Month: June 2021

J.J. MacDermott Wins the U.S. Open

A writer calling from Ireland with a research request, alerted us to a forgotten golf celebrity in our parish history!

J.J. would have been about four years old in 1895, when a group of local enthusiasts improvised a nine-hole golf course at the Belmont Cricket Club (then located at 49th and Chester). The first four holes – made from tomato cans — were on the cricket club grounds; the other five were in a field next door, on the other side of an eight-foot fence that determined golfers had to climb! The golfers formed their own Belmont Golf Association in 1896, and, in 1897, the new club moved to 52nd and Chester, where legend said the old barn used as the clubhouse, “had once been the dwelling place for a Lenape chief named Aronimink, an odd name but one the BGA members eventually adopted and took with them to another site outside of town.” Little J.J. was fascinated, watching this strange new sport, and made his own golf course in his grandparents’ nearby orchard. At age 9, he “marched over to the club, which was, by that point, being called Aronimink, and announced that he would be the best caddie they ever had on the premises.” Walter Reynolds, the club professional, took a fancy to the plucky youngster and allowed him in.

                J.J. (John Joseph Jr.) MacDermott’s parents, John and Margaret, were married at St. James Parish (today St. Agatha St. James at 38th & Chestnut) on 15 November 1890. J.J. was born nine months later on 12 August 1891 – a year after our parish was founded – and was baptized in our parish that same month. His sisters Alice and Nora Gertrude were baptized here in 1893 and 1895. Their mother is supposed to have sung in the SFDS church choir, although we have no early records to confirm that. Their father was a mail carrier, and, reportedly, very strict. The MacDermotts lived at 1234 South 50th Street. Global Golf Post reports that J.J.’s grandparents, the Smiths, lived “a couple of streets over and a few blocks down.” According to records, they were also active parishioners. Young J.J. often stayed with them.

                When J.J.’s father wanted him to leave school in 1906, at age fifteen and begin working in a real trade, J.J. contrarily moved to Camden and took a job as assistant golf pro at the Camden Country Club, before becoming head professional at Merchantville Country Club in Cherry Hill a year later.        His career progressed quickly: in 1909, he finished 49th in the U.S. Open at Englewood Golf Club in New Jersey. In 1910, when the U.S. Open was at Philadelphia Cricket Club, he lost by 4. The following year, at Chicago Golf Club, “McDermott was 19 years old when he won the U.S. Open, making him the youngest winner in history, a record that still stands. He also was the first American to win the U.S. Open.” He won again in Buffalo, NY, in 1912 — a rare back-to-back victory.

                Sadly, J.J.’s rising star was a supernova. In 1913, in a burst of euphoria after winning the Shawnee Open, J.J., who had always been prone to odd, impulsive behavior, made a strange jarring speech scorning “British invaders” (boasting that Americans finally “owned” the U.S. Open), and then apologized, but his reputation was damaged. He still travelled to Britain for the British Open in June 1914, but he missed a boat, then his train was delayed, so he missed his qualifying tee time for the tournament. Returning across the English Channel, his ferry was struck by another ship and he had to board a lifeboat. Back home, misfortunes crowded upon him when his stock market investments failed. He had a nervous breakdown and moved back home with his parents (and back to the parish), before being committed to a mental hospital in Norristown in 1916. Formally diagnosed as schizophrenic in the 1920s, J.J. stayed in the institution until he died in 1971.

                The great theatre of world events upstaged J.J. MacDermott’s personal tragedy: World War I began in July 1914—just a month after his fateful British trip. And, as Doug Fraser has observed: “He’s like so many mentally ill people. It’s just easier to forget about them. It’s just easier to look away” — though perhaps J.J.’s hour is coming round at last as interest in his remarkable achievements seems to be suddenly renewed!


God’s Geese Flock to the Satterlee Hospital

Sister Gonzaga

Eleanor Donnelly, the “Poet Laureate of the American Catholic Church,” donated our Blessed Mother altar and lived in the parish at 4502 Springfield Ave. She also penned a small tome in 1900, catchily titled: The Life of Sister Mary Gonzaga Grace of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul 1812-1897 – which includes several vivid chapters detailing Sister Gonzaga’s experiences as head nurse at the Satterlee Civil War Hospital, in our neighborhood, decades before our church was founded.

 The Sisters (or Daughters) of Charity was a religious order, founded in Paris in 1633, to aid the poor and the sick. Their traditional clothing was “one of the most conspicuous of Catholic Sisters,” as it included a large, winged cap called a “cornette” — based on traditional peasant clothing when the order was founded. Because of the distinctive cap, the sisters were sometimes referred to as “God’s Geese,” and the hats were a frequent subject of wonder.

Donnelly quotes from Sister Gonzaga’ own journal, to explain how the sisters came to be at Satterlee: “In the twenty-fifth of May, 1862, a requisition was made by Surgeon-General Hammond, through Dr. I. J. Hayes, for twenty-five Sisters of Charity, to nurse the sick and wounded soldiers in the West Philadelphia Hospital — afterwards known as the Satterlee Hospital, in honor of General Satterlee…Dr. Hayes (of Arctic-exploration fame) was appointed Surgeon-in-Charge.” Today, the location of the hospital is described as a “sixteen-acre plot bounded by present-day Baltimore Avenue and Pine, Forty-third, and Forty-sixth Street” with a memorial stone in Clark Park.

Eleanor Donnelly

Sister Gonzaga records that the Sisters were directed to be ready to move in to the still-under-construction hospital by June 9, 1862:

Accordingly, twenty-two Sisters arrived at 10 a. m., on that day. The place was so large that we could not find the entrance. The workmen looked at us in amazement, thinking, perhaps, that we belonged to ‘the flying artillery’ (because of the hats!)  After stepping over bricks and mortar, pipes, etc., we were ushered into an immense ward, while a good Irishman went in search of the Surgeon-in-Charge. He and his staff welcomed us and showed us to our quarters, and desired us to order dinner to suit ourselves. He then showed us through the Hospital, of which but eight wards were finished. The full number, when completed, was thirty-three, each accommodating seventy-five patients comfortably, with his separate table and chair.  Attached to each ward, were two small rooms; one for the chief nurse, the other for the Sisters to keep medicines, little delicacies, etc., at hand. The Hospital grounds covered an area of fifteen acres, giving our sick ample space to rove about and recreate themselves.”

“At 12 pm. we repaired to the kitchen for dinner, and we could not help smiling when we saw the tea served in wash pitchers, and the meat and potatoes in basins. There was neither knife, nor fork, nor spoon. Upon asking for them, the cook answered that he had only four for the officers’ use, but as they did not dine until later, he could lend them to us. We used them in turn. By the time we had finished dinner, we found they were bringing in some sick — about one hundred and fifty. All went to work to prepare some nourishment for the poor fellows, who looked at us in amazement, not knowing what manner of beings we were” (because of the hats!).

“On the sixteenth of August, over fifteen hundred sick and wounded soldiers were brought to the Hospital, most of them from the battle of Bull Run….The wards being now crowded, tents were erected…” Patients tried to show their appreciation for the Sisters’ tireless patient ministrations: one convalescent, “when ‘on leave,’ — ran all over town, seeking in every millinery shop for a new white cornette such as the Sisters wore (and which he did not know were never purchased in such quarters), to replace the old, and sometimes blood-bespattered bonnet that covered his faithful nurse’s head.”  Donnelly reports that “During the three years which the sisters passed at the Military Hospital of West Philadelphia, they attended over eighty thousand sick or wounded soldiers!”

Herline & Co. Lithographers [1869-70], Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons