Holy Family Archives Helps in Researching Former English Professor in Ancestral Search

Shannon Brown '99, Christine Steele, and Gina Palumbo
Shannon Brown '99, Christine Steele, and Gina Palumbo

Holy Family’s University Archives spans more than 50 years of the University’s history. Some of its collection includes records on the physical campus and grounds; faculty, student, alumni, and family and friends organizations; student life from its earliest years; the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth; and a wide range of individuals associated with the university.

Christine Steele and her Aunt Stelle (April 1977)

That’s where my story comes in about one individual … my great-great Aunt Stelle who was an English professor at Holy Family College before I was born. She taught both English and education courses from 1957 through 1961. I’ve learned so much more about her thanks to the kindness and generosity of University associates who responded to my random request in July 2021.

Looking for a connection

I have been looking for guidance in making a career transition. I’m a senior copyeditor and love what I do, and I’ve moved into teaching copyediting online. Teaching online is said to be a lot of work, and I can certainly confirm that. Part-time teaching also doesn’t pay all the bills.

In between trying to figure out my career, I’ve been participating in ancestry research with my mom and learning more about her side of the family, including Estelle E. Conroy, my great-great aunt, who we called Aunt Stelle.

I remember visiting her as a child in Philadelphia, but back then I didn’t know anything about her professionally, including that she had worked at Holy Family College.

English lessons on the boardwalk

As an adult, I learned that Aunt Stelle was a godmother to my maternal grandmother. My grandma had once shared with me that when she was a child, Aunt Stelle would take her to the boardwalk on the shore in the summer to study grammar and English lessons and she hated it. I was already into my copyediting career and thought, “I would have loved those kinds of lessons!” She also said that Aunt Stelle was a professor at Holy Family and also went to college at night to further her education.

Estelle Conroy Teaching Certificate

A notable certificate discovery

When my grandma passed away in 2013, I found a certificate among her things dated June 15, 1962, that was in recognition of my aunt’s pioneering work in establishing the Education department at Holy Family College. It also said that she created a fine rapport in existence between the College and the Philadelphia public schools. I had to find out more about this!

I took the certificate and the lovely black-and-white portrait of my aunt. I later compared it to my own professional photo and felt more of a connection to her.

My research begins

In 2020, I finally made time to research more about Aunt Stelle. I searched Ancestry.com and found records of her many travels on passenger ships, and at another site I found old yearbook photos from Holy Family.

The yearbook photos gave me great insight into Aunt Stelle’s career. In 1958, she was pictured briefing seven students about teaching in the public schools.

In 1959, she was photographed applying St. Thomas’ principles in her education class, explaining techniques of discipline to junior education students, and reading a “particularly breathtaking sentence from Faulkner.”

In 1960, she was called “the teacher of teachers” who guided students in the correct techniques of conducting classes. The paragraph continued that she had an MA from Temple University and provided prospective teachers with professional instruction. I didn’t know that she had earned an MA, but that had to be what my grandma referred to when she said Aunt Stelle went to school at night. I now wanted to know even more about her time at Holy Family and her schooling, as maybe it could provide me some guidance in figuring out my career and interests in the academic world.

Planning a trip

I was invited to my cousin’s wedding in Pennsylvania, which was in September 2021. I live in Southern California. Before the trip, I decided it would also be a perfect time to make a connection at Holy Family to see if I could find out more about my aunt.

In July, I went to the website’s university directory and emailed Sandra Crane, a secretary in the School of Education, about my uncommon request for information and said I’d love to come visit. She replied to me the next day and said she forwarded my request to the Archives Office with the hope that my aunt’s information may be stored there.

That same day I received another email from Shannon Brown '99, the executive director of Library Services. She forwarded my request to the university archivist and said my visit was welcome, and that she herself would gladly give me a tour of campus.

 

From the 1959 Holy Family College Yearbook
From the 1959 Holy Family College Yearbook: "Isn’t that wonderful?" Miss Estelle Conroy pauses while reading a particularly breathtaking sentence from Faulkner to comment characteristically to Mr. Claude F. Koch. Both Miss Conroy and Mr. Koch are members of the English Department headed by Sister M. Placide.
From the 1959 Holy Family College Yearbook
From the 1959 Holy Family College Yearbook: “Isn’t that interesting? I think that’s very interesting.” Miss E. Conroy explains techniques of discipline to Junior education students. Miss Conroy speaks as an expert on the subject of discipline – eh, no reflection on the Junior Class.

