  • Cemetery records, M-W 1880-1929 –  FHL US/CAN Film [ 503336 ]
  • Cemetery records, W-Z 1880-1929 –  FHL US/CAN Film [ 503337 ]
  • Cemetery records, A-K 1930-1966 –  FHL US/CAN Film [ 503338 ]
  • Cemetery records, K-Z 1930-1966 –  FHL US/CAN Film [ 503339 ]

The cemetery is also listed on Find a Grave with more photos and information about some graves of famous professional baseball players who are buried there.

Greenmount Cemetery is so large, you forget you are in the middle of a busy section of Philadelphia.

Greenmount Cemetery is so large, you forget you are in the middle of a busy section of Philadelphia.

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While researching the 1910 Census on Ancestry.com, I came across an unusual error.  Since others may find similar issues with their research, I thought I’d share my way to “get around” the error.  My search was for some families in Philadelphia, PA with the surnames Miller and Mach.  When I click on the census image for the correct individual, they are nowhere to be found on the page itself.  That is when I noticed the Enumeration District numbers.  At the top of the page, it says “You are here” with the location of the record.  In this case, the end reads “Philadelphia > Philadelphia Ward 19 > District 328.”  However, the image located on that page shows an ED of 294.  By clicking on the hyperlink for Ward 19 in the “you are here” address, you can see the list of all EDs in the ward, or ED 291 through 332.  Guessing that perhaps the sequencing of the images got messed up, I went to District 294 instead.  Sure enough, what is supposed to be ED 294 is ED 328 instead.  I also found some of ED 328 in 295.  I alerted Ancestry about the problem months ago, but it still is not fixed.

Moral of the story for users of Ancestry.com:  For Philadelphia researchers – take note if you have relatives living in Ward 19 in 1910!  For all researchers –  if the ED on the image does not match the ED on the index, try the batch of images from the incorrect ED.  If you are lucky they will be from the ED you are looking for!  I would be curious to know if anyone else has encountered this indexing problem where the index itself is correct, but the images are loaded incorrectly.

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I was born and raised in Philadelphia, one of the most historic cities in the U.S.  Even so, my neighborhood was far removed from the main historic sites like the Liberty Bell, Betsy Ross’ house, or Independence Hall.  So far removed that the neighborhood is usually called the Far Northeast.  As the name implies, it is to the far northeast of the city bordering Bucks County, Pennsylvania and it was not fully incorporated into the city limits until 1854.

Since this area of the city was mostly “settled” in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, we never knew that it even had a history.  But local streams had exotic Indian names like Neshaminy and Poquessing so we could only imagine what that history may have been.  I eventually learned that the area was once the land of the Lenape. The Lenape land became farm land for English and Swedish settlers, then summer homes for Philadelphia’s wealthy elite, then the sprawling middle class pseudo-suburb that it remains today.  Within all of those various uses for the land lies a rich history.  A saint played in my backyard.  A Founding Father was born just a few miles away. William Penn’s surveyor, who planned the city of Philadelphia, chose this area to live.  And perhaps most exciting of all, George Washington’s army camped a mile away on their way to Yorktown and marched down what is now called Frankford Avenue.

When the time came to purchase a home, I decided to leave my old neighborhood and I set my sights on “East Philadelphia” – otherwise known as New Jersey.  I used to drive through the area of Palmyra and Riverton, and I liked the old houses and charming vibe.  But could these sleepy towns compete with Philadelphia’s history?  I soon learned that history is all around us – sometimes even in our own backyard.

Palmyra, my new hometown, was only officially formed in 1894.  But the history of the land itself was as fascinating as my old neighborhood’s history!  Originally this area was also the land of the Lenape and served as a vast hunting area for the community.  In 1689, the first settlers showed up – the Swedes – and it became the northern portion of New Sweden.

About three generations later, descendants of one of those first Swedish settlers, Elias Toy, built a stone farmhouse in 1761.  That house, slightly modified in the ensuing years, still serves as a residence — about 100 yards from my backyard!  It is the oldest house in Palmyra and the surrounding area.  The view of it from my backyard  is blocked by trees, but here’s a view from the road on its other side.

The Toy-Morgan House, Palmyra, NJ, originally built in 1761.
The Toy-Morgan House, Palmyra, NJ, originally built in 1761.

