A Walk in the Park with Uncle Leon

Forest Park Railroad Bridge Thumbnail
The bridge over the railroad tracks in Forest Park

I don’t have a lot of memories of my Uncle Leon. He sadly passed away in 1960 when I was 11 years old. One memory that does stand out occurred sometime in the late 1950s when my family was on one of their frequent weekend trips to Richmond Hill to visit my father’s parents (my grandparents) and his two sisters (my Aunt Anna and Aunt Rose). After dinner, a few of “us men” decided to go for a walk along the road that meanders through Forest Park. From what I remember the group consisted of: Uncle Leon, Uncle Paul, Uncle Rocco (my father), and a few of us kids.

Uncle Leon was sharing stories about his experience working for the Long Island Railroad. When we got to the bridge that crosses over the railroad tracks we walked down the slope to the tracks below. This was a big deal for me because I was a bit of a railroad nut at that time. I loved anything to do with trains, especially around Christmas when I got to set up my Lionel trainset under the tree.

I don’t remember exactly what Uncle Leon was talking to us about, but it may have been around the time when he gave us some old train seats from a passenger car that was being remodeled. My father used those seats to create a dining area in our basement in Tarrytown. During the summer we pretty much lived in the basement because the rest of the house was too hot. Us kids slept in the basement (maybe on those old train seats) and my parents slept upstairs in the living room on a fold-out couch. Nobody dared sleep in the second-floor bedrooms!

Fast forward about 65 years when Uncle Leon’s great-granddaughter, Sara Grab, contacted me to find out more about her Sicilian ancestry. Being the “genealogical detective” that I am, I decided to do a deep dive into my Ancestry.com account and go back in time to early nineteen hundred Sicily to find out what I could about Uncle Leon.

This is what I found:

Leonardo Messina

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The SS Patria – later to be sunk during World War II

The story of Leonardo Messina, my “Uncle Leon,” begins with his birth on August 26, 1908, in the city of Marsala, in the province of Trapani, in western Sicily. Leon was the youngest of 5 children born to Margherita Di Giovanni and Alberto Messina. Francesca was the oldest, then came Ignazia, Lorenzo, and Angela.

Just before Leon celebrated his 8th birthday the family immigrated to the United States. They may have been taken to Palermo by Margherita’s brother Fico Di Giovanni. The family sailed from Palermo on the 19th of July, 1916 aboard the SS Patria. They arrived at Ellis Island on August 2 with a total of $15 between them.

Click the images below to view large versions of pages 1 and 2 of the SS Patria manifest. The hi-lighted areas show the Messina family:

SS Patria Manifest Page 1 Thumbnail
SS Patria Manifest Page 2 Thumbnail
176 Van Siclen Ave Thumbnail
176 Van Siclen Avenue Today

The family was detained for 2 days on Ellis Island for medical exams, and upon their release, they were met by Margherita’s oldest daughter, Francesca Milteno. The family probably stayed with Francesca at 176 Van Siclan Avenue until they moved to the Atlantic Avenue address shown on the 1920 census.

Click the image below to view the larger version of the Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry. The hi-lighted area shows the Messina family:

Ellis Island Medical Thumbnail
2724 Atlantic Avenue Thumbnail
2724 Atlantic Avenue Today (second from right)

The 1920 US Census shows Leon living at 2724 Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn with his mother (now called Margaret), his brother Lorenzo (now called Lawrence), his sister Angela (now called Angelina), and an 11-year-old male child named Albert (maybe a cousin). His sister, Ignazia, seems to have moved out and is living on her own. Leon is 11 years old and has a job in a barbershop. Even though his occupation is listed as “barber,” I’m sure he’s not cutting hair but probably sweeping it up.

Click the image below to view the large version of the 1920 Census. The hi-lighted area shows the Messina family living on Atlantic Avenue:

Leon Messina 1920 Census Thumbnail

On March 18, 1929, Leon applied for United States citizenship by filling out a Declaration of Intention document, whereby he renounced all alegence and fidelity to the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III. He would not take the oath and actually become a citizen until June 8, 1932. That document is below after the 1930 Census record.

Click the image below to view the larger version of Leon’s Declaration of Intention:

Leon Messina Declaration of Intent Thumbnail

The 1930 census shows Leon and his mother Margaret living at 323 Cleveland Street with a lodger named Ernesto Spedale who was 44 years old at the time. It can also be assumed that Leon’s older sister Angelina married William Parrinello and they and their sons Anthony and Albert live in the same house (or maybe next door). Leon is now working as a chauffeur in the soda business.

