- A Home on the Hill:Memories of St Vincent’s Home, Drexel Hill, PA
The year 1920 started off very badly for the Marra family, Italian immigrants and their six children living in Bethlehem, PA. After the mother died the father abandoned the children and other relatives could not care for them. Because Bethlehem was then part of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the authorities brought the children down to Philadelphia and the Catholic Children’s Bureau for placement.1
The children, five girls and a boy were sent to St. Vincent’s Home, Drexel Hill under the charge of the Daughters of Charity. The five girls would stay long-term although Petronilla, the eldest, who did not adjust easily, was for a time placed in foster care, but she was treated so badly she ran away and begged to be taken back at St. Vincent’s. She, Nicky, Flossy, Margaret, and Mary then stayed until they came of age to go off on their own. Most married, raised families, and prospered. Nicky at age 16 chose to remain as paid kitchen staff, eventually head cook, and was a beloved fixture at St Vincent’s until it closed.
Their memories and those of other former residents and some of the Sisters are recorded in “We Called it Home: St. Vincent’s Drexel Hill,” compiled by Martin F. Whalen, Jr. whose mother was Petronilla Marra Whalen. It was self-published as a spiral-bound volume in 2003. Most of the seventy or so testimonies were given by elderly matrons (some now deceased) who were recalling events of well over half a century past [End Page 91] with the rest contributed by equally elderly Daughters of Charity. It is entirely possible their memories softened after the passage of time, or others who had sharply different memories chose not to contribute. Nevertheless, these testimonies taken from lived experience should be part of the conversation as to how to meet the needs of children at risk, even if they are at odds with current social theory.
By coincidence, St. Vincent’s Home, Drexel Hill opened in 1920, the same year the Marra children arrived; its dedication was held on May 9, 1920 by Archbishop Dennis Dougherty before a throng of 125,000. Pennsylvania Governor William C. Sproul remarked, “I have a good bit of experience in addressing multitudes of our people, but I have never seen a crowd like this.”2
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The impressive building with a capacity of 550 residents did not represent a brand-new institution, but was the latest of several sites. It had its beginnings in 1855 as an orphanage conducted by the Daughters of Charity on a much smaller scale at Eighteenth and Wood Streets, [End Page 92] Philadelphia and then in 1903 at Twentieth and Race Streets. That property was taken by eminent domain by the city for the construction of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 1917. The new 35-acre site was a former summer estate of financier Anthony Drexel, founder of Drexel University and uncle of St. Katharine Drexel. It was obtained almost immediately by Philadelphia’s Archbishop Edmond Prendergast who did not live to see the project to completion because the outbreak of World War I prevented most civilian construction. In the meantime, children from the former St. Vincent’s were sent to a property in Point Pleasant, New Jersey or absorbed by other orphanages in the Archdiocesan system.
Catholic orphan care in Philadelphia traces back to 1797 in the wake of the disastrous Yellow Fever epidemic that decimated the city and left many orphans. At first children were placed in an early form of foster care, but in 1806 a matron was hired to care for them and in 1811 three Sisters of Charity (as they were then known) were sent by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to care for the children. All of the works of the Sisters in Philadelphia follow from that, including St. Vincent’s Home and another St. Vincent’s Home attached to St. Vincent’s Maternity Hospital at 70th Street and Woodland Avenue, Philadelphia...