O, not in cruelty, not in wrath,
The Reaper came that day;
‘T was an angel visited the green earth,
And took the flowers away.
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Reaper and the Flowers” (1839)
The things that can tell us the most about ourselves, about life, often do not sit out in the open. They sit in out-of-the-way places, off those well-trodden paths we know so well. And they hide in the archive, just waiting for someone with the time and the curiosity to unearth their secrets.
For me it began after a particularly difficult week. Needing some space, and some time to collect myself, I set out to explore an area I had never explored before: Audubon, Pawlings, and the lower Perkiomen. A trip to the abandoned paint works, then a long bike ride up to Collegeville and back. But it was at the end of the ride that I saw it. Route 422 had cut through the area, but perched atop a hill near Pawlings Road were a series of white crosses. Intrigued, I took a detour through a farm field to have a look.
There they were: lines of crosses, row on row. Some had names, most did not. Who were these people? Why were they buried there in that forlorn place?
I assumed they were connected with St. Gabriel’s Hall—that reform school across the road that my grandfather would occasionally drive by on our way back from Norristown (and sometimes threaten to send me there if I didn’t behave). A quick check of the records showed…, well, nothing. It was referenced in one old database as the Philadelphia Boys Protectory Cemetery, and that was the only lead I had to go on.
The Philadelphia Boys Protectory was founded in 1898, the crowning achievement of Archbishop Ryan. In part to relieve the stress on the overburdened youth and other diocesan services in the city, but also to provide a house of refuge for at-risk boys — those who were orphaned, or from alcoholic or abusive households, or who otherwise need a safe place to live — the institution continues today as part of the St. Gabriel’s system. In its long history, there must have been those who died at that institution who had no one to claim their remains, and who lie there still. But who were they?
A visit to the Diocesan Archives at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook yielded little information, other than the records were not there. But the archivist did have the contact information for the archivist at La Salle University (and for the Congregation of Christian Brothers). He was very welcoming and must be the nicest human being on the face of this earth. He confirmed that yes, he had some records, and that I would be welcome to visit.
The archive at La Salle is like nothing I have ever seen. The archivist had an incredibly unique system in place: no closed-packed shelving, but instead, he had them all on shelving casters. I had used them in factory work, but to use them in an archive was something I had never considered. Raised off the floor and incredibly flexible and adjustable, this strikes me as a rather ingenious solution for many archives that need the flexibility on a budget.
He had put together a history of St. Gabe’s around 1998 to mark that institution’s centennial, and he had consulted a number of sources including work by Bro. Gerald Ronan. Though no official cemetery records exist, Bro. Ronan had combed through the logs of the Infirmarian at the Protectory to confirm what he had learned from word-of-mouth and from other ephemeral notes.
Slowly, a sad story emerged from those notations. The cemetery holds the remains of 47 or more men and boys who lived and worked at the Protectory. Those boys buried there were no older than 17, the youngest 11. Boys like Michael Dwulic, who died at age 17 of cancer. When they died (of many reasons, from disease to accidental drowning in the Schuylkill), no family was there to tend to them, and no one came forward to claim their bodies. Other boys that died at the Protectory were claimed and buried at their local parishes.
But these poor children had no one. Nor did the 16 workmen and staff members buried with them. The staff who died were farmers, laborers, even a professor. For whatever reason, they had no biological families of their own; Herbert Sieber, the laundryman, was one such unfortunate; he died at age 87 at the Protectory from the infirmities of old age. The boys, and the people of the Protectory, were his family, and so he was laid to rest at the institution he had served for many years.
As part of spreading word of these findings, I have posted the information I have found to an online database at http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=cr&CRid=2516808. Though far from perfect, it will at the least give family members a chance to find their long-lost kin.
But that is the value and the power of archives. With a little digging and a little luck, they hold to those earthly questions we find ourselves asking. They allow the dead, those otherwise nameless, mute, dead to speak to us, to guide us in our own earthly pursuits. Without the La Salle archive, those men and boys interred off a grassy patch of road in Audubon would be nothing more than wooden crosses on a hill, instead of the embodied testaments to both unpleasant parts of our past and the good parts. To paraphrase W. H. Auden, no one exists alone — while we are on this earth we must love one another — then die.