Honoring the doughboys of Philly's St. Columba parish

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A memorial tablet lists all those who served during World War I from St. Columba's.

By Chris Gibbons

It was Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 27, 1919, and the Solemn Military Memorial Mass for the doughboys of Philadelphia's St. Columba parish had just concluded. The attendees, led by an armed guard and color bearers - two soldiers and two sailors - filed out of the beautiful church and gathered in the school yard at 24th and Lehigh.

During Mass, seats were reserved in the middle aisle for family members of the 27 boys of the parish who gave their lives during the Great War, according to the Dec. 6, 1919, Catholic Standard and Times. And now, outside, these same family members were accorded the area closest to the cloaked structure now positioned at the front of the school yard.

The late-autumn chill and overcast, sullen grey sky not only reflected the somber mood of the crowd, but many of the faithful likely believed that, on this day, even God was sad.

A 10-year-old stood next to the structure. A respectful silence fell among the crowd, and some wiped away tears, as the sorrowful eyes of the parishioners fell upon the boy. They knew why he had been chosen to unveil the large memorial tablet in honor of the St. Columba doughboys who fought in World War I - a conflict the United States entered on April 6, 1917.

St. Columba parish was founded in 1895, and the beautiful Gothic church at 24th and Lehigh was constructed in 1904. The parish was primarily comprised of Irish immigrants from the surrounding "Swampoodle" neighborhood.

I visited the church, now known as St. Martin de Porres, in March 2014. As I glanced up at its facade, the Irish heritage of the masons and original parishioners was readily evident within the Gothic architecture of the building itself. High above the main entrance was a huge Celtic cross, and just under it was a statue of St. Columba, the Irish missionary and patron saint of Derry. Statues of St. Brigid and St. Patrick also adorned the front exterior.

As I glanced up at them, I thought I heard my grandfather's voice, with his thick Irish brogue, whispering in the wind: "Ya see? The saints are lookin' down upon ya, lad." Although I knew it was just my imagination, I smiled anyway and softly answered, "I hope so, Grandpop."

My search for the Roman Catholic High School alumni who gave their lives in World War I had stalled. Since I began my search in 2011, I had identified six out of the 32 names on a plaque at Roman. But my continuing quest had led me to St. Columba's that day.

My father, an alumnus of both St. Columba's parochial school and Roman, suggested that I head down to the old church for some new leads. "There's a big monument in the vestibule," he told me. "It has the names of all of the guys from the parish who fought in World War I, and it also lists the ones who were killed. St. Columba's was a big feeder parish to Roman back then. Some of them might have gone to Roman."

I entered the church and was immediately struck by its beauty. Ornate stone, tiles, and brick trimmed in gold and green lined the walls and ceilings, with elaborate carvings, statues, and stained glass throughout the interior. I entered the vestibule and there, on the far wall, was the largest World War I memorial tablet I had come across thus far. The Catholic Standard and Times described it in 1919 as "a beautiful massive bronze tablet, 4 feet high and 6 feet wide, said to be the most elaborate of any erected in the city, and which is the gift of the parishioners."

Carved upon the tablet are the names of the 486 members of the parish who served in the armed forces during the Great War. A special section contains the names of the 27 boys who gave their lives.

My father turned out to be right, as subsequent research revealed that one of the boys killed, Frank T. Schommer, was a Roman alum. However, there were two other names among the 27 that immediately caught my attention: Charles J. Fischer and John J. Fischer. I couldn't help but wonder if they were related.

Ten-year-old Joseph Fischer stood at the front of St. Columba's school yard that Thanksgiving Day in 1919, and unveiled the memorial tablet that held the names of the doughboys of St. Columba's, including his brothers, Charles and John. A street parade of the parish soldiers who returned home, under the command of Lt. Joseph Yates, followed the unveiling ceremony, and the women of the parish held a banquet that evening for the doughboys.

For the parish families of the boys who never returned, the moment was bittersweet. The parents of Daniel Lee wrote a poem about their son that was published in the Inquirer just one month before the unveiling of the tablet. The poem conveys the deep sense of loss and anguish these families must have endured:

A precious son from me was taken,

A voice we loved is still,

A wound within my heart is sealed,

Which never can be healed,

To France he went a volunteer,

His love, his life was given,

His body was not returned to me,

But his soul was sent to heaven.

Pvt. Daniel E. Lee, of Philadelphia's 315th Infantry Regiment, is buried at the St. Mihiel American Cemetery in France.

Chris Gibbons is a Philadelphia writer. gibbonscg@aol.com