A place to call home

Sister John Christopher welcomes people to Stonyhurst, a gray stone mansion completed in 1888. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO

A group of Northeast Philadelphia history buffs obtained a rare glimpse into a local 19th-century landmark last month as the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity opened the doors of their “generally” residence on Solly Avenue to a public tour.

The Northeast Philadelphia History Network coordinated the June 1 visit.

Completed in 1888, the stately gray stone mansion was commissioned by George Albert Castor, a merchant tailor and granite quarry owner from Holmesburg who would serve in the U.S. House of Representatives from February 1904 until his death two years later.

Castor had purchased 75 acres of farmland on Solly Avenue, just west of Frankford Avenue, in 1885, and hired architect George T. Pearson to construct the house in Normandy chateau style. Pearson also designed a home and factories for renowned Philadelphia hat manufacturer John B. Stetson, as well as Stetson’s namesake university in DeLand, Florida. Castor named his mansion Stonyhurst.

A 1909 article published by the Philadelphia Inquirer detailed the mansion’s opulence:

“It commands a view of Holmesburg, while the Pennypack and the curved arches of the old bridge make an attractive scene. Gray stone and shingles were the materials used in the construction of the mansion.

“The interior is specially beautiful. The hall is 16 feet wide and 115 feet deep. This hall, with its galleries and broad staircase, is like that of a castle. Paneled oak with carvings adorns the sides and ceilings, and bay windows give a view of the lawn and drive.

“Large rooms en suite open from the hall. The drawing room is of the style of Louis XV, with white and gold decorations. One of the front rooms is paneled in blue satin and is in the style of Marie Antoinette, and contains a bedstead of this type of art, with slender carved posts supporting a canopy, showing the centre in blue satin rays.

“There are eighteen bedrooms, and the whole architectural plan is on the same spacious dimensions. With the estate surrounding, it is one of the show places of Holmesburg.”

The residence later served as the Biddle School for Backward Children before the Trinitarian Sisters, as their order is commonly known, purchased the estate for their headquarters in 1932, 13 years after their founding in Alabama by the Vincentian priest, Father Thomas Augustine Judge.

Judge, a native of Boston who was ordained in Philadelphia and served principally in Brooklyn and Alabama, died in 1933. He had never returned to ministry in Philadelphia, yet his viewing was held in the grand hall of the Solly Avenue convent. He is buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Cedarbrook.

In the 1940s, when a developer sought to construct houses on open land just west of the convent, the sisters bought that tract. Several years later, they sold it to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for a nominal fee for the development of a new Catholic high school. Father Judge High School opened in 1954.

Initially the Trinity Sisters used the Castor mansion as their mother house. After they built a new mother house on campus in 1953, the mansion became a novitiate, where aspiring nuns or “novices” lived. In the 1960s, the sisters constructed the Mother Boniface Spirituality Center on campus. The mansion became the generally, where the order’s general superior and her counsel live. There are about 110 Trinity Sisters worldwide, 40 to 50 of whom live at the Solly Avenue campus. The Trinity Sisters routinely host religious activities for the public on campus. A week-long retreat, Surrounded by Grace, is planned for Aug. 16 to 22. The Fire of Faith Young Adults Group brings young people to the spirituality center regularly. For information, call 267–350–1830 or visit www.msbt.org

To stay informed about Northeast Philadelphia History Network activities, send an email request to nephillyhistory@gmail.com ••


House of history: The Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity hosted a public tour of their
“generally” residence on Solly Avenue. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO