Sunday, June 29, 2014

52 Ancestors: Gertrude Ellen (or Ellen Gertrude) O'Neill (nee Foley) 1898-1962

Amy Johnson Crow of the No Story Too Small genealogy blog suggested a weekly blog theme of '52 Ancestors' in her blog post "52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks." I decided to take up the challenge of the 52 Ancestors blog theme as a means to prompt me into regularly sharing the stories of my ancestors. So over the course of 2014 I will highlight an ancestor, sharing what I know about the person and perhaps more importantly, what I don't know.

'Gertie' is my maternal grandmother. Gertie is the name my grandfather, her husband, J. Graham O'Neill called her. I just don't really know if Gertie, short for Gertrude, was her first name or her middle name.

She was born on April 16, 1898 in Toronto, York County, Ontario, Canada. She was the third child and first daughter of John Foley, who listed his occupation as teamster on her birth registration and his wife Mary Jane Fitzgerald. 

Although he became a very successful businessman, John Foley could not read nor write but he did register the births of his children - and signed each birth registration (as he had been taught how to sign his name for business purposes). Because he couldn't read, John Foley signed the registrations even when they had his children's names recorded incorrectly. The family also had the habit of calling their children by their middle names. Eldest son Lewis Fitzgerald Foley was called Gerald, next son William Clarence was called Clarence but his birth was registered under the name William Dorsey!

So was my grandmother Gertrude Ellen or Ellen Gertrude? I don't really know for certain and perhaps, it doesn't really matter. Her birth registration states Gertrude Ellen and her baptismal record states Ellen Gertrude. Her death registration states Gertrude Ellen but my grandfather was the informant for the registration so he was likely stating what he commonly believed to be true. To add some confusion, the 1901 Census of Canada lists her as Ellen G. Foley. Most records including her marriage registration and newspaper announcements about the wedding say her name was Gertrude Ellen so I guess that is what I will go with.

Gertrude Ellen (Foley) O'Neill with her husband J. Graham O'Neill and their first grandchild, Ian Hadden

Gertrude was born at 25 Blong Avenue in an area of the city now referred to as Leslieville. Soon after her birth, she was baptized in St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, the same church in which her parents had married four years earlier. One week before her first birthday however, the family was turned upside down when her mother Mary Foley died of "septic poisoning." 

For the next four years, Gertrude and her older brothers were cared for by housekeepers that her father hired. For example, in 1901, it was Mrs. O'Sullivan, an Irish widow who, along with her two teenage children, came to live with the Foleys and kept house. The family circumstance changed in October 1903 when John Foley married Annie McElroy. Life seems to have not only stabilized a bit but also got more comfortable for Gertrude as her father's business became more and more successful and the family's wealth grew.

On June 23, 1926, wearing a peach coloured georgette gown with matching peach coloured hat, Gertrude Foley married John Graham O'Neill at St. Brigid's Roman Catholic Church, both signing the church marriage register as a soloist sang Ave Maria. At the wedding reception, held at her parent's home on Queensdale Avenue, Gertrude was presented with a white gold wristwatch by the groom. Her father gave the newlyweds a house at 189 Pickering Street as a wedding gift.

They would not live in that house however until sometime in 1937 when they returned to Toronto following the death of Graham's mother. It had been a tough economic time, the Depression era had set in and they had moved with their eldest child to Detroit in 1929 where Graham had been offered a job. Over the eight years they lived in Detroit, Gertrude had given birth to two additional children, a daughter (my mother) and then a second son.

Back in Toronto, Gertrude and Graham settled into life raising their children, seeing each of them marry, and then welcoming grandchildren.

I spent a lot of time with my grandmother Gertrude O'Neill or 'Nanna' as I called her because we lived just two houses away from her. I was her first grandchild and I admit that she put a lot of effort into spoiling me. I can still feel the devastation of July 13th, 1962 when I heard my mother calling across the street to a neighbour and telling the neighbour about my grandmother's death that afternoon. My mother didn't know at the time that I was in that neighbour's kitchen, building model airplanes with the neighbour's son.

Following a funeral at St. John's Roman Catholic Church, Gertrude Ellen Foley O'Neill was interred in the O'Neill family plot at Mount Hope Cemetery where she would be joined years later, to forever rest in peace, by her husband Graham.

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