Catholic Philopatrian Literary Institute

He was apprehensive. A bit frightened too.

He looked through the rectory window onto South 4th Street, now slowly being smothered with falling December snow. He was a slight, balding man in his early 40s, a parish priest at Old St. Mary’s.

Again he pushed aside the curtain and looked out once more. “It’s two o’clock,” he told himself as the chimes rang twice. “They should be here soon. Some of them at least.”

Father Edward J. Sourin stopped pacing. Pacing did nothing to erase his uneasiness. He simply sat down to wait.

Philadelphia was not a happy place on that tenth day of December in 1850. Particularly not for the underfed and unemployed Irish who were arriving daily from starting Ireland on the leaky “coffin ships,” nor even less so for those fleeing political strife which was sweeping the German states.

Local workers were stirred up against these immigrants who swelled the local labor force. Last year the hostile Star Spangled Banner Society had been formed to harass and harm the newcomers. Since its members were secretive about their activities they came to be called the “Know Nothings”.

During this decade just closing a million Irish had arrived in the United States along with an equal number of Germans. Since these were primarily Catholic they bore the brunt of hatred and flame that seared the land.

The stench of some of Philadelphia’s burned Catholic churches still lay heavy in the air. Know Nothing riots left hideous marks on the bodies of battered Irish and on church property.

It was the result of these horrifying conditions that worried Father Sourin. Even more, the ravishing effects they were having on Irish youth.

The first of the ten or so men of the parish who had been invited by Father Sourin arrived, closely followed by several of the others.

Father Sourin greeted them enthusiastically, then hurried to get on with the purpose of this meeting.

No need to review with them the anti-Catholic violence. Some of those at this meeting had already felt its blows. He came right to the point.

Fr. Edward J. Sourin, SJ
Fr. Edward J. Sourin, SJ

“Jobs are scarce. You all know that,” he reported. “But Irish boys aren’t, and they’re cheap. These lads get little or no schooling before they have to quit schools and work to help support their families. Young boys — nine and ten years old.”

“It’s a rotten situation, Father,” declared Timothy Lynch, a skilled draftsman, who had been first to arrive.

“But there’s little we can do about it. These kids are working long, hard hours in the warehouses, print shops, and the lace and carpet mills,” he continued. “Some even begin at less than nine years. It’s cheaper to hire them than grownups.”

Bob Dougherty a handsome barrister, cut in to add, “And when they’re grownups they bump face-to-face into signs that say ‘No Irish Need Apply’.”

Father Sourin listened carefully as others contributed to the descriptions of the appalling conditions facing these Catholic children.

Then he unfolded his plan.

He proposed starting a club, one in which he hoped that these men along with others would join. They would meet for cultural discussions.

“This will be a place where these young boys will be encouraged to learn, where they’ll be taught to read.” He continued to enthusiastically proceed with his plan. “We’ll encourage them to join in discussions and stimulate them to study. We’ll guide them in self-education.”

Before the meeting came to an end the Catholic Philopatrian Literary Institute (“Philo”) was born. The organization is now well into its second century. Having accomplished Father Sourin’s initial purpose it expanded its activities into charities which it continues until this day.

The Philopatrian expanded rapidly.

But tragedy struck! Death wiped out the majority of its members and almost ended the Philo long before it had completed its second decade.

In the early 1860s, the Philo was composed primarily of prominent young men who eagerly enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. Casualties were frightening.

Thereafter, however, new members replenished its rolls and it prospered. In its early years, the Philopatrian (which means “Love of Country”) grew swiftly. It had been born of a noble purpose and was achieving its original goal.

Saint John Neumann, early member

Meetings were held at the Athenaeum which still stand at the southeast corner of 6th and Walnut streets facing Washington Square. Each year its library bulged larger with books and willing members to help the boys.

Saint John Neumann, then Bishop of Philadelphia, was one of the early members.

It was at the Athenaeum, in 1851, that Bishop Kendrick, a speaker at an early lecture, opened the discussion of a centralized Catholic School System which got the members’ enthusiastic support and spurred the formation of the first Philadelphia free Catholic schools.

The Philo later endowed a chair in English literature in the first Catholic high school for girls.

