• Kristin Wenger

A Beautiful Life Cut Short (#52Ancestors week 14: the Maiden Aunt)


Catherine Amalia Groenendaal (1925-1949)


Her face is so familiar to me, yet I know so little about her.


When I was a child, this photograph was always displayed in my maternal grandparents’ home. I was told that Catherine was my grandpa’s only sibling, ten years younger than him, and that she had died at age twenty-four from complications of diabetes. And that was all.


When prompted to write about a “maiden aunt,” I asked my mother to tell me more about her aunt who had died three years before she was born. “I was not told much,” she replied. “Even when I asked, I got nothing more than the above. I remember my mother telling me that it made my father sad to talk about her and that he had taken her death very hard because he loved his little sister so much. I didn't want to upset him, so I didn't ask too much out of respect for his feelings.”[1]


I turned to my mom’s older brothers who were nearly ten and six years old when Catherine died. My Uncle Denson has numerous childhood photos of Catherine in his possession which he was kind enough to scan for me. I had never seen any of them before. They reveal a sweet little girl who appears to have had a loving and doting older brother (my grandpa John).

Catherine’s birth announcement

Her middle name was given in honor of her paternal Dutch grandmother Amalia Polisiena Wilhelmina Prent. Her first name likely came from her paternal great-grandmother, Catharina Combé.


Catherine was born in Berkley, California to Peter J. and Alma (Burnum) Groenendaal.[2]


Catherine, 5 months old, held by her big brother, John, age 11, in 1925


Catherine, one year old, with her father Peter Groenendaal in 1926


John and Catherine, about 1927

In August 1927, the family moved back to the east coast, settling in Philadelphia.[3]


Alma (Burnum) Groenendaal with her two children: Catherine and John, about 1928


Catherine sweeping the sidewalk, about 1928


Catherine and John, about 1928


John giving his sister Catherine a piggy back ride at the beach, about 1929


In 1930, Peter, Alma, John and Catherine resided in a suburb of Philadelphia at 2418 Wynnefield Drive, Havertown, Pennsylvania.[4] That same year, Alma took Catherine to visit the Netherlands (often called Holland), where Peter had been born.[5]

(My mother, Catherine’s niece, recalls that Catherine’s doll collection was kept in her room when she was a child and that there was a doll from Holland. It is likely that the doll came from this trip shortly before Catherine’s fifth birthday.)


Catherine's school photograph, 1932


In February 1932, Peter and Alma's divorce was finalized.[6] That same month, Alma married her second husband, Richard (Dick) Oswald, who became Catherine’s stepfather from the time she was less than seven years old.[7]


Catherine, age seven, in the garden, 1932


John and Catherine, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, about 1933


The house at 126 Colfax Road, Havertown, PA where Catherine resided with her mother Alma and stepfather Dick.[8]

Catherine’s oldest nephew Jack recalls, “I remember visiting grandmother Alma and Catherine several times in Havertown. I recall exactly where 126 Colfax Road is. I could drive right up to it today if I was up there in PA. I could walk to it from the center of Havertown.”[9]


Catherine graduated from Haverford High School. In her yearbook, she was described as "ambitious, obedient, and literary".[10]


Catherine's high school graduation, June 1943. She had just turned eighteen years old.



John with his sister, Catherine (wearing sunglasses), and his wife, Lucy, at the beach in the early 1940s


As a young woman, Catherine worked as dictograph operator.[11]


Catherine in the late 1940s


A traumatic week in 1949

  • Wednesday, August 31, 2:00 a.m. - Peter Groenendaal died in his home of a heart attack at age 62.[12]

  • Friday, September 2, 10:15 p.m. – Dick Oswald’s father Ernest died of heart failure in the Jewish Hospital of Philadelphia.[13]

  • Saturday, September 3 – funeral services for Peter Groenendaal.[14]

  • Monday, September 5, 6:30 p.m. – Catherine Groenendaal died in Hahneman Hospital of complications from diabetes. She was only 24 years old.[15]

  • Wednesday, September 7 – funeral services for Ernest Oswald.[16]

  • Friday, September 9 – funeral services for Catherine Groenendaal.[17]

In the span of five days, Alma lost her daughter, first husband, and father-in-law. My grandpa John lost his father and his only sibling, his beloved little sister.


Catherine's death certificate


Catherine was buried with her stepfather's father, Ernest Oswald, who died just three days before her. [18]


My uncles were very young, but the dramatic events of that week left an impression on both of them. Denson, who was not yet six years old, states, “I do recall in 1949, the family seemed to be quite upset at the time over their passings. There was a telephone call for Peter’s passing away.”[19] Older brother Jack, then going on ten years old, can remember “being in the hospital lobby while everyone else was up in Catherine’s room as she was soon to die.”[20]


When asked why Catherine was buried with the Oswald family instead of her father, Denson surmised, “Peter had only two cemetery plots and I guess he had reserved one for Adele [his second wife]. In 1949, Alma probably made their choice for the interment, since it was available and Richard Oswald was her [Catherine’s] stepfather.[21]


Denson also told me that he maintains a world-wide postage stamp collection that was shared between Peter and Catherine. Peter “received correspondence from all over the world and seems to have accumulated a spectrum of foreign stamps. He shared his philatelic interests with Catherine and she had a continuation of his collection with a 1943 Scotts International Postage Stamp Album.” Alma gave him the albums in the 1970s and he has “continued this collection with additional foreign stamps, mostly pre-1950’s era.”[22]


Aside from this stamp collection and the photographs shared here, little remains to remember Catherine’s life, which was cut tragically short. Jack mused, “I really wish she had not had diabetes, she could still be alive today at 92. After all, her mother lived to be 92.”[23] He's right. Because of advances in the management of juvenile (type 1) diabetes, she probably would not have died at a young age with access to today's medical treatment.

Who knows what she would have done with an additional seventy years of life? Maybe she would have been able to experience the joys of marriage and motherhood...even grandchildren!


How is it possible that I knew so little about my grandpa’s only sister? The photographs of them together show that they had a close relationship and that her death must have been a great loss to him.


Without a real effort to pass down our family stories purposely and accurately, the richness and depth they add to our family history can be lost in just three generations.
From grandparent to child to grandchild. That’s just three generations. Things that were absolutely critical in the lives of our own great grandparents — even our own grandparents — could be utterly unknown to us today.
From us to our own children to our own grandchildren. And even the small trials and treasures of our own daily lives could be lost to our own descendants… in just three generations.[24]

Catherine's story was almost lost in just three generations. I knew extremely little about her, and given another generation, my kids would have had no idea who she was. Someone who was "absolutely critical" in the life of their great-grandfather would be "utterly unknown" to them. That's why I'm preserving our family's history. I'd love to help you preserve yours.



Sources:


[1] Dee (Groenendaal) Droms, niece of Catherine Groenendaal, to Kristin R. Wenger, telephone conversation, 2 April 2018: Catherine Groenendaal File, Wenger Research Files; privately held by Wenger, 12 Southview Lane, Lititz, Pennsylvania.


[2]"California Birth Index, 1905-1995," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VLNW-1DD : 27 November 2014), Catherine Amalia Groenendaal, 26 May 1925; citing Alameda, California, United States, Department of Health Services, Vital Statistics Department, Sacramento. Also, Pennsylvania Department of Health, Certificate of Death no. 82283, Catherine A. Groenendaal, 5 September 1949, Philadelphia County; viewed at "Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1966," digital images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 3 April 2018); citing Series 11.90: Death Certificates 1906 -1966,Record Group 11: Pennsylvania Department of Health, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg.


[3] “Peter John Groenendaal,” Hollanders Who Helped Build America (New York : American Biographical Company, 1942), 132.


[4] 1930 U.S. census, Delaware County, Pennsylvania population schedule, Haverford Township, Enumeration District 73, page 28-A, dwelling 567, family 593, Peter J. Groenendall [Groenendaal]; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 3 April 2018); citing NARA microfilm publication T626, roll 2031.


[5] The Cullman Democrat (Cullman, Alabama), 10 April 1930, page 17; digital image, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com : accessed 30 December 2016).


[6] “Wife of Official Gets Divorce Decree,” The Chester Times (Chester, Pennsylvania), 11 Feb 1932, page 12, column 7; digital image, Digital Archives of the Delaware County Library System (https://delawarecolib.newspaperarchive.com/chester-times/1932-02-11/page-12/ : accessed 24 January 2018).


