Monthly Archives: November 2009

Side trip: Paterson, NJ

Sunday the weather was so beautiful here, Steven and I decided to drive out to see the falls in Paterson — the so-called “engine of American industry.”  At the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, Paterson was a huge manufacturing center, with silk mills that provided cloth for both America and Europe. 

I remembered before we left that great-grandmother Vanderdonck -Vanderpyle lived in Paterson — my mother always said she lived “with the nuns.”  So I checked the 1920 census forms available on-line. Finding that she lived at the St. Frances Home for Working Girls — presumably for mill workers — I googled the address on Jackson Street in Paterson and we were off.

The former St Frances Home for Working Girls

The building which housed the St. Frances Home is still standing — a large brick edifice erected in 1899.  It looked institutional, so Steven tried the door.  Inside, we learned that it now houses Eva’s Kids, a shelter program for the working poor — homeless women and children.  We were told that only one room might look somewhat as it did in the early 20th century — the first floor chapel–  and we were shown in.

Former Chapel

The gothic windows — minus stained glass — indicated the room’s  former uses.  Now it was filled with children and a teacher.  The kids were practicing what they called their praise dance, a lovely series of movements to a song that sounded like a combination of  rhythm and blues, hip-hop, and Baptist hymn, for a performance that afternoon.  We were invited in to watch their final rehearsal.

What a moving scene: six children, a single boy no older than 7 or 8 and 5 preteen girls, dancing together in an act of praise.  I wish I had video to share it with you.  But how lovely to find the building still used to support women and children.

After a hearty round of applause, we were encouraged to buy something from the kids’  bake sale.  They were raising money to give back to the community which had been so kind to them.  A couple of  oatmeal raisin cookies later, we were on our way to explore the falls.  Not Niagara, by any means, but pretty impressive, and a nice place to picnic on a beautiful November day.

The Great Falls at Paterson, NJ

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 26, 2009 in Uncategorized


Statues of Mary and the Religious Wars

Street corner shrine, Antwerp

My mother was very devoted to the Virgin Mary, and I believe her mother was also.  So it pleased me when we entered Antwerp, to see so many street corner shrines to the Virgin.  Even the cathedral in Antwerp – the Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedral  –is dedicated to the Blessed Mother.  

I wondered why Mary was so important here.  It is, like most religious tales,  a long story.

In the first half of the 16th Century, Antwerp was the richest city in Europe and the center of the entire international economy.  Hundreds of ships would pass the city in the Scheldt River, and 2,000 carts entered Antwerp  each week.  At the height of the spice trade, Portuguese ships unloaded cargos of  cinnamon and pepper here.

Yet the city did not have its own long-distance merchant fleet, and the oligarchy of banker-aristocrats who governed Antwerp were forbidden to engage in trade.  As a result, foreigners controlled much of the business. Antwerp was a real international city, with merchants and traders from Venice,  Spain and Portugal. What’s more, Antwerp had a policy of tolerance which attracted a large orthodox  Jewish community (still very much in evidence and employed largely in the diamond trade).

 But Antwerp’s golden age  — which lasted less than a hundred years — was destroyed by religious wars.  Philip II inherited both Spain and the Low Countries when his father, Charles V, died in 1555.   Phillip, a religious fanatic, viewed the reformist stirrings in the Low Countries with horror, and his ongoing efforts to control the religious lives of his subjects brought war and pestilence to the region for decades.

Street corner shrine, Antwerp

Protestantism had taken root in Antwerp early on, and the city seethed with discontent as Philip’s plans became clear.  In 1566, priests carried an image of the Virgin Mary through the streets and insisted that everyone should bend the knee as they passed. 

Protestants, of course, do not honor Mary as Catholics do, and the order was abhorrent to large parts of the population.  The parade passed peacefully, but afterwards the city’s Protestant guildsmen and their apprentices smashed the inside of the cathedral to pieces – the most extreme example of the “iconoclastic fury” that swept through the region.

Philip responded by sending in an army of occupation and building a brand new citadel to house them. Nine years later, this garrison, unpaid and unfed, surrounded by the “heretical” wealth of the city, mutinied.  They stormed Antwerp at dawn on November 4, 1576, and ran riot for three days, plundering public buildings and private mansions and slaughtering some 8,000 inhabitants in the “Spanish fury.”

