Big Family, Broad Smiles, Small Space

Of the seventeen members of the Metcalfe family who were photographed in Hoboken around their “festive board,” as the 1929 newspaper caption put it, only two are alive today.

Brendon—the dark-haired boy in the chair at front right (whose twin, Kevin, died at birth)—is 89 and lives in Wallington. Emily (on the stool at front left) is 87 and lives in Lantana, Florida.
The descendants of immigrants Henry and Annie Metcalfe have spread across Hudson County and to places as far away as California. The festive board (which needed an actual board for seating to accommodate everyone) has produced no less than twenty firemen, including eleven in Hoboken.

One of those, Ken Metcalfe—son of Anthony (in striped shirt at far left of picture) and a 27-year veteran of the Hoboken Fire Department—was recently promoted to battalion chief in charge of training.

“Being a fireman was my childhood dream,”  Metcalfe says. But at age 18 he tabled that dream to pursue another more associated with his father—music. Anthony, who worked most of his life as an elevator operator or deli clerk, was a talented amateur singer and drummer. Ken had just entered Montclair State to study music when his father died in 1973 at age 55.

Metcalfe left school after two years but had learned enough to play guitar, drums, and other instruments in local bands. That didn’t provide a living, so he took a job at the Bethlehem Steel ship-repair facility on Fourteenth Street in Hoboken—the same place his grandfather, Henry Metcalfe, had found work when he arrived from Dundalk in County Louth, Ireland, early in the twentieth century.

“Metcalfe is an Anglo name,” says Kevin Barry, 50, of Little Falls, son of Bernadette Metcalfe Barry, Anthony Metcalfe’s twin sister. “They [originally] were Protestants. [An earlier] Anthony Metcalfe was part of Oliver Cromwell’s army that invaded Ireland in the sixteenth century. He converted to Catholicism and settled in Ireland.”

Henry and Annie Metcalfe began raising their children in Dundalk.  Henry travelled the world as a merchant sailor, but when the family reached a certain size, he took a railroad job in Ireland. Better opportunities beckoned in America, so Henry left with his three oldest sons and later brought the rest of the family. In his later years, Henry worked as janitor and maintenance man of St. Paul of the Cross Church in Jersey City, where Annie volunteered in the kitchen.

“My grandmother was a wonderful cook,” says John Oppici, 72, son of Annie’s daughter Eileen. “She made a lot of soups and stews.” To make those go further, the family sopped up the liquids with many loaves of rye bread. Annie gave birth to a total of eighteen children. The last, being the first born in America, was named Christopher, in honor of Columbus.

“When I was a kid,” Oppici recalls, “the family got together every Sunday, and Christopher and I would be sent to the bakery a few blocks away to bring back four loaves of bread each. For a reward, we were allowed to eat the heels of the bread on our way back.”

Ken Metcalfe, who is divorced, still makes music. He and his girlfriend, Keira Hauck, have a duo, Kenny and Keira, in which she sings and he accompanies her on acoustic guitar. They play most Wednesday nights at Rogo’s Bar and Grill on Willow Avenue in Hoboken.

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  1. Berni Moughtin

    This a fabulous story! I am a granddaughter of John (Jack) and Mary (Molly) Metcalfe, John being Henry’s brother. I would dearly like to contact members of this family if you can help in any way. Warm regards, Bernadette Moughtin nee Metcalfe.

    • Ann-marie Fisher

      Annie Metcalfe was my grandmothers sister. She stayed in Ireland but mantained contact with some of the family, which my mother continues today. Feel free to email me…[email protected]