Temple has been built on the backs of the dead. It’s late October, and we think about the old, the hidden and the dead. Temple has its ghosts, indeed.
TEMPLE BY GRAVES
In the 1880s, Russell Conwell was laying the groundwork for what would be Temple University. He was tutoring young men by low light in the back of Grace Baptist Church, in a room called “the Temple.”
Across North Broad Street was a rambling grave site called Monument Cemetery, already half a century old and filling quickly.
By 1929, Monument had been filled to capacity with 28,000 burial services. Its 11-acre compound had been encircled by a dense urban landscape of rowhomes filled with Philadelphians of German and Irish descent. It sat like that for nearly thirty years, assuring Temple remained a decidedly east-of-Broad institution.
Conwell was one of the last notable Philadelphians to be buried in Monument Cemetery. He died in 1925, 15 years after his wife. After his wife’s passing, Conwell turned cold and perplexing. He stayed on in his fine home at 2020 N. Broad St., along with at least one maid, but Sarah was on his mind.
Not long before his death, Conwell was searching for his Civil War discharge papers but neither he nor his staff could find them. Legend has it that his wife came to him in sleep and told him where to find them. The next morning, the dream proved prescient, prompting Conwell to celebrate his wife’s reemergence to a maid.
Of course, the maid labeled it lunacy. To counter, Conwell had his maid hide a pen, without telling him where. That night Sarah came to her husband and told him where to find the pen. The next morning, Conwell came to his maid, pen in hand. Sarah, it has been said, was insulted by her husband’s desire to prove her. She never visited Conwell again.
Like most city neighborhoods, North Philadelphia had a population jump after World War II, before a precipitous decline in the 1950s. Monument Cemetery became an obstacle. For growth. For homes. For Temple.
In September 1955, a court order was passed, ordering the city to begin transporting the remains from Monument to Rockledge’s Lawnview Cemetery in Montgomery County. Russell and Sarah, together once again, were entombed at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, an act paid for by Temple.
By 1956, Temple bought the cemetery site. The rock walls that separate the Broad Street sidewalk and the parking lot between Montgomery and the Student Pavilion are the last visible reminder of 28,000 dead in Temple’s neighborhood.
Three years later, in June 1959, Temple welcomed two back home. Russell and Sarah were buried in the sidewalk alcove that rests along North Broad Street between Conwell and Wachman Halls. There were photos and coverage from all the major media of the day.
It took more than a decade, though, for the Conwells to have a final resting place, then with much less attention. Just a single clipping from a yellowed copy of The Temple News is all that presented itself to show the last trip Russell and Sarah took. That a short walk to what was then a newly constructed Founder’s Garden. They were settled there late in the summer of 1968. Questions remain whether they have explored other homes for the future.
Christopher Wink can be reached at email@example.com