Leaving the Athenaeum after three years, the Philo moved to larger quarters to accomodate its expanding membership and growing facilities.

There were fifteen moves in all, always westward. Among them the still standing building at 1229 Locust, former home of the Schuykill Hose Company which became available when the volunteer fire companies were replaced by the paid firemen.

Then, too, the northwest corner of Broad and Arch streets which was sold to make way for the UGI building.

The Philo moved into its permanent home at 1923 Walnut Street in 1926. This is the former townhouse of the late Edward T. Stotesbury and remains the last of these Rittenhouse Square mansions, from Philadelphia’s age of elegance, still kept in its original splendor.

Free for members’ use is the health club, the rathskeller, the billiard room, resting rooms, meeting rooms and the gracious ballroom. Also, the popular squash court on the top floor. This was installed as a present for Mr. Stotesbury’s stepson, James Cromwell, better known as husband heiress Doris Duke and U.S. Minister to Canada.

Philo Becomes a Hospital

During World War I, the Philo was on Arch Street facing Reyburn Plaza. The devastating flu epidemic was ravishing Philadelphia. Hospitals were hopelessly overcrowded.

The Philo offered its building to the city. It was gratefully accepted and turned into Emergency Hospital #3, staffed with nursing nuns.

Philo’s charitable participations have taken various directions. Among the most favored was St. Peter Claver’s, an early church for blacks.

Advocacy for the rights of blacks goes deep into Philo history to 1858. At that time the city abounded with “Literary” societies. An organization of these societies was formed called “The Literary Union”.

There was one black society composed of freed slaves called the “Banake” which was refused membership in the confederation due to skin color. The Philo took such a militant stand in favor of admission that finally the opposition diminished.

Records show that through the years Philo aid was given to such institutions as St. Joseph’s Home for Homeless Boys, the House of the Good Shepherd, St. Agnes Hospital, St. Edmond’s Home for Crippled Children, Archbishop’s Home for the Deaf, St. Francis Industrial Home and the St. Vincent dePaul Societies in various parishes. In 1944 the Philo paid off the mortgage on St. Ignatius’ Home.

With the passing of time, numerous other needly enterprises have benefited through Philo’s benevolence.

Of the many social activities of the Philo, five are outstanding because of the Institute’s past and purpose.

The series of free lectures has continued without interruption since the founding. The Philopatrian Scholarship Fund, founded in 1950 on the 100th anniversary of the Philo, is so well structured financially that it continues to award scholarships on an annual basis to deserving students.

Other landmark events are the annual President’s Reception and the Sourin Award.

The Philo Ball was first held in 1870 and became an outstanding social event in Philadelphia. However, it was blanked out in the years between 1901 and 1909 due to an occurrence that almost ripped apart the Institute.

Admiral Dewey, hero of the Spanish-American War, was to be guest of honor at the 1901 Ball. Tickets were at a premium. But Admiral Dewey failed to show.

Some members thought it was all a hoax. Tempers boiled. Wild charges were made. Many members simply quit. To let things cool the Ball was not held for the next eight years.

Award Honors Fr. Sourin

The Sourin Award was planned during the spring and summer of 1959. David Lawrence, the first Catholic Governor of Pennsylvania, was named the recipient. The affair was to take place in mid-November. But the Governor, by strange mishap, was not informed and went off to vacation in Florida, which is why the first Sourin Award did not take place until March, 1960.

However, the Sourin Award has continued without interruption to recognize distinguished Catholics and to keep alive the name of the brilliant priest who founded the Institute. In 1976 a national magazine, describing the Catholic constituency in the city, described the Sourin Award as “the outstanding Catholic event in Philadelphia.”

The Shield of the Philopatrian compressed the story and the purpose of the Institute. The Cross represents the presence of the Church. The harp recalls the Irish youth the Philo was organized to assist, and the books and candle tell that the assistance was in the form of education.

Above is the sketch of the door of the building which houses the Philo. It is carved of stone with the double lions on either side of the circle at the top. When the wealthy Stotsburys took over the house from the McKeans and made this their town house, this door was one of the very many embellishments they added to the structure.

This entrance has often served as a symbol on Philopatrian literature, letterheads, and other printed material.