Spirit of inclusion

Housing history: Cranaleith Spiritual Center will host a Women of Strength and Vision program featuring tours, historical reenactments, guest speakers and a panel discussion. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO

In a year when the United States may see the election of its first woman president, a Northeast Philadelphia institution is celebrating its role in achieving the right to vote for the nation’s women.

Cranaleith Spiritual Center in Somerton didn’t exist in 1920 when the states ratified the 19th Amendment, but a Victorian farmhouse on the spiritual center’s 10-acre campus stood back then and once served as a vital meeting place for leading suffragists including Susan B. Anthony and its owner, Rachel Foster Avery, during a period in American history when women were discouraged and banned from meeting openly. In fact, Avery, the daughter of a wealthy Pittsburgh newspaper editor, had built the house largely for that purpose.

On Oct. 29, Cranaleith will celebrate the recent selection of the home for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. The public is invited to a day-long Women of Strength and Vision program featuring tours, historical reenactments, guest speakers and a panel discussion. In addition to highlighting the site’s historical connection to women’s suffrage, the program will explore how the work of its present-day owners, the Sisters of Mercy, continues to advocate for strong women of conviction.

“It’s an ongoing movement. It’s a movement of the spirit for inclusion,” said Sister Mary Trainer, whose family owned and occupied the house for 90 years before donating it to her religious order in 1996.

The home sits on a hill at Proctor Road and Edison Avenue in the Old Somerton section. In 1890, the financially independent Avery chose the bucolic yet accessible site to build a home for her growing family. She was living in the city’s Spring Garden section at the time and had close professional and personal bonds with Anthony.

Avery’s parents, J. Heron and Julia Manuel Foster, were both staunch abolitionists and progressive activists. J. Heron Foster died when his daughter was 10 years old but his influence endured as Rachel joined the women’s suffrage movement. She met Anthony during the 1879 convention of the National Women’s Suffrage Association and became the organization’s corresponding secretary within a year. She began referring to Anthony as Aunt Susan, while Anthony considered her a protege and possible successor.

A decade later, Avery selected another prominent and outspoken Philadelphia woman to build her house, architect Minerva Parker Nicholas. It was designed in a Victorian shingle style and completed in 1891 with stone and wood shingle exterior and large gables. It is three stories and features a parlor, music room and library.

The home became a regular stop for Anthony and other leading suffragists such as Anna Howard Shaw and Lucy E. Anthony. In 1895, Avery led an effort to establish an $800 annuity to benefit the aging Susan B. Anthony, who used Avery’s home to write letters of thanks to the fund’s 202 individual donors.

The home’s direct connection to the suffragists was a relatively brief one in relation to its tenure as a seat of the locally prominent Trainer family.

Joseph C. Trainer, a successful businessman from South Philadelphia, bought the property as a summer estate in 1906 and farmed the surrounding fields, which at one time spanned dozens of acres. He named the estate Cranaleith, an Irish Gaelic term meaning “sanctuary of trees,” in homage to his ancestry.

The site soon became his family’s primary home. Joseph C. Trainer also became a prominent local figure in the Republican Party and in the 1930s served three terms in the Pennsylvania Senate.

Trainer and his wife Wilhelmina had seven sons. The fourth, Francis Henry “Frank” Trainer, later settled into the house with his wife, Mary, as they raised four children and perpetuated the family traditions of cultivating the land and community engagement. The future Sister Mary Trainer was the eldest of the children.

“Even then, we were taking care of the land. We had grapes and made grape jelly. Every day you had to work until lunch. The nurturing of the land was important,” said Kathie Ulinski, the third of the four siblings.

They saved the afternoons and Sundays for fun and the whole neighborhood was invited.

“The kids played in the barn and the woods. We had Moses, a donkey. He was a smart donkey. We ice skated on the pond. The kids thought of it as their own,” Ulinski said.

Through the 20th century, the Trainers preserved the original character of the house, although the Great Depression forced the family to sell much of its land holdings. Later, Joseph C. Trainer’s sons jointly donated additional acreage for the establishment of St. Christopher Catholic Church on Proctor Road.

“The beauty of this family’s home is they didn’t make many changes. There are still fireplaces in almost every room,” said Ruth Picozzi, a neighbor and longtime volunteer for the spiritual center.

With his children grown, the widowed Frank Trainer donated the estate to his daughter Mary’s religious order in 1996. The spiritual center opened two years later. Frank Trainer always held a strong interest in studying and preserving the history of the home, according to Sister Mary Trainer.

“Our family took great pride in stewardship and it carried on that tradition of concern for all people,” she said.

Today, Cranaleith offers facilities and programming serving guests from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and personal conditions.

“We reach out to the community,” said Executive Director Veneta Lorraine. “We’ve had four Eagle Scout projects here. We work with veterans groups. A lot of our neighbors become volunteers. We work with those in (addiction) recovery and people with cognitive disabilities.”

Cranaleith hosts non-denominational spirituality retreats as well as corporate conferences and team-building programs.

“Cranaleith is a place where people come to be restored, to renew their spirit and to come home to themselves,” Lorraine said. ••

For information about the Cranaleith Spiritual Center and to register for the Women of Strength and Vision program, visit cranaleith.org or call 215–934–6206.

An original clock from early 1800s still hangs in the Cranaleith Spiritual Center today. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO

Somerton sanctuary: A farmhouse on the Cranaleith Spiritual Center’s campus once served as a meeting place for leading suffragists including Susan B. Anthony during a period in history when women were banned from meeting openly. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO