by Rich McIlhenny
Our great grandmother Irene Colantonio died Oct 12, 1918, during the Spanish flu epidemic. It was the worst in world history and may have killed 50 million or more people. She was pregnant with her 11th child and left our great-grandfather Vincenzo Sonzogni, who did the mosaic tile entrances in the John Wanamaker Building at Market and Juniper Streets in Center City, to raise 10 children (including a one- and a three-year-old) with the help of his mother and other family members.
They met when they lived next door to each other in boarding houses on 9th Street in the Italian Market section of the city. Both had come from Italy in 1894 on separate ships, Irene from Cassalanguida in Abruzzi and Vincenzo from Somendenna in the north.
They would sit on their stoops and talk at night. Eventually they went on a date, and their parents went with them. They bought their first house on North Judson Street in Fairmount and then moved to a larger house nearby at 2422 Brown Street as the family grew.
There weren’t many Italians in the immediate area at the time. It was mostly an Irish neighborhood, and the Italians weren’t treated so well by the residents, including the nuns at St Francis Xavier parish school. So Irene walked into the school one day and pulled several of her children out and enrolled them in Bache, the public school a few blocks away behind Eastern State Penitentiary.
After Irene’s death in 1918, her children — Mable, Nicholas, Dominick, Christine, Sabina, Amerigo, Louis, Vincent, Walter and Joseph — all lived in Fairmount, and the extended family occupied several other homes in the area. My grandmother, Sabina Sonzogni, had to drop out of her freshman year at Girls High School to help raise her siblings. Walter, the baby, thought his eldest sibling, Mable, was his mother until he was a teenager.
Their father, Vincenzo, died in 1928 after putting a new roof on the house. Some say it was from heat stroke. The death certificate said a brain aneurism. The 10 children were now left to fend for themselves since there was no welfare program at the time. Christine had a job in a nearby shoe factory, and her pay helped keep her brothers fed and clothed. Mable and my grandmother, Sabina, did the cooking, and they all took care of each other.
The boys played and fished along the banks of the Schuylkill River and started hanging out at Boat House Row. The Bachelors Rowing Club adopted a few of them and taught them how to row. They migrated to the Fairmount Rowing Club, and five of them (Walter, Joe, Vince, Amerigo and Louis Sonzogni) ended up winning Nationals as part of the “Italian 8” but had to go off and fight in World War II instead of going to the Olympics.
Mable, the eldest of the 10, lost her son Billy, in the Battle of the Bulge. Nicholas, the second oldest, met my grandfather, Frank McIlhenny, in a bar on Brown Street and introduced him to my grandmother, which is how I ended up with this Irish last name. My father, Francis McIlhenny, and uncle, Vincent W. McIlhenny, and their cousin, Jim Sonzogni, and others in the family continued the rowing tradition and also played basketball at the old Plastaid Hall on Boat House Row.
There are many descendants of Irene and Vincenzo still in the area and scattered around the country. Many of the Sonzognis were tile setters going back generations to the mountaintop town of Somendenna in the foothills of the Alps in the Bergamo region, which was ravaged by the Coronavirus earlier this year.
A little more than three months ago, my wife, Marissa Vergnetti, and my cousin, Lauren McIlhenny, and I went to a lecture and opening of the “Spit Spreads Death” exhibit at the Mutter Museum in Center City. It was all about the Flu of 1918-1919 that infected 500 million people worldwide, killing tens of millions.
How little did we know that we would be see another pandemic sweep through the world so soon after. A few months ago now seems like a lifetime ago.
Lifelong Mt. Airy resident and RE/MAX Services agent Richard McIlhenny was the recent recipient of a REMAX Pennsylvania and Delaware Region’s “Top 25 Sales Associate” honor. He ranked 20th out of over 3,000 agents. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org