The Toy family had about 300 acres of farmland and orchards, and most of this area forms the town of Palmyra today, most notably my own property and street!  According to Life on the Delaware: A History of Palmyra, “legend has it that Benjamin Franklin paused here more than once while on his voyages to visit his son.”  The house remained in the possession of the Toy family until 1848, when it was sold to the Morgan’s – another family that had lived in the area for many generations. He  expanded the size of the house in 1853 to its present form. You can read more about the house in a recent article or see a rather historic drawing of the house that looks remarkably like today’s photo.

This is the view from the Toy-Morgan House looking north at the Delaware River
This is the view from the Toy-Morgan House looking north at the Delaware River. That’s an abandoned Philadelphia factory to the left on the other side.

The area surrounding this house changed over the years.  In the 1830s the railroad tracks were laid and the Camden & Amboy Railroad made the area more town-like than farmland.  Then it was referred to as “Texas” – and perhaps there was a bit of a wild west feel with horses and farms.  But in 1849, the name Palmyra first appears on a map of Burlington County, reportedly christened by another Toy family descendant.

What I find interesting about the Palmyra, Riverton, and Cinnaminson area in New Jersey is that you can still see remnants of several eras of the area’s history – the shadows of history left behind.  These shadows create some remarkable juxtapositions.  For example, the Toy-Morgan house reminds us of the early settlers, but its view of the river is now partially blocked by condominiums. The local produce market, Hunter’s Farm in Cinnaminson, has a sign announcing “Settled 1760″, but there is a Wal-mart and a highway about a mile down the road.  In Riverton and in some sections of Palmyra, there are brightly colored Victorian houses that have been gracing the streets for 150 years with newer homes mixed in between.  The new “light rail” uses the old railroad tracks from the 1830’s.  Along the river, some of the magnificent summer mansions of wealthy Philadelphians mingle with newer, more modest, modern homes.  And, though the median income for the town was $51,000  according to the 2000 census, it’s the home of a car dearlership where you can buy a Bentley or an Aston-Martin.  If you look beyond the new and the modern, you’ll see a fragment or a shadow of  history from one time period or another.

I have taken great pride in researching the places my ancestors lived and worked.  Some of the town histories from Poland and Bavaria go back to the middle ages!  Back when their hometowns were established, mine was wilderness whose history remains hidden. Who would have thought there could be so much history in my own backyard?

Spring beckons as the sun sets over the Delaware River in Palmyra, NJ.
Spring beckons as the sun sets over the Delaware River in Palmyra.

[Written for the 71st edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Local History.]

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I’ve long admired DearMYRTLE and Ask Olive Tree Genealogy for answering so many questions from their readers.  But I’ve been a little jealous too, because I wished that *I* had some questions to answer.  Today I received a question via a comment to an earlier post, so I’ve decided to play the “Dear Abby” role perfected by Myrt (aka Pat) and Lorine and answer the question as a new blog post (especially since I’ve been quite slack in new blog posts lately)!

In two previous posts, I discussed finding Philadelphia Marriage Records: Philadelphia Marriage Indexes Online looked at the Family Search Labs site with the indexes from Philadelphia marriages from 1885 to 1951.  Then, When You Can’t Find Grandpa’s Marriage Record explored alternative marriage locations around the Philadelphia area if your ancestors lived here but the record is nowhere to be found in the above mentioned index.  But today a reader asked a very good question that I hadn’t fully addressed in either post: what about pre-1885 marriage records?

Brad asks:

What was the case with Philadelphia marriages prior to 1885? Were marriage certificate required at any point? I’m trying to find out more on my 2nd great grandparents and was wondering if I should be trying to hunt down their marriage certificate (they married in 1884).

Good question, Brad!  Cities and states had different requirements as to when civil registration began.  In Philadelphia, civil registration of births, deaths, and marriages was required beginning on July 1, 1860.  Records from that date through December 31, 1885 are available at the Philadelphia City Archives.  According to the Philadelphia City Archives site:

The marriage records give the date of marriage, names, ages, races, generic places of residence and birth for both the bride and groom, minister’s name and address, and denomination of marriage performed.

Most of the indexes are arranged alphabetically by first letters of last and first names, and then by year. If one of the parties to the marriage was Thomas Green and the marriage occurred on 31 August 1873, then one would look at the “G” volume, open to the section which included all people whose first names began with the letter “T” and then look at 1873. There are no separate indexes for men and women – all names are filed in the same index. Most of the indexes of this type stop between 1877 and 1880 so one would then have to look at the yearly indexes for the years 1877 – 1885.

All marriage indexes, registers and original returns have been microfilmed.

