One does not need a sixth sense to see dead people. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” the poet Walt Whitman muses about those in the past and those in the future who, like himself, have crossed and who will cross on the ferry, experiencing what he experiences in the present. Simply put, a heightened awareness of the people and places that touch our daily lives can turn a bland, two-dimensional world into a vibrant three-dimensional colorful panorama. Not unlike those special eyeglasses needed to fully appreciate 2-D and 3-D movies, developing a sense of connectedness to the past can enrich the present – and perhaps even guide the future.
Holy Family University is built on land rich in history. Every trip to the campus today takes students along Frankford Avenue, likely part of the oldest road in the U.S. Once a trail for the Leni Lenape Indians, the road was first mapped during the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685). Called King’s Highway during the days of the American Revolution, George Washington traveled by the future site of the University en route to his first inauguration in New York. So, put on those magic glasses and imagine our first President strolling northward on a nice spring day in April 1789.
Bored by long breaks between classes? A walk down Grant Avenue to Glen Foerd or Fluehr Park on a crisp autumn day might be good exercise for both body and mind. According to historians William C. English and Emily Cooperman, in 1850, Charles Macalester, Jr., a wealthy banker and diplomat, purchased 84 acres of agricultural land north of Philadelphia. Macalester named his newly acquired land Torrisdale, after his ancestral home in Scotland. Likely the land on which Holy Family was built was part of this purchase. Macalester eventually sold off some of the land but kept an area near the river to build his country estate which he named Glengarry.
In the mid-1890s, Glengarry was purchased by Robert Foerderer who began extensive renovations and renamed his estate Glen Foerd. Now the property of a Conservation Corporation and the Fairmount Park Commission, this palatial estate and its scenic river views are open to the public. Take a stroll and imagine the opulent lives of the Foerderer family a century ago. One room on the second floor of the mansion is called the Wedding Room. In 1939, Mignon Estabrook Foerderer (1911-2002) likely dressed for her marriage to John Moore Kelso Davis as she viewed the river and a gathering of hundreds of guests on the property grounds. Much of Philadelphia’s high society attended this ostentatious wedding at the end of a decade marked by depression and poverty for much of the city’s working classes.
Afterwards, the couple embarked on a two-month honeymoon through England, Scotland, and the Continent. The Foerderer Family Papers (Collection 3102) housed at the Pennsylvania Historical Society show photos of the garden wedding, a list of the guests, along with pages of expensive gifts presented to the young couple. While there is no evidence that Mignon and John preserved photographs from their European escapade, the Collection does contain two intriguing photographs of Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, likely taken in July 1939, about the time the newlyweds returned from Europe. What webs people weave as they trek through life!
Feel like a jog or walk through a beautiful, free public park? Named in honor of Joseph Fluehr who spearheaded a movement to preserve the land that once housed an exclusive Catholic girls’ school known as Eden Hall, Fluehr Park is layered with history. Founded in 1847 by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Eden Hall was committed to providing a quality boarding school education for the daughters of the wealthy and privileged. Additionally, the Sisters’ mission included educating the daughters of local poor Catholic families. Anyone lucky enough to meet a ghost or two here might encounter St. John Neumann, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis with her aunts, Mother Katharine Drexel or other Drexel family members, or the daughters of Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone.
Sadly, little evidence can be seen today of the school that educated both rich and poor for over a century until 1970 when Eden Hall closed due to financial difficulties. In 1979, a fire destroyed part of the school and its beautiful chapel; in July 2006 arsonists finished the job. Even the remains of those buried in the convent cemetery and the chapel crypt have been removed. Nonetheless, those looking to touch the past could not find richer soil than Fluehr Park.
A short trek south on King’s Highway — oops Frankford Avenue – one can find All Saints’ Episcopal Church. Founded in 1772, this church existed when George Washington passed by in 1789. Wandering the gravestones of the church’s old cemetery, one can read the markers of many who lived during the American Revolution. Going north from Holy Family, a left turn onto Knights Road takes one to the old stomping ground of a Saint. Anyone who has visited or driven by Jefferson Torresdale Hospital has noticed the unusual chapel-like building near the hospital’s ER. Two buildings on the hospital property were once part of the summer home of Francis A. Drexel, the wealthy father of Mother Katharine Drexel.
Many might argue that the present is rich enough. Those of us on campus may ask, “Who cares about the dead who have nothing to do with me?” It is true: the present can be full, exciting, and rewarding without a sense of history. It is true that the tunnel vision of youth with eyes locked on the future might help one reach life’s pinnacle sooner. But it is also true that life passes quickly, and often only later do we realize the power of history to teach and enrich our lives. Even if you care naught about the people and places mentioned in this article, what about the history that courses through your veins? Lucky enough to have grandparents or great-grandparents? They are your living history. Perhaps consider putting on those special glasses that could add dimension and color to your life through understanding their lives before the present becomes the past.
Susan Kearney, 1970 graduate from Holy Family – taking advantage of the Golden Graduate opportunity to audit a class per semester. She taught high school English and Spanish for 35 years and was a part-time adjunct professor at Rowan University teaching American literature for 10 years. Upon retirement, Susan volunteers at the Pennsylvania Historical Society. Interests include travel, genealogy, and choral singing.