Campus tour

On September 21, I arrived at Holy Family accompanied by my cousin Kelly (Scanlon) Arabia ’90. Kelly graduated from Holy Family with a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing. She was impressed I remembered that she graduated from the school and said she’d love to come with me. We met Shannon in the library, and it was like meeting an old friend. Shannon was immediately warm and welcoming. We enjoyed our tour of the entire campus, and my cousin was amazed at all the developments in the School of Nursing.

After our tour, Shannon took us back to the library and introduced us to Gina Palumbo, the acquisitions & technical services coordinator in Library Services. She had found much information about my aunt and prepared a timeline of her time at the school.

Gina had discovered a few photos that I didn’t have, including from an employee scrapbook and past University newsletters. The timeline of Aunt Stelle’s experience at the school started with 1957 when she began her first semester at Holy Family College in the Education department through 1961.

From the 1958 Holy Family Yearbook
From the 1958 Holy Family Yearbook – Miss E. Conroy briefs seven pioneers in the Education program before they begin practice teaching and observation in the Philadelphia public schools.

Aunt Stelle’s accomplishments

Gina uncovered that Aunt Stelle, in collaboration with others, was credited with beginning the Teacher Training Program at the school, which allowed students to gain teaching experience at Lincoln, Frankford, and Northeast High Schools. This correlated to the reference on the certificate that said she created a fine rapport in existence between the College and the Philadelphia public schools.

In the summer of 1958, Aunt Stelle began studying for her M.Ed. at Temple University and continued to teach both English and education courses. She belonged to a few societies such as the English Club of Philadelphia, the Gifted Child Association, and the National Council of Teachers in Education. She also attended conferences of teachers of English and on the advancement of teaching.

In 1959 and 1960, Aunt Stelle continued her education and eventually became the director of student teaching and a chair of education. In 1961, she was on a committee that reviewed the expansion of programs and buildings on campus and took a summer trip to Europe.

At the end of the timeline, Gina had summarized that Aunt Stelle attended conferences and field trips every year that fostered connection in the Philadelphia school district, and in turn, led to opportunities for Holy Family students in the field of education.

Taking it all in

At one point during our meeting, I got emotional with all this new information. I was impressed learning about these accomplishments and felt more connected to Aunt Stelle, but I also felt sad because I wished I could have known her as an adult. Our conversations would have been enjoyable and enriching. I can see some similarities with us now, such as I also belong to several societies, attended conferences, held board appointments, am teaching others, and I’ve taken additional courses in my field. I would not have put all this together had it not been for the timeline Gina developed and matching the details to the yearbook photos.

Reflection

As our meeting came to a close, Gina gave me copies of everything. We admired how Aunt Stelle led a fascinating life at the school and made many wonderful contributions at Holy Family and within the city, ultimately helping students with their future careers.

When I was 17, Aunt Stelle passed away on February 14, 1985, and her obituary was one small paragraph that mentioned nothing about her career and accomplishments. Obituaries are written differently today compared to back then, but if I could rewrite her obit, it would certainly capture who she really was and the legacy she left behind.

We all want to feel a connection in life – to someone or to something – because it can make us feel like we belong. A connection provides meaning and purpose. Studies have also shown that when we are a part of something bigger, we can feel happier and more motivated in life.

I am so grateful to Holy Family for all they’ve shared with me about my Aunt Stelle. It’s given me more purpose and meaning as I continue to discover what my life’s direction should be. Knowing that I can be part of something bigger is in my blood.

Thank you so much to Gina and Shannon, but also to Sandra who received my first email seeking information. This experience has meant so much.

Christine Steele and her Aunt Stelle

If you are seeking information with your research, consider contacting the Holy Family University Archives at 267-341-3414. Read more about its services at https://www.holyfamily.edu/about-holy-family-u/archives

Christine Steele lives in Southern California and is an instructor for the Copyediting Certificate Program at UC San Diego Extension. She also freelances as Steele Editing & Writing.

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Christine Steele

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