Depression-era scrawl an ode to Christ Church mission

By Jeff Gammage | Inquirer Staff Writer

“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.” 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.

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