The Philadelphia City Archives is located at 3101 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104.  They can be reached by phone at 215-685-9400 (messages only) or 215-685-9401 (receptionist).  If you do not live in Philadelphia or are unable to visit the archives in person, they will search the records for you.  Send a written request with as much information as possible.  If you know the exact date of the marriage, the fee is $10.  If the exact date is unknown, a search will be made for $10 per each 3-month period searched (includes the certificate cost). Note that these fees are current as of today per the Archives’ FAQ page at http://www.phila.gov/Records/Archives/FAQ.html.

Brad, as you can see, the time period for your 2nd great-grandparents is covered with existing records.  If you can’t come to Philadelphia to perform a search yourself, the fee to search the entire year is a bit steep at $40 – so you may want to seek alternative means for look-up such as a local researcher.  Another option is to subscribe to a genealogy mailing list specific to Philadelphia such as Philly-Roots hosted by Rootsweb/Ancestry.  Often someone will ask other listers for help and you can make arrangements offline at less than the archives’ cost.

That might help Brad, but the question remains for others with roots that are deeper into Philadelphia’s history than either Brad’s family or my own: What about earlier records before July 1, 1860?

Since there was no formal registration required by the city (or state) before that date, there are few options when searching for marriage information.  One could try the following resources:

  1. Church Records – Try using city directories and old maps to determine possible churches.  If your ancestors were Catholic and you are lookingfor a record prior to 1920, one useful resource is the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center, which is located on the grounds of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary at 100 E. Wynnewood Ave in Wynnewood, PA.  Contact them at 610-667-2125 for more information and fees for research.
  2. Newspaper Announcements  – Very few old newspapers have been indexed.  Genealogy Bank has some Philadelphia papers from 1719 through 1922.
  3. Marriage Registers exist for some years, but they can be difficult to find for the pre-1860 era.  Try the Historical Society of Pennsylvania or search through the FHL catalog.

I hope this has been helpful to other Philadelphia researchers.  If anyone else has any research questions, I’ll try my best to help so please don’t be shy about asking!

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Title page from McElroy's Philadelphia City Directory, 1858
McElroy’s Philadelphia City Directory, 1858

If you have roots in Philadelphia (or southern New Jersey…more on that later), or if you are simply interested in maps or history, there is a very interesting site called the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network.  There are many useful resources here.  On the Resource Browser page, you’ll find all sorts of interesting things including browse-able city directories from 1856, 1858, 1861, and 1866 as well as various maps and aerial photos.  But to really see the maps in their full glory, and see the usefulness of modern technology at its finest, visit the Interactive Maps Viewer.  There you can view the city’s current street maps on top of historical maps from various years including 1942, 1903, and even 1855.

Besides being a lot of fun, these overlays are extremely useful for genealogical research.  For example, you’ve found an address from a census record, draft card, or city directory, but the street does not show up on Google Maps because it is no longer in existence or no longer called by the same name.  Although you can’t search for it by name, you can easily scan the current neighborhood and see the old names underneath.  As a “big” example of such a name change, I used the map to go to where John F. Kennedy Blvd is today.  This is the sprawling boulevard that leads up to the city’s Art Museum.  By unchecking the overlay for the current street map, I could clearly see the street’s previous name: Pennsylvania Boulevard.

The 1942 maps have many businesses, and especially factories, that have long since closed up shop.  By looking at your ancestor’s neighborhood, you can see many of the businesses that were in existence back then.  Or, you can see your ancestor’s place of employment on the map if you find the address via draft registration cards or social security applications. In the screen shot below you can see an example of some of the business names.

Factories in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Philadelphia, 1942
Factories in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Philadelphia, 1942

For me, it was interesting to see some streets from the city’s history that are now gone due to things like the construction of I-95.  Even more fun is to view the “newer” neighborhoods, such as Northeast Philadelphia where I grew up, and see few streets on the old maps.  Instead, most of the area is farms, and some wealthier individuals that owned a lot of land are noted by name on the map.

For those with New Jersey roots, there is a 1930 aerial map.  Many current neighborhoods did not exist back then!

If you are having trouble locating a Philadelphia street on a current map of the city, a wonderful site is the Historic Street Name Index at PhillyHistory.org.  The image below is a partial screen shot to provide an example.  In this case, it clearly shows the name change of three different streets to Alaska, then Alaska St. also changes to Kater.  It also tells you what year the name change occurred and if the street is still in existence today.

