Depression-era scrawl an ode to Christ Church mission

A crowd awaiting free food at Christ Church during the Great Depression. A progressive rector, Louis Cope Washburn, took over in 1907 and gave the church a social-service mission.
A crowd awaiting free food at Christ Church during the Great Depression. A progressive rector, Louis Cope Washburn, took over in 1907 and gave the church a social-service mission.
Posted: August 02, 2010

Bruce Gill had gone searching for the source of a water leak in a Christ Church building, but he found something else:

A message from the past.

It contained but 17 words, scrawled in pencil on the side of a bathroom tub, written in an era when work was precious and food was dear. For nearly 80 years, it had lain hidden behind a wall.

"Tub set 1-9-33 by Louis J. Volpe," it said. "This work kept two men from starving during the Depression."

"My first thought was, 'Holy smokes,' " said Gill, who serves as the rector's warden, essentially the chairman of the church board. "Even during its construction, [the building] was doing what it was designed to do."

That is, to help people.

Gill and a colleague were looking for the leak in an apartment inside the Washburn House, named for former rector Louis Cope Washburn. The Washburn House stands next to the Neighborhood House, behind the church. Both buildings are being renovated.

"That voice from the past sort of broke through the plaster," said the Rev. Susan Richardson, the assistant minister. "It was so striking to me. It kept a person from starving. It brings home the human reality."

"This is so cool!" said parish administrator Cecilia Wagner, taking a look last week at the inscription in the apartment where she once lived.

Today it seems hard to believe that a construction job could save lives. But Volpe's scrawl was no overstatement.

Within a year of the 1929 stock-market crash, the head of the Philadelphia unemployment-relief committee announced that private welfare funds had been exhausted - and that many people had nothing to eat but dandelions.

Several hospitals reported cases of starvation.

Nationally, the Depression pushed unemployment to 25 percent. People saw life savings disappear in failed banks and household furniture depart with the repossessor.

By 1931, two of every five Philadelphians were unemployed or trying to survive on part-time work. At the church Neighborhood House, old photographs show, bread lines stretched down the block.

Plumbing old records

Over the years, the apartment provided housing for people such as the church organist and choir master. Gill, who grew up in the church, had lived there himself in 1972, showering in that very tub.

After finding the note - he had pulled off a panel to access the bathroom pipes - he wondered: Who was the author?

He figured Volpe must have been a plumber by trade. And that given the state of 1930s transportation, he probably lived nearby.

Gill checked the 1930 census - and struck gold.

The records showed a Louis Volpe living with his wife, Ella, and their three children at 1847 S. Sartain St., a slight stretch of lane in the heart of what was Italian South Philadelphia.

Volpe's listed occupation: house plumber.

Gill went back another decade, to the 1920 census. There again was Louis Volpe. He was 23 and living on Mole Street, working as a plumber and caring for his widowed mother.

The 1910 census revealed more: At that time Volpe was a boy of 13, living at 1200 Mifflin Street, in a house owned by his father, Michael. The father, who had emigrated from Italy in 1885, operated a barbershop.

Gill figures that Volpe's son, also named Michael, would now be about 90 if he were alive. Gill searched for him on the Internet and in phone books, and a friend checked cemetery records.

So far, no luck.

A hand up

Gill was surprised to find the message, but not that Christ Church would have hired workers in the depths of the Depression. In a sense, the church was the stimulus package of the day. And people who benefited did not forget.

One time, Gill went to buy cutlery for the church from a local restaurant-supply firm. The owner wouldn't accept payment, saying the church "kept me alive during the Depression."

Another time, at a Fishtown glass company, an old-timer shuffled out of the back shop to tell how the Rev. Washburn paid him a nickel a night to set pins at the bowling alley in the Neighborhood House.

"That nickel," the old man told Gill, "fed my mother and my father and my sisters."

Today, people know Christ Church as "the Nation's Church," the house of worship for Revolutionary War leaders including George Washington. It's a key part of Independence National Historical Park and visited by 300,000 people a year.

The church considers itself "a public church," open to all and answering its call through programs that include youth ministries, tutoring, and providing food for people in shelters. The 400-member congregation comes mostly from Center City.

"The Neighborhood House was built to serve the neighborhood, and the parishioners of Christ Church still take that very, very seriously," said the Rev. Timothy Safford, the rector. "The bathtub inscription has reminded us that [while times have changed from when] Old City was tenements and slums, and there was no Independence National Park, Old City is still a neighborhood with lots of social needs."

When Washburn became rector in 1907, the church was regarded mostly as a historic structure, attracting only the curious or patriotic, author Gary B. Nash wrote in Landmarks of the American Revolution.

"It took much time, considerable controversy and finally a crusading, progressive rector, Louis Cope Washburn," Nash wrote, "to reinvent Christ Church as an urban church serving the downtrodden people of its parish while preserving the edifice as a historic shrine."

Washburn preached the gospel of social services - and the 1911 construction of the Neighborhood House was part of that. It ran everything from lunch programs to baby clinics to summer camps. By the early 1940s it contained a basketball court.

The Washburn House was built in 1932, named to honor the rector upon his 25th anniversary at the church. It originally was home to the church caretaker.

Today, renovation has linked the two buildings via a central glass entryway and provided accessible space for everything from theater performances to tai chi classes.

The apartment itself is empty. Eventually it will be reconfigured for meeting rooms. The tub and its message will be preserved in place.

Gill never did find the source of the leak. Somehow, it seemed to have stopped.


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

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