The Old Neighborhood

street with church

Photo by Caleb Savage. To view more of Caleb’s work on the anthracite coal region,

by Patrick O’Neill

Looking back, I think of our old neighborhood in Shenandoah with great love and nostalgia.

My mother’s family home was in Shenandoah and we kept it years after my mother had married and moved into my father’s family home (which I still own, I’m happy to say).

However, about every holiday and weekend we were on that street.

I honestly can’t think of anything “special” about the neighbors. They were fairly “ordinary” middle and working class people. What was extra-ordinary about them was their basic decency and kindness, in spite of the fact that many of them had hard lives, difficult jobs, financial burdens, and multiple children. (I think I was the only “only child” in a several-block area!)

By day the women scrubbed their houses, did their wash, and hung it on lines to dry – few of them had dryers (and some didn’t have washers!).

Despite all the hard work, they managed to gossip over the fence, drop in for a cup of coffee, and go to every conceivable church service offered in town!

There were three (yes, not one or two, but three – count ‘em!) churches in a two block area in this small town and five more in the other sections… and these were only the Catholic churches! There were upwards of twelve Protestant churches, a synagogue, and an Orthodox and Polish National church in a town that was about 80% Roman Catholic!

Protestants went to Irish Catholic wakes and said the rosary with the best of them! My family went to Orthodox Easter services every year. My grandfather was friends with both the Orthodox priest and the Rabbi and when my grandmother died Kaddish was said for her in the temple, the only “gentile” woman ever prayed for at that time and all this long before Ecumenism was heard of!

In a town that was predominately Catholic, we had both Protestant and Jewish neighbors and I never recall a single argument about religion.

When my mother was young she went to Methodist Sunday school every week. My grandmother’s answer to any questioning of this was: “The best way to appreciate your own religion is to appreciate and respect the beliefs of other religions.” Not bad for the 1920s in a small coal region town!

There were few “official” funeral homes in those days. Viewings were in the home and everyone in the neighborhood sent food. (Tons of food!)

They were not sophisticated, nor degreed (I think my grandfather and a lawyer who lived across the street were the only ones with college educations). My grandmother “came from money,” but no one would even have known it. She was the essence of a quiet self-effacing wife – although with a will of iron when the need arose (see Anthracite Heros: Anne for more on her).

There were all night card parties every Saturday with people streaming into the local drug store for an “extra-strength” coke the next morning so they could make it through mass without falling asleep!

People who worked together at the various businesses and stores were usually friends who went to the social occasions. As my mother’s friend once told me: “The people you worked with, through the week were usually the ones you saw at the Elks on Saturday night and at church (blurry-eyed!) on Sundays.”

These people will probably never re-write history, but they helped make it. They were the children of the Depression, two world wars, and the economic decline of the Coal Regions. They were hardly perfect people, but they worked hard and lived their lives as honestly and decently as they could. They left behind a legacy of strength and integrity and even though I grew up at the very “tail-end” of this (the 1950s), these people will always have a part in my life.

God bless and God rest all of them and my thanks for their example.

Patrick O’Neill was born in Shenandoah, but raised in Coal Township. He still lives in his family home, which was built by his grandparents in 1910. He has a Ph.D. in European History, an M.A. in Art History, and an M.Ed. in French. After 38 years of teaching, he recently retired from Penn State – Hazleton, but has plans to teach French part-time at a local community college. He started writing articles about the Anthracite Coal Region because it’s where he grew up there and he has always loved the area. 

Also by Patrick O’Neill
Churches of the Coal Region
Humble Lessons Against Segregation
A Letter to a House
Houses of the Coal Region
Anthracite Heroes: Anne
Shenandoah’s ‘Hyphenated Catholics’


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  1. Ruth Laubenstine Yablonski · ·

    Mr. O’Neill, you have certainly captured life as I knew growing up in the coal region of Schuylkill Co. I thoroughly enjoyed reading every article.
    Ruth Laubenstine Yablonski


  2. Catherine Parker · ·

    Very nice, warmhearted writing of a very special time and place in Pa. history.

    I am a poet and belong to poetsroundtableofarkansas. org

    I am secretary/treasurer of our local Saline County Group.

    I have written a few poems about my childhood in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

    Here is one:

    Days Gone By

    The old wringer washer.
    Hanging clothes on the line.
    Chopping wood.
    Shoveling coal into the furnace.
    Chasing the ice man for a piece of ice.
    Sewing holes up in socks.
    Buying one pair of new shoes for the year.
    Wearing hand-me-downs.
    Taking a bath, in the metal tub,
    on the kitchen floor,
    once a week.
    Buying glamorous movie star magazines.
    Going to the movies for a quarter.
    Singing ’round the street light with friends.
    Sledding on the snow, on a coal shovel.
    Putting boots on over shoes.
    Making homemade fudge.
    Swimming in the community pool.
    Believing in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
    Playing jacks and pick-up sticks.
    Jumping rope.
    Foot racing down the street.
    Roller skating outside.
    Playing baseball and football in the vacant lot.
    Those were the days!

    Catherine Parker


  3. Richard Taubar · ·


    Very well written as are the other articles you’ve submitted. It’s great to have stories like this that capture a moment in time that would be otherwise be lost to the verbal pass down that so many ancestors leave us with, but not documented.

    Looking forward to your next story.

    Richard Taubar


  4. Wayne Sherman · ·

    This article took me back in time. Very good rendition of a bygone era. I grew up in the heights in Wilkes Barre. Our family lived behind a Jewish bakery. I have found memories of hot Kimmel Rye slathered butter. When I read your article I could smell that eye bread. I think of Pennsylvania a lot these days. I do remember the polish and German churches. And the chimes coming from St. Nicholas church every Saturday morning. Yes it was a great time to be a boy!


  5. Robert E. Savitsky · ·

    Those were the great days growing up in Shenandoah Heights. Especially on Schuylkill Avenue.


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