"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, April 6, 2018

Want to Preserve Your Own Local History? It’s Up to You!

Last month I wrote to you about the Historical Society of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and its rebirth of activism and achievement.  This month I will ask—nay, plead—with you to be part of this renaissance.  The HSMC’s task is to preserve and interpret the history of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania; every corner of its land; every community, and all its many peoples.  Or at least it wants to; whether it does it ENTIRELY up to the residents of Montgomery County.

If you have visited the Society, you probably saw a fraction of its outstanding collection of 19th Century items, most notably from the Civil War.  If you were a researcher, the Society’s records of obscure and long-forgotten churches were probably your goal.  The Society also possesses an excellent collection of 18th Century items and records.  But what about the 20th Century?  So far, the answer is, “not so much,”

I remember a conversation I had in the late 1990s with “Johnny” Young, a grand lady and one of the volunteer pillars of the Historical Society.  She was speaking to me of the religious divisions within the society of “old Norristown” (I was never with her but that I wished I had a tape recorder).  She was relating the relative social relationships of Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists and so on within the Borough, a residue of the 19th century domination of these Northern European sects.  At one point I asked her, “But what about Italians, or other Catholics?"  She gave me that sweet, knowing smile of hers, and replied, “Oh, we don’t have anything about Italians.”

And why not, you may ask?  The answer is simple, and inescapable: the Historical Society of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania is a volunteer organization when it comes to obtaining the items for its collection.  The Society does not buy anything; everything it possesses was gifted to it in some manner.

There is also another, related reason.  The HSMC demonstrates a characteristic that is by no means unique; I have observed it visiting other local historical societies in other regions of the U.S.  Every such historical society was founded at a certain time for a certain reason, and both the time and the reason are apparent in the items displayed by the Society.  Decades and even centuries may have passed, but those original historical inspirations remain the core of every society.  Subsequent generations cannot sustain the initial enthusiasm.  I have, for example, toured a few county historical societies in the West, and if you looked at their displays, you might question whether anything had happened in the area since they ceased driving cattle up the Abilene Trail. 

The HSMC was founded in the post-Civil War period by people for whom the war was their defining moment, and for whom the Revolutionary war had not been so long ago.  The collections reflect that.  By comparison, the 20th century has scant representation.  That’s a shame, and the residents of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania are the cause.

It’s time to change that; in fact, it’s long past time.  The 20th century saw the political and social emergence of later immigrants (or their children), those from Italy, Eastern Europe, and of course, Jews.  Their descendants should be ensuring that their story is told, because it is just as much the history of Montgomery County as the Revolutionary or Civil Wars.

This is an extremely important task, and I am pleased to give you an example of how it should be done:

In 1957, three local Councils of the Knights of Columbus established an Assembly to honor Father Joseph C. Tomko, the founding pastor of Mother of Sorrows Church and Catholic School in Bridgeport.  Father Tomko died that year and was buried on the church grounds.  That Assembly has continued to exist, and in 2017 decided to compile a booklet about Father Tomko in honor of the 60th anniversary of his death.  What made the 60th anniversary especially poignant was the fact that the church had been reduced to a pile of rubble, the first step for a housing development.

They checked the HSMC, but “the only booklet that did talk about the churches in Bridgeport was the Centennial edition called “History of Bridgeport, Pa 1851-1951” - by Edward Pinkowski and was for sale for the price of one dollar...”  That’s a damn shame.

But they persevered, collected the stories, and organized them into a booklet.  “We ended up with an in-depth historical keepsake of which we printed 175 copies for our Assembly members, contributors and advertisers.”   I was given a copy, by the way (thanks, Petrus Korpel); it’s quite impressive.

But, most important of all, the Assembly also donated two copies to the HSMC, which, after formal accession procedures, “will be a permanent addition to the Society with historical facts unknown in the past.”  That is exactly the point, and I commend the Assembly for this action. 

The destruction of Mother of Sorrows Church is emblematic of what has been happening all along the lower Schuylkill River.  We have all witnessed the decline and closing of so many once-prosperous ethnic parishes in the Schuylkill River towns.  These churches, along with the volunteer fire companies, were the core organizations of each town.  As their congregants scatter and the churches face the wrecking ball, is their story being told?  Will their stories continue to educate future generations, or will they die untold, because no one collected the memories and provided for them?  Too many of those stories are going to be lost, because no one took it upon themselves to preserve them.

It’s up to you to take action if you want to preserve the history of your people.  Do you believe that the history of your parish, your church, or any of your town’s volunteer organizations should be preserved?  I encourage you to view the Historical Society of Montgomery County as the agent to accomplish this.  It is now staffed by professionals, and your contributions will receive the welcome and the extended care that they deserve.  Contact them; they are the professionals, and will assist you, but you have to take the initiative.

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