[7] "Virginia Marriages, 1785-1940," database, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:X51F-6LD : 11 February 2018), Richard Oswald and Alma Lee Groenendall, 19 Feb 1932; citing Northampton County, Virginia, reference L 17; FHL microfilm 2,048,466.


[8] 1940 U.S. census, Delaware County, Pennsylvania population schedule, Haverford Township, Enumeration District 23-86, page 8-A and 8-B, family 165, Catherine Groenendaal in household of Richard Oswald; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 3 April 2018); citing NARA microfilm publication T627, roll 3492.


[9] John C. (Jack) Groenendaal, Jr., nephew of Catherine Groenendaal, Florida (e-mail address for private use), to Kristin R. Wenger, e-mail, 2 April 2018, “Pictures I found this week”; Catherine Groenendaal File, Wenger Research Files; privately held by Wenger, (e-mail address for private use), 12 Southview Lane, Lititz, Pennsylvania.


[10] “U.S. School Yearbooks, 1900-1990,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 3 April 2018), path: Pennsylvania > Havertown > Haverford High School > 1943 > image 50 of 100.


[11] Pennsylvania Department of Health, Certificate of Death no. 82283, Catherine A. Groenendaal, 5 September 1949, Philadelphia County; viewed at "Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1966," digital images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 3 April 2018); citing Series 11.90: Death Certificates 1906 -1966, Record Group 11: Pennsylvania Department of Health, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg.


[12] Pennsylvania Department of Health, Certificate of Death no. 73465, Peter John Groenendaal, 31 August 1949, Philadelphia County; viewed at "Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1966," digital images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 24 January 2017); citing Series 11.90: Death Certificates 1906 -1966, Record Group 11: Pennsylvania Department of Health, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg.


[13] Pennsylvania Department of Health, Certificate of Death no. 82875, Ernest Oswald, 2 September 1949, Philadelphia County; viewed at "Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1966," digital images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 3 April 2018); citing Series 11.90: Death Certificates 1906 -1966, Record Group 11: Pennsylvania Department of Health, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg.


[14] “Dutch Consul Dies Here at 62,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1 September 1949, p. 36, col. 4.


[15] Pennsylvania Department of Health, Certificate of Death no. 82283, Catherine A. Groenendaal, 5 September 1949, Philadelphia County; viewed at "Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1966," digital images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 3 April 2018); citing Series 11.90: Death Certificates 1906 -1966, Record Group 11: Pennsylvania Department of Health, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg.


[16] “Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Church and Town Records, 1669-2013,” database with images, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 3 April 2018), path: PA-Philadelphia > Philadelphia > Not Stated > Greenwood Cemetery, Addams Ave. and Arrott St.> image 4876 of 8976, burial record for Ernest Oswald and Catherine A. Groenendaal, 1949.


[17] Ibid.


[18] Find A Grave, database with images (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/39575293 : accessed 26 January 2018), image of gravestone for Catherine Groenendaal, Greenwood Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


[19] Denson L. Groenendaal, nephew of Catherine Groenendaal, Pennsylvania (e-mail address for private use), to Kristin R. Wenger, e-mail, 2 April 2018, “your aunt Catherine”; Catherine Groenendaal File, Wenger Research Files; privately held by Wenger, (e-mail address for private use), 12 Southview Lane, Lititz, Pennsylvania.


[20] John C. (Jack) Groenendaal, Jr., nephew of Catherine Groenendaal, Florida (e-mail address for private use), to Kristin R. Wenger, e-mail, 2 April 2018, “Pictures I found this week.”


[21] Denson L. Groenendaal, nephew of Catherine Groenendaal, Pennsylvania (e-mail address for private use), to Kristin R. Wenger, e-mail, 2 April 2018, “your aunt Catherine.”


[22] Ibid.


[23] John C. (Jack) Groenendaal, Jr., nephew of Catherine Groenendaal, Florida (e-mail address for private use), to Kristin R. Wenger, e-mail, 2 April 2018, “Pictures I found this week.”


[24] Judy G. Russell, “Just Three Generations,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 7 Feb 2014 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/2014/02/07/just-three-generations/ : accessed 3 April 2018).

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