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History's Headlines: Coopersburg's Sacred Heart School and Orphanage

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Apr 04 2014 09:08:04 PM CDT
Updated On: Apr 07 2014 05:57:53 PM CDT

History's Headlines: Sacred Heart Orphanage

COOPERSBURG, Pa. -

Colby Kent has lived in Coopersburg since 1965, so he has memories of the old Sacred Heart School, sometimes known as simply as the Coopersburg Orphanage, that closed in 1974. “They were the only nearby Catholic school with a chapel,” he says. “My daughter went to kindergarten there.”

Kent notes that, since it educated children who lived in intact families at home (known in the school’s shorthand as the “outsiders”), as well as those who boarded there (the so-called “insiders”), it could be argued that it was not strictly an orphanage. “But for many of those who lived there it was an orphanage.”

Kent, who has been a member of the Coopersburg Historical Society since 1980 and is currently its treasurer, notes that many people in the borough know very little if anything about the school. “As far back as many people can remember is when it was Pinebrook College in the 1980s,” he says.

Yet from its opening in 1938 to its closing in 1974, the Sacred Heart School, created by the Allentown inner city parish of the same name, provided a space for children of any race, sex or creed to find a refuge from the hard times of the Great Depression and World War II era.

To keep its historic memory alive, the CHS decided to hold a special event called “Remembering Sacred Heart Home and School.” The event will be held at the Coopersburg Borough Hall on Saturday April 5, between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m.

Admission is free and light refreshments will be served. Former students of the school and orphanage, including some from as far away as Florida, will be on hand to share their memories. And a small exhibit will be available for viewing in the society’s museum on the borough hall’s second floor.

The CHS is going to have a short history of the institution available on CD for those who might be interested. Among those offering brief remarks will by Msgr. John Grabish, Sacred Heart’s pastor, and Dr. John “Jack” Flech,” Coopersburg’s borough council president.

The school/orphanage came about to meet a pressing need. Historians note that Allentown suffered less than a lot of places during the Great Depression. But like everywhere else, it clearly had an impact on the city’s working class who lived on the edge in the best of times and were now out of work.

The impact of this was noted by Msgr. Leo Gregory Fink, the pastor of the city’s Roman Catholic Sacred Heart Church. In the first half of the 20th century, it was not uncommon for babies who were unwanted or physically disabled to be left at Sacred Heart Hospital.

They were called “boarders” and given bed space in the hospital’s Pediatrics Department. Eventually they would either be sent to an orphanage in Philadelphia or hopefully adopted locally.

Even before the Depression this practice had concerned Fink. It was his Christian duty to see that such children were cared for. And his orderly mind must have felt that such care required an institution where it could be done properly.

In the mid-1920s he had begun eying land in Limeport on which to build an orphanage, and had gotten the permission of the Diocese of Philadelphia, which owned the property. Perhaps with the onset of the Depression this idea was not promptly carried out. It was in 1938 that Fink began to look at Coopersburg.

On the market there was Linden Grove, the 24 acre estate of the late Col. Tilghman Cooper, an international expert in the Jersey cattle breed. In the late 19th and early 20th century his cattle sales at Linden Grove attracted the wealthy Vanderbilt family and other millionaire breeders. They would live in their private Pullman cars during the sales.

Cooper traveled the world to international cattle shows and had crossed the Atlantic many times, several of them in ships commanded by Captain Edward J. Smith, later of the ill-fated Titanic. In an April 22, 1912 letter to the local press, Cooper defended Smith’s actions from charges that the sinking was his fault.

Cooper died in 1928 while attending a cattle show in New Zealand. His son continued to live on the property until putting it up for sale for $15,000. Several Catholic fraternal orders (the Knights of St George, the St Francis Beneficial Society, the St. Aloysius Young Men’s Society and the Lecha Thal Verband, a German Social club) put up the money and the school/orphanage opened on April 14, 1938.

The institution was staffed by the Missionary Order of Sacred Heart nuns who lived in Cooper’s former home. His son’s residence was used for the children with a barn and animal shelter converted to classrooms and a chapel.

Through the years of its existence the orphanage suffered a fire in 1939 and was ravaged by a tornado in 1949. In 1950 it acquired a new chapel, in 1953 a new playground and in 1958 a gym. When DeSales University, then Allentown College of St Francis DeSales, did not have a gym it used the gym at the school.

The nuns are among the chief memory of the students at the school/orphanage. Most of them recall them as strict, but not unkind. Several noted in retrospect the discipline was necessary to run the school and meet their responsibilities to the children. Some praise the education they received that put stress on the arts and felt it was character building.

Two boys who ran away from the school were returned by a state policeman who found them and gave them each 50 cents. The nun told them to turn over the money to her. Perhaps she felt that by getting money they might try to get more by running away again.

“We know it was not an easy time for many of them there,” says Kent. “But for the sake of Coopersburg borough history, the orphanage’s memory needs to be preserved.”