One thing that doing genealogical research has taught me is that with an increasing ease of travel in the 20th (and now 21st) centuries, people and families become scattered. I look at my own history: in the last 10 years of my life I have lived in Pennsylvania, two addresses in California, Japan, and two addresses in Minnesota. I pity my descendant who has to piece my crazy travels together! But when the grandparents and great grandparents of my mother’s father (Kroliczak / Nowak) came to the United States from Poland circa 1896-1898, they all settled in the same Philadelphia neighborhood: the 45th Ward, more commonly known as Bridesburg. Occasionally a family member or two would travel a little further down the Delaware River to the 25th Ward next door (Port Richmond), but by and large they stuck together.
The Bridesburg neighborhood occupied land formerly belonging to the Lenni Lenapi tribe. It went through various iterations, including its former moniker “Kirkbridesburg” after Joseph Kirkbride, who ran a ferry across Frankford Creek circa 1800. The cultural makeup of the burrough cum neighborhood changed with time, and at one point or another included Swedish, Dutch, English, Germans, and Polish inhabitants. Of course, my family belonged to the latter group. Important businesses including the Bridesburg Manufacturing Company, the Lenning Chemical Works, Rohm and Haas, and Frankford Arsenal all provided jobs for those in the area. I know for a fact that my grandfather worked for Rohm and Haas at one point in his life and my aunt commuted daily to Frankford Arsenal for work as a typist.
Reading an essay by Sister M Theodosetta C. S. F. N. from 1951, I was surprised to learn the long history of Poles in the Philadelphia area. But the wave of mass migration that my ancestors were a part of began in 1870. Being of Catholic faith, the church was an important foothold for families at that time. In quick succession, St. Laurentius Parish was establish in 1882, St. Stanlislaus Parish in 1890, and St. John Cantius Parish in 1892. My family belonged to St. John Cantius, which is still located in the heart of Bridesburg at 4415 Almond Street. This is where my parents were married and where I was baptized. The church still serves as an important meeting place for Polish American organizations today. These three original parishes were followed by St. Josaphat’s Parish, St. Aldabert’s Parish, and another St. Ladislaus, this time in Nicetown, Philadelphia. Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery on 4268 Richmond Street served to bury the dead, and when I was walking along the markers this past summer, I was amazed to see the amount of Polish surnames.
It was fun to drive through the old neighborhood with my mother and my aunt, who described old stores that were long gone, including the ice cream shop, the candy store, and the infamous “Pigeon Club” where my grandfather spent so much of his free time. My mom remembered the streets being long and wide, and she was shocked at how narrow they felt. Moving to suburbia will do that to you, I guess. The houses where my great grandparents and their siblings lived are still standing today. Even with the new aluminum siding and painted shutters, you can still see the homes where they built their lives and the backyards where my mother played as a child. It was a life that they led before I came into the world, and one that feels both familiar and alien to me.
Online References for More Information
- “The Bridesburg Story,” Bridesburg PA Webspace (n.d.)
- “Bridesburg Historical Society,” Historical Society of Pennsylvania (2013)
- “Bridesburg,” Historical Northeast Philadelphia: Stories and Memories (1994)
- Sister M. Theodosetta, C. S. F. N., “The Poles in Phildelphia to 1914,” Polish Roots: The Polish Genealogy Source. (Reprinted from 1951)