“Thank God there are only three McCormicks”

Pennsylvania Memories is a special series marking the turn of the millennium featuring readers' memories of events, experiences, incidents, individuals, innovations or inventions that profoundly affected them or gave them a deep appreciation of personal history.

The McCormick boys arrived at St. Michael’s Home for Boys in July 1939. Art was seventeen, I was fourteen, and Mike was seven – a trio of orphans who would now live with two hundred and fifty hard-knock boys at this Catholic orphanage in Hoban Heights, near Pittston in Luzerne County.

Those were hard times, and many boys at St. Mike’s came from rough backgrounds. They came from broken homes, or they verged on delinquency. On our first day, another boy hit me, but he soon regretted it when big brother Art came after him. After that, there were no hard feelings. We shook hands and became friends.

I was one of the older boys charged with supervising the youngsters. Eating, showering, sleeping – everything was done in groups. The boys slept in wards, eighty beds to a room, so close you could reach out and touch the bed beside you.

St. Michael’s Home for Boys was a vocational school, educating its pupils only until the ninth grade, while also training them in mechanics, carpentry, butchering, even baking. I loved the farm where we learned to tend cows and grow crops for our food. When I got in trouble, it was usually because I’d skip mechanics class to ride the tractor.

Some boys were lucky when it came to education, though. The principal, Father Joseph Hammond, made sure that some of us, my younger brother Mike and I included, went to Pittston High School. Father Hammond was a hard-working, compassionate man. Whatever the boys needed, he’d provide, whether it was his car to drive into town, or a word of advice on the ways of women. He once vouched for a boy in court to keep him out of reform school.

The nuns of St. Michael’s came from Ireland. They lived in their own wing of the school, and many stayed for decades – as many as forty-five years – before retiring at Marywood Col­lege in Scranton. Some never quite figured out how to handle their precocious charges, but I especially remember the ones who loved their boys. Sister Laura kept a beloved pet bulldog and enjoyed jaunts into Pittston with Sister Evalina. Sister Angelina, the “pharmacist,” dispensed a thick goo of home­made cod liver oil and loved going for car rides with the boys. The courtly Sister Estelle recruited boys to help her in her reverent task of tending to the chapel.

Apparently, my brothers and I were quite a handful – what with me pushing younger boys out of my seat in the dining hall, Mike’s impetuous attempt to run away, and Art’s broken shoulder from a roughhouse game called “Buck, Buck, Who’s On Top?” – because Mother Superior, Sister Roberta, often used to sigh, “Thank God there are only three McCormicks.”

Art joined the Navy in 1941, and Mike and I soon left St. Michael’s to live as foster sons with another member of the St. Michael’s staff, barber John Carden. Although we had lost our parents, we found shelter – and a family – with a boy’s home in Hoban Heights.

 

The editor thanks M. Diane McCormick, the author’s daughter, for her assistance in providing background information and photographs for this feature.

 

John P. McCormick lives on a farm – recalling his love for farming at St. Michael’s Home for Boys – in York Haven, York County, with his wife Margaret. He served as a logistics specialist for the Department of Defense in Washington, D.C., and earned the rank of colonel with the U.S. Army Reserve. He collects antique telephones and is a member of the Antique Telephone Collectors Association. A camera buff while enrolled at St. Michael’s, he has an extensive collection of photographs of the institution’s people and buildings.