HOUSE AND FAMILY…
In January 1925, Willie and Nora Diggin welcomed their first child, a girl they named Mary in honor of the “Mother of God” and patroness of the rosary, a popular custom in Catholic families. Two months later, as the new parents reached their first wedding anniversary, they bought the three-story, red-brick house at 121 Johnston Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood neighborhood.
The seller, Anna A. O’Toole, was a 26-year-old unmarried telephone operator. She obtained the deed a year earlier for $1 from her Irish immigrant parents, who bought the house in 1917 for $5,125. The daughter sold the house for $13,000, or about $160,000 today, on March 28, 1925. Records show Willie and Nora made a $6,000 down payment.
Allegheny County public record photo of 121 Johnston Avenue, left, probably from the 1980s or 1990s. The property has not been owned by the Diggin family in over 25 years.
As they settled into the house, workers were busy in the next block restoring St. Stephen’s Church ,which was badly damaged by fire four months earlier. There also was construction activity at Willie’s workplace as Pittsburgh Railways built an administration building next to the old streetcar barn. The first floor of the new building included a passenger waiting area, offices and a locker room, lunch room, medical clinic and tailor shop for the streetcar men. The second floor featured a large community room for public meetings and dances.
The new building and the restored church both opened in mid-December 1925. “Christmas this year will be a day of double rejoicing to the priests and members of St. Stephen’s, for once again they shall honor God in a house worthy of His majesty,” the Pittsburgh Catholic declared.
The back of St. Stephen’s Church in Hazelwood after the November 1924 fire. The back of the Diggin house was to left of photo. Catholic Dioceses of Pittsburgh
Willie and Nora agreed to rent some of their upstairs rooms as apartments. They partitioned the front entry and an interior stairway to the second and third floors. The April 1930 census shows Willie was collecting $40 a month rent from a family of three in one apartment and $26 a month from a family of four in a second apartment.
But the space available for rent diminished has his family grew. By 1932, Willie and Nora were the parents of six girls. Their daughters walked to St. Stephen’s affiliated grade school taught by the Sisters of Charity.
Willie walked the three blocks between his house and the Glenwood administration building and streetcar barn. He kept his pocket watch “in agreement with car house clock time for close observance of schedule running time,” as required by the company’s operating manual. He carried his lunch in a back metal box with his name etched into the rounded top.
Willie and his immigrant neighbors were living a better life in America than most of them had dared to imagine in Ireland and the rest of Europe. They were not wealthy, especially as the nation sank into the Great Depression of the 1930s. But Willie had secured a steady foothold in America, one that would benefit his children and future generations.
Tomorrow: GREAT DEPRESSION