Tag: 1930s

The End of the Honeymoon

The 1930s are mostly remembered for the dreary slog of the Great Depression, the end of the national alcohol Prohibition experiment, and the dangerous rise of fascism around the world. But many personal milestones were also marked during the era – some with joy, some with sadness, and some in now-forgotten news headlines.

On September 1, 1934, our parish records show Reverend Toye officiating at the wedding of Joseph A. Drummond (of 3450 “F” Street) and Madeline Claire Finn (of 4618 Chester Ave.) M. Claire’s twin sister Marian was among the witnesses. A few hours later, following a wedding breakfast at the Hotel Normandie (366h and Chestnut), the couple went by train to New York City, to board a fateful honeymoon cruise.

The Morro Castle cruise ship was one of many “party boats” which had originated during the 1920s, to get around the Prohibition laws. The cruises sailed from New York City to Havana, Cuba, in two and a half days, spent two days there, then returned. It must have seemed like a perfect honeymoon: exotic travel with a hint of danger; cocktails, dining, and entertainment; ocean, tropics, moonlight, and a touch of luxury – all in one short jewel-like week.

The Drummonds enjoyed the first part of their trip, sending postcards home from Havana saying they were having a “swell time.” Cuba was an interesting place: historians note that “The period from 1933 to 1937 was a time of ‘virtually unremitting social and political warfare’” but the travelers were largely cocooned from the troubles.

A first hint of disturbance came when the ship’s Captain Willmott, who had seemed preoccupied, complained of indigestion after dinner on the last night of the cruise. Shortly afterwards, he died of an apparent heart attack. The evening dance was canceled out of respect. Then, somewhere near the coast of Asbury Park NJ, fire erupted, possibly in two separate places onboard, and the acting captain and his crew discovered that the mechanisms on half of the attractively-decorated lifeboats were clogged with dried paint, and couldn’t be lowered.

Gale force winds whipped up an inferno. The Catholic Standard related a survivor’s terrifying tale: “All the passengers were huddled together near the stern…There must have been 200 or more of us there. Most of them were half crazy with fear…Then…we saw Father Egan. He stood there outlined in flames…He raised his hands…and then he began to pray, while the passengers fell to their knees…Father Egan gave general absolution and then the fire got so close we all had to jump…” The NY priest would be among those rescued, but at least 134 people died, and many others were injured.

The Drummonds gave a short interview from a hospital in NY, recalling that “as the flames crept upon them they jumped hand-in-hand into the water. The impact of the water knocked Drummond unconscious” but he retained a bruising grip on his wife’s wrist. They stayed together, and when a Cuban woman drifted up, crying for her children, “they undertook to hold her above water” for six hours until they became exhausted, and she flailed and drifted away to her death. A lifeboat picked them up an hour later.

Joseph Drummond had puzzled over one odd incident before they sailed from Cuba, when a young black boy tried to board and the captain “seemed very excited. After the boy was searched he was put off the boat.”  Disgruntled sailors sometimes tried to supplement poor pay by smuggling goods and stowaways. Passengers were unaware of labor problems making the captain particularly jittery on this trip; the chief radio operator’s police record of theft, terrorist threats, arson, and murder has since come under scrutiny.

A handful of melted rosary beads, later recovered from the Drummond cabin, were the couple’s honeymoon memento, as they settled near the church at 4516 Springfield Ave. — baptizing two children, Joseph Kevin Drummond in July 1935, and Brian “Cresson” Drummond in April 1939 – before disappearing into the mists of parish history.

The Lesson of the Christ Child

Nativity scene shown in the December 1931 SFDS Parish Monthly Calendar

The Parish Monthly Calendar for Christmas 1929, probably printed early, made no mention of the October stock market crash which triggered the Great Depression, but it did urge parishioners “WE ASK YOU TO BE MORE GENEROUS THAN EVER IN YOUR CHRISTMAS OFFERING.”

A year later, the pastoral letter observed that “The world is in dire need of a spirit of optimism today…” and a small news item in the Parish Monthly Calendar mentioned that the Girls’ Corps (a Girl Scout-like parish organization) had gathered donations to put together “thirty-four well-filled baskets” of food for the poor of the parish, distributed in December 1930.

Another year passed and the Parish Monthly Calendar reported that on December 20, 1931, “members from the Girls’ Corps with girls from the Commercial Class (girls not planning to go  to High School) accepted donations at the door of the church” in the morning, then, held an afternoon Christ Child Party, in which “children and adults crowded the school auditorium and presented gifts of food and various articles of clothing for the poor in honor of the Christ-Child, the exemplar of poverty.” Ninety-six boxes of food thus gathered were then sent out to “the needy families of the parish” and “a consignment of clothing and shoes was distributed to the children whom the Sisters in school knew to be in need.

Troubles continued. The January 1933 Parish Monthly Calendar reported that De Sales Night – the much-anticipated annual church party at the luxurious Bellevue-Stratford Hotel – was canceled “because of the stress of the times” and a less costly entertainment would be held, instead, at the Byrd Movie Theatre, 47th and Baltimore. A full-page article praised the efforts of all who had helped with, or donated at, the 1932 charitable Christmas Christ-Child Party (run by the St. Vincent de Paul Conference). That year “The need was much greater: so much so that one fears to mention the number of families in our parish that had to be helped…

As the Great Depression settled in, through the 1930s, the threat of hunger and homelessness loomed very real for many parishioners.