More outrages followed.  Philip’s soldiers were driven out after the massacre, but they were back in 1585 laying siege to the city for seven months.  They succeeded in taking Antwerp, and the city was incorporated into the (Catholic) Spanish Netherlands.  Protestants were given two years to leave town, and a flood of skilled workers poured north into the relative safety of Holland, further weakening Antwerp’s economy. Amsterdam quickly become the new center of trade.

Another shrine

The street corner shrines to Mary are charming, but they reminded me of the stories of Jews in Spain who were forced to convert to Catholicism (the alternative was being burnt  at the stake) at the time of the Spanish Inquisition.  Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, afraid of Jewish influence in Seville, asked the Pope  for permission to start an Inquisition in Spain. 

I have read food historians who believe that Spain changed the traditional Easter dinner from lamb to ham to ensure that Conversos, as the baptized but unbelieving Jews were known, were following the laws of their new faith, If the Jews would eat pork, surely they had given up the ways of their fathers. 

But many Jews were concerned that eating the ham might not be enough to save them; after all, dinner took place indoors, in private.  And so the Jews would hang hams in front of their houses, just to be on the safe side, in case any of the Inquisitors should pass their way.

I wonder how many statues of Mary in Antwerp were put in position for similar purposes.

Death's Head, exterior of the Cathedral ofOur Lady, Antwerp

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 22, 2009 in Uncategorized




The one on the left is Grandmother Vanderdonck-Jansen.  The one on the right is Grandmother Kool-Vanderdonck. 

The car was Grandfather Jansen’s.  According to Aunt Dorothy, Grandmother used to say, “I should come back as a car.  Then he’d pay attention to me.”


Posted by on November 19, 2009 in Uncategorized




I’ve been wanting to go to Antwerp for years.  Not just because the name of the city appeared several times in the seminal Box of  Documents, but because it’s also the home of cutting-edge floral design.  Clothing design and interior design, too.

It’s a lovely city, a blend of Dutch and French, with graying buildings and a lively spirit, and of course, good beer.  And mussels.  And frites.  And Belgian endive, called “witloof,” braised with ham and covered with cream sauce and served with a side of the most divine mashed potatoes. And chocolates… But I am getting ahead of myself.

Antwerp is the city of Rubens.  He set up his studio here in 1609 — the beginning of the 12 year’s truce.  (More on that in the next post).  He  painted  altarpieces for the Antwerp Cathedral, which assured his success as Flanders’  leading painter.  We toured his house, an Italian villa in a northern clime. 










We also visited the home of his patron, a man named Nicholas Rocksox.  Our hotel, small and completely charming in its simplicity, was on the same street as the Rocksox musuem. Here’s a view from our window. 

The view from our window, Antwerp









Genealogically speaking, we were in Antwerp because of a picture in the box. Titled “Boulevard en Beurs,”  it had taken my fancy in a major way the first time I saw it.   The paper had weakened along fold lines;  I had to tape the rectangles together to get a sense of the whole view.  I’m attaching in in a slightly reduced size, which loses some of the grandeur but fits in my scanner!

Boulevard en Beurs

This picture haunted me  — I even wrote a poem about it.  Not one of my best, a little too Elizabeth Bishop-y.  I’ll post it.

Anyway, once in Antwerp, we set out to look for the Bourse — the oldest Bourse in Europe, by the way.  After some wandering through rain showers, we found it.  But  it looked nothing like the picture.  It was completely surrounded by other buildings, making it nearly impossible to see the architecture.

The Bourse, Antwerp

I pulled out my document, and we stared.  Some young men were stringing Halloween lights across the street (the Bourse is now a party space!) and we asked them if this was the Bourse.  They looked at the picture, and started to laugh.

It seems that “Ontwerp” is not a strange spelling of Antwerp, but rather the Dutch word for “designed.”  And the building I thought was the Antwerp bourse turns out to be the Amsterdam train station.  The design, though approved by the Amsterdam city fathers, was never built.