The Historic Street Name Index
The Historic Street Name Index

Any city goes through many changes throughout its history.  Of course, some things remain the same.  You can still find Independence Hall in the same place as it was in 1776!

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Once upon a time, growing up in Philadelphia, I enjoyed playing in the snow.

Building a snowman, circa winter of 1970-71

Building a snowman, circa winter of 1970-71

Brother Drew, Lou C the cat, Shona, & Donna

Winter of 1976-77. Left: Donna and friend Shona Ferguson. Right: Brother Drew, Lou C the cat, Shona, & Donna in my backyard

Sledding, circa 1978

Sledding, circa 1977. The hill became the parking garage for Frankford Hospital.

Then, I grew up.  As a grown-up, snow became rather unpleasant for two reasons.  First, I had to shovel it.  Since being cold and physical exertion don’t fall anywhere on my top 100 list of desirable things to do, you can only imagine how much I enjoy that activity.  Second, I had to drive to work in it. To educate all of the snow-lovers out there that think I’m a wimp because of that statement, the street I lived on in Philadelphia never saw a snow plow until I was in my 30’s.  Places north of us that routinely get twelve feet of snow have efficient procedures in place for its removal.  My city did not.  The main roads are plowed and salted, of course, but the “secondary” roads were not.  My parents’ street must have been a “tertiary” street, because it was left behind even when the city got around to the secondary streets (I am happy to say this has since been corrected since the late 1990’s).  As a result, once a significant snowfall occurred, our street would become a sheet of ice.  My past experience navigating a vehicle in these conditions would qualify me to drive a zamboni®.  To drive to snowless roads, one had a choice between going around a curve and up a hill, going down a steep, icy hill, or maneuvering a bit out of the way on icy but flat streets.  The latter route became my favorite – and at times I considered parking my car on the clean street and walking the 3-4 blocks to my house.

After extreme-shoveling and driving on ice, snow lost any appeal it may have once had in my youth.  Even though Philadelphia does not usually get much snow during winter, we have had our incidents.  The most famous of all was the Blizzard of 1996 which took place from January 6-8.  Although the blizzard hit most of the East Coast, Philadelphia had the distinction of receiving more snow than anywhere else.  The offical snowfall total was 30.7 inches, and of that, 27.6 inches fell in a 24-hour period – a new record.

My parents' backyard after the Blizzard of '96.  Compare to the Winter 1976-77 photos above - it is the same fence.

My parents' backyard after the Blizzard of '96. Compare to the Winter 1976-77 photos above - it is the same fence.

With that much snow, the city had difficulty plowing even the main roads – there was no hope for neighborhood streets.  There was simply nowhere to put all of the snow, so they dumped it into the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, which later caused flooding problems.  The main concern for my family was how to eventually drive off of the street.  In fact, my mother and I were scheduled to go to Florida the following week – the only time we’ve ever traveled anywhere together.  We were convinced we’d still be snowed in by then.  But, fortunately, a miraculous pick-up truck with a plow attached came down our street.  We still had to shovel about five feet of the street to get to that lane, but it was better than all of it!

Besides the occasional 2-3 feet of snow, even more spectacular was the Ice Storms that occurred frequently during the winter of 1993-94.  At this time (as well as the Blizzard of ’96), I had a 22-mile commute to work down I-95, a road that can be deadly even on sunny and dry days thanks to Philadelphia drivers (and this was before everyone had a cell phone stuck to their face).  Pretty?  Yes!  Fun?  You’ve got to be kidding.

As for winter sports, I skied.  Once.  The best part about it was coming in from the cold to a warm place and having something hot to drink.  It’s just not for me, probably because my body is colder than average and it is just uncomfortable to be below sixty degrees.

This is the story of my discontent of winter.  Why do I live in Philadelphia?  I ask myself that question often.  It’s home.  It may not be forever, but for now it’s home.  The “fun” part of winter got left behind with my childhood, never to return.  Well, maybe it will return some day…if I get to spend winter somewhere warm.  The photo below was taken in December, and I was  finally content during winter!

Bellows Air Force Station, Hawaii, December 2002

Bellows Air Force Station, Hawaii, December 2002

[Written for the 64th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: A Winter Photo Essay.]

Essay title is a play on Shakespeare’s famous line from Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York” (also used as a novel title by John Steinbeck.)