What was in the charity boxes? They sound remarkably like Covid-era lockdown kits, consisting of bushels of potatoes; tins of vegetables and fruits; lots of dried beans (assorted kinds); onions; coffee; sugar; butter; milk (in tins); bread; jelly; and oatmeal. Scrapple and chicken were the meats. Oranges and a little hard candy were offered as a treat. No toys: gifts included stockings, underwear, blouses, shoes, and other items of clothing.

It doesn’t seem like a lot by today’s standards, but new underwear, shoes, or socks might have been welcomed by children in a large family, and potatoes with chicken could make a good Christmas dinner. People didn’t have as much, and they didn’t expect as much: outgrown clothing was “handed down” until it wore out; then the pieces were turned into quilts and other handcrafts. Moth-eaten sweaters could be unraveled and re-knitted into gloves. An old sock could be fashioned into a doll or stuffed animal, and a wooden grocery crate made a scooter or cart. Mothers were adept at turning unappetizing food scraps into satisfying meals; picky eaters went hungry.

Now, decades later, the wheel of fortune has turned again and some of those long-forgotten coping skills have been rediscovered as families learn to manage Covid lockdowns, unemployment, and shortages. We are more isolated because of contagion, but we do have internet and phones to connect, and snail-mail still works. And we are conscious that we need to be less wasteful in order to save our shared environment. Covid is a reminder, calling us back to core values. Looking at the Nativity scene, Pope Francis observed last year: “we cannot let ourselves be fooled by wealth and fleeting promises of happiness….From the manger, Jesus proclaims, in a meek yet powerful way, the need for sharing with the poor as the path to a more human and fraternal world in which no one is excluded or marginalized.

The December 1932 Parish Monthly Calendar explained the Christ Child Party
The January 1932 Parish Monthly Calendar reported on the December 1931 efforts

Get Your Skates On

d009John Deady recalls Bishop McShea’s tales of roller skating around the basement of St. Francis de Sales church as a child in the early 1920s, when the McShea family owned the house that used to stand right behind the school at 928 Farragut Terrace, and before our basement became the Lower Church.

Roller skating became an official parish activity, briefly, during the Great Depression, at a time when a skating history notes that “Americans turned to roller-skating for an inexpensive form of entertainment. By the late 1930s, roller-skating ranked second only to bowling as the most popular participation sport….” A school auditorium could easily be multipurposed as a rink, so Catholic parishes across the country offered the diversion to their flocks. In some places, nuns in swirling habits had their own special skating hour after everyone else went home!

A 1936 notice in the Parish Monthly Bulletin explained how skating worked at Saint Francis de Sales:

 “We are gradually becoming a parish on wheels. The youngsters and the oldsters of the parish are ROLLER SKATING. Every Monday and Friday evening finds many of them cavorting and contorting in the Auditorium for their own enjoyment and the pleasure of the spectators. “The music goes around and around” and so do the skaters; it is surprising how few fall. The young boys and girls delight in circles, fancy figures, twists, turns, and waltzes, while their parents, dames and mesdames, graybeards and gallants, father and mothers circle and waltz after the manner of the pre-war days.” (that’s pre-World War I!)

“This parish activity should receive greater patronage from the boys and girls of the parish and greater encouragement from their parents. A splendid opportunity is afforded for the youth of the parish to meet with each other under favorable circumstances and to enjoy beneficial recreation. At the same time it need not be thought that it is only intended for the young. Doctors have recommended Roller Skating to cure and ward off the blues, arthritis, rheumatism, avoirdupois, high and low blood pressure, headaches, coughs, colds, and fever blisters. Its prophylactic value lies in the fact that, while roller skating, it is impossible to take ourselves too seriously in matters that are not important.”

 “We would enjoy seeing many more enjoy themselves. The parish has the best of new equipment for two hundred persons. Those attending are very sociable and the attendants, who are boys of the parish, see to it that good order is preserved and those who are learners or recapturing the spirit of childhood are helped and instructed.”       

“With the coming of colder weather, we hope that many will avail themselves of this parish activity. We would like it to be one of the social features of the parish. It is suggested that skating parties be formed and groups of friends come together to add to the enjoyment and pleasure of all concerned. Young and old are invited.”

Parish skating ended when the Auditorium was renovated in 1937 “at a considerable cost of money,” with a newly sanded, repaired, and painted floor. Entertainment changed to more sedate “Card and Radio” parties and dance “Socials.” The Catholic Bowling League started in Philadelphia in 1939 and our parish formed its own league in 1941.

Today, some find circular skating meditational. On the other side of the country, the pastime has an odd, lingering religious connection: in 2013, an abandoned Catholic church in San Francisco was turned into the “Church of 8 Wheels” roller disco “spreading rolligion around the world” — with signs at the entrance reminding that “many in the community still see this as a sacred place. Please be respectful.” It’s currently closed due to Covid, but outdoor roller skating is said to be making a comeback nationwide.

1936 roller skating 3

1936 roller skating 2

D010