Amsterdam train station

We had a good laugh together, but I still don’t know why this picture was kept for so long, and whether it was saved by grandmother or grandfather.





Grandmother did receive mail in Antwerp — she was there when she went back to the Old Country in 1900 with her four oldest children — Pauline, Theodore, Nellie and Albert.  They sailed back to New York from Antwerp, on the S.S. Kensington, leaving Belgium on Oct. 6 and arriving in the city on Oct. 17.  The thought of that voyage with four small children (they were 9, 7, 6, and 3 years old!) is sobering.

The address on Offerende Straat,  located not far from the Gare Centrale and the Zoo, is in a slightly iffy neighborhood these days.  [Note the family habit of  cutting stamps, and postmarks, from envelopes. When my mother died, I discovered that she had thrown out every letter I had ever written her, and saved the envelopes, with the stamps!]  The card, from C.M. Kool, was most likely from her cousin, who lived in The Hague, and about whom I know very little.

Me, on Offerende Street

A few more notes on Antwerp tomorrow.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 18, 2009 in Uncategorized


Unknown Woman

Here’s another ancestor.  Could this be great grandmother Kool-Vanderdonck-Van der Pyle?  Or even her mother?  SomeoneThe photo was taken in Amsterdam, and like all these things, undated.  The dress is rich with beading, leg-o-mutton sleeves, and looks like good black silk.  Some elaborate jewelry — a watch fob? — dangles. 

I suppose this could even be grandfather Jansen’s mother.   But all my guesses are just that — guesses.

Let me know if you have any clues.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 13, 2009 in Uncategorized


A few last details in Rotterdam — Part 2

I find myself stalling, not quite willing to write this post.  I don’t know why.  It happened a long time ago.  No one involved is now alive.  And I think it’s good to know the truth.

Yet I’m also aware that this information was scandalous at the time,  shameful, and hurtful to those involved.  So I’ve dawdled over posting it, inserting photos of the unknown dead instead of getting on with my story.  Enough. Out with it, and then we can move on to Belgium, and what we learned there.

When our  Rotterdam archivist  found the Vanderdonck family card, he noted that Paulina Kool and Alexis Vanderdonck were divorced in 1891, a year after Paulina left with her daughter, our grandmother, for New York.  He was excited — said he could probably find the divorce decree — and, after a false start in one volume, turned it up in the next.

It’s beautifully written out.  Looking at this and at old U.S. Census records, I understand why the nuns drilled us in The Palmer Method. What was recorded would never be “typed up” back in the day (before my time, of course).  If the handwriting wasn’t legible, the data was lost.  Here’s a copy:

Divorce decree

Divorce Decree, 1891

 The archivist was watching me. “You understand this?”

“No, I don’t read Dutch.”

“The important word here,” he said, underlining it, “is overspel.  Adultery.  He divorced her because she committed adultery.” 

He was watching for my reaction.  I don’t think I showed any, certainly not surprise, or horror.  Human nature, I was thinking, probably hasn’t changed much in 110 years.  She was human.

As far as I can tell, there’s not much other information here.  It’s a court document, and it doesn’t go into detail. 

So, was the charge true, or was adultery the only grounds for civil divorce in Holland in those days?  Paulina definitely deserted her husband, but was it for another man?

Ah, research: answers breed more questions.  For example, who was the mysterious Van der Pijl, or Vanderpyle, whose name great-grandmother later used?  Was there such a person?  And what was great-grandmother’s relationship with him? Did she marry again after leaving Vanderdonck?  Or was Vanderpyle an alias, a name assumed on arrival in the US in order to hide her past?

Another thread to pursue, perhaps, in later research, other posts.  For now, we are done with Rotterdam, and off to Antwerp.

europe 09h 041

Sidewalk tile, near the harbor, Rotterdam



Leave a comment

Posted by on November 13, 2009 in Uncategorized


Another Photo

Albert and whom

Grandfather's brother Albert and ?

This is a post card addressed to grandfather.  One of these handsome fellows is his brother, Albert.  He’s living in Amsterdam — letter to follow.  Is the guy on the left great grandfather?

1 Comment

Posted by on November 12, 2009 in Uncategorized