The Northeast Philadelphia history community lost one of its champions with the passing of Helen File on Sept. 2.
By Jack McCarthy
The Northeast Philadelphia history community lost one of its champions with the passing of Helen File on Sept. 2. Longtime president of the Trustees of Byberry Meeting, Helen was the keeper of the flame of the rich history of Byberry Meeting, a local Quaker congregation founded in 1683. She was part of a now-vanishing generation that grew up when the Far Northeast was mostly farms and open space, a generation that witnessed first-hand the area’s explosive growth in the years following World War II.
Born Helen Finney in 1934, Helen was part of a Quaker family whose history in Byberry extends back over 340 years. She was a descendant of the Walton brothers, who came to the area in 1675 from Bibury, England, and were among the founders of Byberry Meeting. Helen grew up first on the Tomlinson Farm, her grandfather’s farm that was located where Archbishop Ryan High School stands today, and then later in a home near the intersection of Byberry and Academy roads. While this busy intersection is now taken up with gas stations and convenience stories, it was a rural crossroads when Helen lived there in the 1940s.
The family were active members of Byberry Monthly Meeting, as their ancestors had been for centuries. Helen’s Tomlinson grandfather was a caretaker of the Meeting and Helen remembered her and her twin sister Gladys helping dig graves in the Meeting cemetery for members’ burials. Helen will be buried in that same cemetery in October.
Schools were few and far between in the sparsely populated area at that time. Helen and Gladys attended Watson Comly Elementary School in Somerton and then had a long trek to Woodrow Wilson Junior High in Rhawnhurst and Frankford High in Frankford. After graduating high school in 1952, Helen got a job at Bell Telephone, where she met her husband John File. They married in 1953, moved to Fishtown, and had three children: Dona, John and Nelson. The family moved to Bustleton in 1962 and Helen became active once again in Byberry Meeting, as did John, who became a Quaker. (In Quaker parlance, Helen was a “birthright” Quaker, while John was “convinced.”)
Helen also began working for Quaker organizations downtown, eventually taking a job at Arch Street Meeting in Old City, one of Philadelphia’s most historic houses of worship. She worked there for 30 years, rising to Director, a position of considerable importance in the Quaker community. All the while, she remained active in Byberry Meeting, eventually becoming president of the Trustees of the Byberry Monthly Meeting of Friends, the congregation’s affiliated organization responsible for its property and assets, including its historical collections.
The Byberry Meeting history that Helen worked so diligently to preserve was exceptionally rich. Founded in 1683, the Meeting moved in the 1690s to its current location on Byberry Road, where the village of Byberry grew up around it. The village became a center of learning and culture. With the establishment of Byberry Friends School about 1720, the Byberry Library Company in 1794 and the Byberry Philosophical Society in 1829, local Quakers and area residents were actively engaged in education as well as the study of literature, science and natural history. Byberry also became a center of anti-slavery activity when noted abolitionist Robert Purvis moved there in the 1840s. Although not a Quaker himself, Purvis was active in the above organizations and in 1847 he and others built Byberry Hall adjacent to the Byberry Meeting House property as a meeting place for their anti-slavery and reform activities. Still standing and now part of the Meeting complex, Byberry Hall hosted some of the nation’s most prominent abolitionists as speakers in the mid-19th century.
Today, the 5-acre Byberry Meeting site is an oasis of history and greenery in an otherwise highly developed area. The property includes a cemetery dating to the 1690s, the 1808 Meeting House, 1823 School House, 1847 Byberry Hall and historic carriage sheds. The second floor of the School House contains the historical collections of the Byberry Library Company and Philosophical Society.
I had the privilege of working closely with Helen on these collections, helping to secure some small grants and doing various history projects with them. My wife Patty, also a local historian, worked with the collections as well. For several years, we would receive an elaborate fruit basket every Christmas, a gift from Helen in appreciation of our work. We would shake our heads and say that it should be the other way around — that we should be sending Helen thank you gifts for all that she did for us and the local history community. Helen was a thoughtful, considerate person, to be sure, but she was also very much a no-nonsense straight shooter, someone who would tell you in no uncertain terms what she thought.
Having lived all but nine of her 84 years in the Byberry area, Helen was a treasure trove of information on local history. Many in the Northeast Philadelphia history community benefited from this knowledge, including members of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network, which met several times at Byberry Meeting and heard Helen share her vast knowledge of the area. Personally, I listened raptly on many occasions as Helen shared with me her memories of Byberry in days past, recalling the family that owned the farm where Parkwood Shopping Center now stands, or the Comly family farm through which Woodhaven Road now runs, or countless other stories of local lore. Many times, I resolved to sit down with Helen with a recorder and capture these stories. Alas, I never did, and this invaluable first-hand information is now lost forever.
Several years ago, we lost Pat Stopper, Helen’s friend, fellow Bustleton resident and longtime local historian. Pat was the keeper of Bustleton, Somerton and Byberry history and primary chronicler of the history of Pennepack Baptist Church, as Helen was of Byberry Meeting. As we lose these stalwarts of local history, longtime residents who were born in the early 20th century and witnessed the area’s dramatic transformation over the years, we lose a direct link to a former era, a time when Northeast Philadelphia was a vastly different place than it is today.
There will be a memorial service for Helen File on Oct. 13 at 10 a.m. at Byberry Meeting, 3001 Byberry Road, followed by a luncheon on the Meeting House grounds. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Byberry Monthly Meeting for the repair and upgrade of the property. ••
Jack McCarthy is a professional archivist and historian. He is co-founder of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network and president of the Friends of Northeast Philadelphia History. Dona File, Helen’s daughter, provided biographical information for the article.