As Sarah Keinard ’12 strode to the stage in Alvernia’s Physical Education Center to receive her undergraduate degree in accounting last December, her grandmother, Mary Ann Berger, looked on proudly from the top of the grandstands.
She was there with hundreds of proud parents, grandparents, siblings, families and friends, each there to celebrate the success of a loved one. But for Mary Ann, as she watched the ceremony with her daughter Christine, and granddaughter Melisa, (a first-year student at Alvernia), it was more than just a graduation.
It was, in a very personal and profound way, a homecoming. Half a century earlier, she herself had arrived on what would become Alvernia’s campus to begin a new phase in her own life and education. But not by choice. Mary Ann Grossman was only 6 years old, and she was coming to live at St. Francis Orphanage.
Sitting in the conference room in Francis Hall, it dawns on Berger that she has been there before, a long time ago. It was in December 1951, her first day at St. Francis Orphanage, and — along with older sister Rita and older brothers Frank and Leonard — she was saying goodbye to her father.
“He gave each of us a silver dollar,” Berger recalls.
Her whole family — there were nine children in all — had been living together the previous two years at a house on Plum Street in Reading that two of her older sisters bought. Her brother Joseph — some 10 years older, who lived in the orphanage off and on from the time he was 27 months through the eighth grade — wrote a detailed account of his recollections, some of which were published in the 2008 book “Designed to Serve: The Place and Persons of Francis Hall” by Sister Mary Pacelli Staskiel, OSF.
His account of the Plum Street home, which was not included in the book, is about as far from the 1950s Norman Rockwell ideal of domestic tranquility as you can imagine: “Our house was a former house of prostitution, and up a block from ours was an active house, also called a cat house in those days. Ours was a small house, three small bedrooms, no closets, a living room, dining room and a kitchen. No bath or hot water, an outhouse in the backyard, but this was all my sisters could afford…"
“I told Mother Superior that I wanted to be a nurse. I wound up in the infirmary with Sister Conrad. She was very bright.”