Sunday, December 10, 2017

200 block Merchant St., 1915: the mystery of Divine Redeemer's first school--plus a funeral

Vintage photos of Ambridge always excite me, especially if the scene is something I haven't seen before. But it's rare that my first view of a photo stuns me like the photo I'm posting about today did.

On March 31, 2016, this 1915 photo, showing a group of people and what appeared to be a horse-drawn hearse in front of Divine Redeemer Church's property on the west side of the 200 block of Merchant St., was posted on the Good Samaritan Parish Archives' Facebook page.  I had seen the photo before, in the 1956 Divine Redeemer Golden Anniversary book. It is not the photo that's the focus of this blog post, although it's the reason I was so awed by the photo that this post is about.

To better see the details of this photo, or the others in this post, a click or tap should enlarge them.

Divine Redeemer Church Property - 1915
Divine Redeemer Golden Anniversary 1906 - 1956 book

Maria Notarianni, who heads the committee that maintains the Ambridge Roman Catholic churches' archives at Good Samaritan Church, described the photo above on Facebook:
On April 2, 1907, Reverend Joseph A. Pospech was named Pastor of the Slovak Parish under the title of the Divine Redeemer Church in Ambridge. Land was purchased on the 200 block of Merchant St. that included a building that was suitable for a temporary church until the new one was built in 1918. The building can be seen in this 1915 photo where services were held in the basement. (The occasion may have been a funeral as there seems to be a horse-drawn hearse in front of the building.) 
The house in the photo was purchased in 1916 by Fr. Herkel to be used as the rectory.
In 1918 the new church was built to the right of the temporary church building and in 1927, a convent was built where the temporary church building was located. 
But that photo is less than the half if it. Literally, as I found out when I had the privilege of spending an hour in August 2016, with the late Karl Urda, grandson of prominent Ambridge builder and businessman Charles Kristufek, who died in 1943. During my visit, Mr. Urda shared with me several vintage Kristufek family photos, including the panoramic photo below that took my breath away when I saw it.

The photo in the Divine Redeemer Golden Anniversary book was only part of the right half of the panoramic photo!

Funeral, 200 block Merchant St., west side
courtesy Karl Urda

Here's the left side of the panorama that wasn't in the Divine Redeemer Golden Anniversary book:

Left side of panorama
Divine Redeemer funeral
200 block of Merchant St., west side
courtesy Karl Urda

The left side of the panorama shows horse-drawn carriages as far as the eye can see, I think confirming Maria's theory that the scene showed a funeral.

The building near the center of the left-side of the panorama is the First Ward School, built between 1908 and 1910. The school was closed in 1964 and razed soon afterwards.

The panorama also shows the building to the left of the freestanding bell tower, which would have been to the immediate left of where the Divine Redeemer convent later was built.

The story Mr. Urda had to tell about that building was also surprising. He told me that building was the first Divine Redeemer School, built by Charles Kristufek, who at the time was a member of Divine Redeemer, then given to the parish. Mr. Urda said that his grandfather was much criticized for building a school before a church was erected, but Charles Kristufek put a high priority on education, and thought that a school building was more important than where church services were held.

If that information is accurate, that means that the Divine Redeemer School in the old Davis Hotel, 300 Merchant St., which the church bought in 1920, was not Divine Redeemer's first school, as the modern recounting of Divine Redeemer's history says it was.

So far, I've been unable to find more information about the building, except that the 1911 and 1917 Sanborn Insurance maps of Ambridge identify the building as a dwelling, not a school.

In 1960 - 61, Divine Redeemer built a new school to replace the one in the Davis Hotel building. My memory of what was between the First Ward School and the Divine Redeemer convent before the new school was built, on property to the convent's left--or where the building that Mr. Urda said was the first school once stood--is very hazy. I seem to remember an old, derelict building there. We'd have to walk via a narrow walkway between that scary looking building and the convent to get to the old church hall behind the convent. That church hall was razed when the 1961 school was being built.

The building that was to the left of the convent before construction started on the new school apparently did not belong to Divine Redeemer, as one might expect if the building had been Divine Redeemer's first school. The Divine Redeemer School Solemn Blessing and Dedication Program, November 18, 1961, says that when plans for the new school were being finalized in 1960, "the Paul Kernich property, fronting on Merchant Street beside the Convent, was purchased," and the building on the property was razed by parish volunteers.

The razed building on the Kernich property would have stood between the Merchant St. entrance to the new school and Merchant St.

Merchant St. entrance to the former Divine Redeemer School
March 22, 2014
credit: Nancy Knisley

So, the history of the building that Mr. Urda identified as Divine Redeemer's first school, currently remains murky. Is the family story about that building being built as a school for Divine Redeemer true or merely a family legend? Did Divine Redeemer once own that building and later sell it? Did the Kruistufek family once own that property, but allowed the church to use it as a school, then later sold it? At this point, I can't say.

But perhaps, some day, I will be able to find more information about the building. And, maybe even find out whose funeral that might have been in 1915. If so, I'll update this post.

Karl Urda died on March 9, 2017. I'm so grateful that he made time to talk to me and allow me to scan his vintage family photos.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Ambridge memorabilia: National Air Mail Week cacheted envelope, 1938

Ambridge National Air Mail Week postal cover
May 19, 1938

I've added postal cachets to my growing list of "random things I now know something about only because I've been researching Ambridge's history":

This envelope, postmarked May 19, 1938, in Ambridge, was part of a U.S. Postal Service week-long promotion of air mail. I think most of us now assume that mail going any distance travels by air. But not so in 1938, when mail primarily traveled by trucks, trains, and ships. Cross-country or overseas letters could take weeks to arrive at their destination.

The Postmaster General at the time, James Farley, declared May 15 - 21, 1938, "National Air Mail Week" (NAMW) to mark the 20th Anniversary of the first scheduled delivery of mail by plane. All local postmasters were encouraged to create a unique commemorative NAMW “cachet”-- that design on the left side of the envelope--to mark the event. And they were supposed to bring attention to the benefits of air mail. Citizens were urged to send at least one letter by air mail during the NAMW celebration.

May 19, the day of the postmark on the never-mailed envelope above, was the day chosen for special NAMW events. Among the events were one-time-only NAMW plane flights, with planes carrying mail between the many towns celebrating NAMW. Many of those towns didn't have airports, but landing strips for small planes were prepared on local streets and fields.

Ambridge's NAMW cachet, featuring Old Economy Village, was one of an estimated 10,000 that were used in towns across the country. I don't know if a plane landed in Ambridge on May 19, 1938, but I'm going to try to find out. I'll update this post if I find any more information.

Here's a closeup view of the Ambridge cachet:

Ambridge NAMW cachet