Click the image below to view the large version of the 1930 Census. The hi-lighted area shows the Messina and Parrinello families living on Cleveland Street:

Leon Messina 1930 Census Thumbnail
27 Bradford Steet Thumbnail
27 Bradford Street Today

Sometime between April 12, 1930, and June 8, 1932, the Messina family moved from 323 Cleveland Steet to 27 Bradford Street. After applying for citizenship on March 18, 1929, Leon became a naturalized citizen of the United States of America on June 8, 1932. Leon was accompanied to the courthouse that day by two associates who would act as witnesses. They were Domenico Cerrone, a cement mason, and Tony Guarnieri, an ice dealer.

Click the image below to view the full version of Leon’s Petition for Citizenship:

Leon Messina Petition for Citizenship Thumbnail

Leon married Rose Palermo on April 28, 1935. Below are the entries in the New York Marriage License Index showing that Leon and Rose applied for their marriage license on March 2, 1935.

Click the image below to view a larger version of Leon and Rose’s marriage license index:

Leon Messina Marriage License Thumbnail

The 1940 census shows Leon and Rose still living with William and Angelina Parrinello at 27 Bradford Street in Brooklyn. Along with Leon (31), Rose (26), and Leon’s mother Margaret (69), are three-year-old Margaret and her nine-month-old brother Albert. My future cousins have finally arrived on the scene! Leon is now a beverage salesman, earning $1,000 annually.

Click the image below to view the large version of the 1940 Census. The hi-lighted area shows the Messina and Parrinello families:

Leon Messina 1940 Census Thumbnail

There is no date on Leon’s draft card, but it does show that he was 32 years old at the time it was issued. That means it was issued sometime between August 6, 1940 and August 6, 1941, well before Pearl Harbor.

Click the image below to view a larger version of Leon’s draft card:

Leon Messina Draft Card
93 Miller Ave Thumbnail
92 Miller Avenue Today

After another decade and another world war have gone by, the 1950 census shows the Messina family living at 92 Miller Avenue in Brooklyn. The new addition to the family is 6-year-old Philip. Leon is now working as a welder for the railroad and Rose is working as a machine operator in a coat factory. If I remember correctly, that coat factory was owned by Rose’s Uncle Tony Augello. They are no longer sharing the house with Leon’s sister, Angelina, and her husband, William. The 1950 census shows the Parrinello family living at 92 Shepard Avenue in Brooklyn.

Click the image below to view a larger version of the 1950 Census. The hi-lighted area shows the Messina family:

Leon Messina 1950 Census Thumbnail

The 1950 census is the last one released to the general public. According to the “72-Year Rule,” the National Archives releases census records to the general public 72 years after Census Day. As a result, the 1960 census will not be released until April 2032.

Some final comments:

1 – There is an inconsistency in the documents above concerning Leon’s date of birth. The Declaration of Intention and the Petition for Citizenship show Leon’s date of birth as August 26, 1908, however, his Draft Card shows his date of birth as August 6, 1908. All of the other documents that I discovered and listed above have a column for Age rather than Date of Birth. When I spoke to Al Messina on the phone recently he mentioned that his father celebrated his birthday on August 6th rather than the 26th.

2 – According to the SS Patria passenger manifest, the family was met by Margharita’s daughter, Francesca Milteno, who lived at 176 Van Siclen Avenue in Brooklyn. Al Messina was not aware of his Aunt Frances (Francesca) ever being married to someone with the last name of Milteno. Except for that passenger manifest, I could not find a Francesca Milteno in any other records available for New York at that period of time. However, Al did mention that Francesca Messina was married to Melchiorre Schifano, who I was able to find plenty of information about.

Melchiorre Schifano was born on November 7, 1889, in Trapani, Sicily. He came to the United States when he was 23 years old, sailing from Palermo onboard the SS San Giovanni, arriving in New York on June 13, 1913. He married Francesca Messina on April 8, 1917. He became a naturalized citizen on April 29, 1929.

3 – Alberto Messina was born in 1866 to Francesca Damiani and Lorenzo Messina. H e died at 45 years of age on January 31, 1911. His grave number is 1340.