Eighty years ago, Joseph T. Sekula began arranging funeral services for Polish families in Port Richmond, often holding services in the homes of the dead.
Last week, the funeral home that bore his name and had been passed down for three generations was sold to new owners, who will continue to run a new funeral home out of the same location.
“To me, it’s tough to see a business, when it was started in 1933, and now it’s closed,” said George Herbert, a Port Richmond native and grandson of Joseph T. Sekula, who worked in the family business for 12 years.
Herbert has nothing against Andrew Rakowski, the new owner, he said.
But Herbert did oppose the sale of the funeral home, which was authorized by his cousin.
“I don’t think my cousin should have sold the funeral home,” Herbert said. “They knew this was not the wishes of me and my aunt.”
Joseph T. Sekula’s daughter, Florence, took over the business after her father died, and it was she who taught Herbert the ropes. She often told him that she wanted him to continue running the business after she passed on. But she never wrote it down in her will, and had no children of her own.
One out of Florence’s 23 nieces and nephews, who had no involvement with the funeral home, according to Herbert, inherited power of attorney over her estate, and decided to sell the home. Lawyers told Herbert that an appeal of the will would be costly and likely unsuccessful.
So, he has conceded defeat.
“My aunt’s intentions were for me to run it, for my son to go to school, get his funeral director’s license and for him to run it,” Herbert said. “She had many offers to sell over the years. But to her the funeral home was not just a business, it was her life and her family legacy.”
The foundations of that legacy were first laid in the Great Depression.
In 1933, Joseph T. Sekula was very active in the Port Richmond community, having been involved in opening St. Adalbert’s Church and School and in the formation of Polonia Bank, Herbert said.
He also understood that Polish immigrants in Port Richmond needed access to services that were often limited due to language or bias, Herbert said. One of those needs was funeral services.
As unbelievable as it sounds now, the state association of funeral directors opposed Sekula’s bid to open up a licensed funeral home because of his Polish heritage, according to Herbert.
“When he opened up here, they didn’t want him, because he was Polish,” Herbert said.
So, the original Sekula organized funerals in the homes of the deceased.
Eventually, he won the right to have a license from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in the “State Board of Undertakers v. Joseph T. Sekula Funeral Homes,” and opened up his own shop, at 2634 E. Allegheny Ave.
Herbert’s grandfather Joseph and grandmother Tillie ran the business in the first decades while living above the funeral home. Their son, Joseph, Jr., and daughter Florence, became the second generation of Sekulas to run the business. Florence, who was never seen without her trademark derby hat, became a licensed funeral director in 1948, at a time when few women pursued the profession.
“Sekula’s was a trademark of Port Richmond,” said Theresa Romanowski, vice president of the Polish American Congress and special events coordinator for the Polish American Cultural Center. “For years, they’ve had that sign hanging there. They made you feel like part of the family.”
Romanowski’s mother and father were both buried by the Sekulas, and she said the services were “wonderful.” Romanowski knew Florence by the nickname “Basha,” taken from her middle name “Barbara.”
“She knew my mother personally,” Romanowski recalled. “My mother said, ‘Basha, if you don’t dress me nicely when you bury me, I will come back and haunt you personally.’”
Over the years, Florence became known as the face of Sekula’s – and pretty much everybody called her “boss.”
“She didn’t mince words,” said Edward Czepulkowski, a licensed funeral director who worked with Florence. “If she didn’t like you, you knew it … but she could cry over the dumbest things sometimes.”
Herbert, 57, moved back to Port Richmond in 2001 after being laid off from a job, to assist his mother, Eleanor, who had been diagnosed with cancer. That was also when he began working alongside Florence at the funeral home as a do-everything assistant.
“It was trying to keep my grandfather’s legacy going,” Herbert said of his reasons for going into the family business. “I always loved hearing stories about him.”
Gradually, Florence gave Herbert more and more responsibility, while he felt like he had found his niche. In 2010, Florence was admitted to an assisted living facility. She passed away there in December 2012.
Herbert, who is in school to become a licensed funeral director, continued to run the business after Florence’s death, with no idea that a sale was being considered.
“We were going on the assumption that the business would continue,” Herbert said.
Six weeks ago, Herbert was notified that his cousin had sold the funeral home for $317,000, he said. To keep the funeral home in the family, Herbert offered to pay $320,000 – two thirds now, the rest by 2014 — but his cousin declined the offer.
For now, Herbert is still affected by knowing that the family business, his legacy, is over. But he will continue the traditions and skills he learned by working at another funeral home in Port Richmond, keeping the family legacy alive that way.
“Some people say things happen for a reason. Others say when one door closes, another door opens,” Herbert said.
“You always have those memories that you’ll keep, those memories that never change.” ••