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This week I visited the local hospital when my father went to the ER (it’s okay, he’s fine now!).  It seems as though I visit there about once a year for one parent or the other, except I’ve been there three times since Christmas and once was for myself!  Fortunately, it’s very close to my parents’ house.  As I walked towards the entrance to the ER, I noticed the old building that is seemingly out of place with the rest of the hospital.  Ever since then I can’t stop thinking about the history that is all around us – history which we are often unaware.

The neighborhood in which I grew up, the section of Philadelphia called the Far Northeast, was not developed until the 1950s and 60s, but it has a rich history that goes far beyond the current housing developments and shopping centers.  It’s unfortunate that we never learned about this local history in school, like why so many things had “Indian” names or why streets had funny names or who the people were whose names were on the public schools.  Even though my ancestors are not connected to that corner of Philadelphia, I am, and I’m fascinated by what was there before me.

My parents bought their brand new house in 1961; I arrived six years later.  Frankford Hospital’s Torresdale Division was built when I was a child.  I don’t recall what the corner looked like before then, but I remember sledding on a hill that is now a parking garage needed as the hospital expanded.  But two remnants of the entire area’s past remain standing on the hospital’s grounds: the old house and a chapel.  Both belonged to the Drexel family.

The grounds were purchased in 1870 as a summer home for Francis A. Drexel, his wife, and three young daughters.  The Drexel’s were very wealthy; Francis’ father, an immigrant from Austria, made a fortune in the banking industry.  The family lived in the city on Locust Street, but packed up for the summer to escape the city heat and spend time in “the country”.  This farmland area had only been incorporated into the city of Philadelphia in 1854; prior to that, the land consisted of small villages whose names are known today as neighborhood’s names.  In 1870 when the Drexel family first came to their summer home, the area, though officially part of the city, was country-like with a lot of open space, trees, creeks, hills, farms, and very few homes.  This whole Torresdale area of the city would remain mostly “open space” until the 1950s.

The Drexel family name is remembered today for two main reasons:  Francis’ brother Anthony founded Drexel University in Philadelphia, and Francis’ daughter Katherine is a saint.  Katherine’s story is admirable no matter what religion you believe in.  In today’s language, we’d say she “had it all” because of her family’s wealth.  But she gave up all of the worldly things she could have had for a much worthier cause.

Katherine’s mother, Hannah, died only weeks after giving birth to her.  When Francis re-married to Emma Bouvier (a relative of Jackie Kennedy), Emma became step-mother to Katherine and her sister Elizabeth.  Francis and Emma had a third daughter together, Louise.

When Katherine was a young woman, the family vacationed out west.  She was appalled at the poverty endured by Native Americans.  Likewise, she saw much suffering and poverty among African-Americans in the south.  Many “rich” women like Katherine would have simply donated large sums of money to help these poor people.  But Katherine wanted to do more; she wanted to serve these people.  At the age of 33, she decided to become a nun.  She would go on to found a religious order of sisters called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, whose mission was to serve and educate the poor, specifically native and African-Americans.

Katherine became “Mother Katherine” as she led this order of missionary sisters in their mission, and she used much of her own personal inheritance to fund schools and convents.  Katherine died in 1955 at the age of 96.  She became “St. Katherine Drexel” in 2000 – only the second American-born saint.

Back to her early life and what she has to do with my old neighborhood…  When the Drexel’s first bought their summer estate, which has been reported to equal anywhere from 90-300 acres of Northeast Philadelphia, Katherine was 11 years old.  A chapel was built directly behind the mansion, and even today it is an impressive sight on the hill.  When Katherine founded her religious order, she housed novices on the grounds until their convent was built in nearby Bensalem.   The chapel, and the entire family estate, was called St. Michael’s.  Today, their old home is used as an office building.  The chapel was desanctified for secular use and is now used as a “wellness center”.  I once got a view inside as a teenager, and it was impressive even though it was no longer a chapel at the time.

The history of my neighborhood is much older than Katherine Drexel and her family.  But, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight one “era” of the neighborhood.  Long before the housing boom, my street was part of the Drexel grounds.  It’s somehow nice to know that a saint enjoyed summers riding horses with her sisters on what became my house, block, church, school, and neighborhood.  Maybe that’s why I always felt blessed to be there.

For more information:

[I hope to provide more posts on Northeast Philadelphia, other Philadelphia neighborhoods, and the small town in New Jersey where I now live.  All of these areas have a rich history that few seem to either know or care about today.  I'm afraid written history doesn't go back as far as in Europe, but I should at least be able to find information about the area at least back to the 1600s!]

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