Of all the obstacles that one encounters researching one’s ancestors, perhaps, the one most dreaded is also the most inevitable: the point at which one can proceed no farther, when every clue has been exhausted, when every lead has been pursued, and the paths to the past end as abruptly and mysteriously as they began. I know that I will have to prepare myself for that unavoidable eventuality; however, this week was far from a dead end. In fact, there were more surprises than disappointments.
While several gaps in my family history exist, the circumstances surrounding my grandmother’s (my father’s mother) stay in an orphanage when she was a child remained shrouded in the bits and pieces of stories she related to me when I was a child. No living family member recalls the name or the location of the orphanage and there are no documents or papers which exist that might provide clues to solve this mystery. My grandmother said that she and her siblings were placed in the orphanage because her father was unable to take care of them; she spoke fondly of the Mother Superior who, by my grandmother’s account, treated her special, so much so the other nuns acted coldly and cruelly toward her in retribution for the favoritism she seemed to cull from the head nun. It was difficult to reconcile my grandmother’s proud description of her father as a strong man who stood six feet tall in his stocking feet and the man who deposited his four children in orphanage.
The devil often frolics in the details; my research verified the adage was a truism as it pertained to the Coady family in the Frankford borough of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1903. Over time I have chipped away at the obdurate façade of the unknown until a form began to take shape, a living history emerged like the sculptures Michelangelo freed from his blocks of marble. Lawrence Coady was born in 1859 to Thomas and Mary Coady who emigrated from Ireland probably around 1852. If Irish naming convention holds true, somewhere in Ireland there remained another Lawrence Coady, my great grandfather’s namesake.
The northeast section of Philadelphia, the borough Frankford, was a German-Irish stronghold in the middle half of the 19th century as the neighborhoods in South Philadelphia around Christian St. and South Seventh St were for my Italian ancestors who gathered together there from Sicily. Once established, the Coady clan remained in Frankford. Around 1894 Lawrence married Ella Free or Freeh from Bucks County; seven children would follow, two would die in infancy. Ella Coady died of pneumonia in May one month after the birth of her son Vincent. When I discovered her death certificate in Philadelphia’s records I speculated that this tragic incident preceded the decision to place the children in an orphanage; however, I still had no evidence to support my hypothesis.
Since I knew that the family lived in Philadelphia I made a concerted effort to locate and, if necessary, contact all orphanages in the city of brotherly love. Searches on the internet can be moveable feasts, producing variable results but one of my queries retrieved a telephone number for St Vincent’s Orphanage in Philadelphia, which proved to be current when I tapped it into my cell phone. These days nothing is accomplished with a single phone call; after several attempts, I received a call back from a gentleman who was almost in a state of ecstasy because he was able to find my grandmother with the information I had left him previously on his voice mail. Unfortunately, most of the records kept by the orphanage had been destroyed; however, he had in his care the original ledger in which the data regarding the orphans who were admitted and discharged were recorded. One day later I received photocopies of the ledger page which contained the entries for my grandmother and her siblings. That ledger page provided several missing pieces of a genealogical puzzle: my great grandmother’s maiden name, the church where the children were baptized, cross references of street addresses, names of contacts, and the exact admittance and discharge dates. Before, we ended our conversation, I managed to glean one more telephone number from my caller, which led to the eventual discovery of St Joachim’s Catholic Church where all of the Coady children were baptized! Unlike many of the churches where my ancestors were members, St Joachim was still active so I didn’t have the added task of determining where the old records had been transferred or how I should go about obtaining copies of those in which I was interested.
The ledger page from St Vincent’s revealed that in September of 1903 my grandmother with three of her siblings was placed in St Vincent’s Orphanage by her father Lawrence Coady and her mother, Ella, who was noted as deceased with a symbol of a cross drawn next to her name. The orphanage was founded in 1855 by five German, Roman Catholic parishes and was run very strictly with the treatment of the children entrusted to its care often being severe. In 1909, all four children were discharged to their aunt–I believe the wife of Lawrence Coady’s brother Thomas. Meanwhile I await copies of church records from St Joachim’s so graciously offered me by the parish office manager with whom I spoke immediately after my conversation with the gentleman from St. Vincent.
While I have been fortunate enough to make considerable progress in tracing my ancestors, many questions persist: What happened in the lost the years from 1909 to 1915 during which my grandmother disappeared while her siblings were either adopted or lived with relatives? What became of Lawrence Coady from 1910 until his death in 1928? What happened to the baby Vincent when his siblings were placed in the orphanage? There are days when I share the anxiety of Beckett’s characters in Waiting For Godot restlessly anticipating the character of the unknown, but not today.