Meeting History: The Founding Years, 1924-1931

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In the autumn of 1924 several Friends living in or near Chestnut Hill discovered that they shared a concern for the establishing of a new Meeting for Worship. More and more Friends were moving into Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill and beyond, quite far from existing Meetings. This concern took definite form on November 9, 1924, when sixteen people,

Vincent D. and Rebecca Carter Nicholson
James A. and Marion S. Norton
Harold S. and Mary C. Webster
Edward Morris and Esther Holmes Jones
E. Laurie and Edna P. Mifflin
Howard W. and Katharine W. Elkinton
Manning J. and Georgia Smith
D. Robert and Elizabeth B. Yarnall

met at the home of Robert and Elizabeth Yarnall to consider the plan. Although several of the individuals present were committed to Meeting responsibilities elsewhere we all felt "a good degree of unity" with the undertaking. We decided to meet in the large downstairs office of the Yarnall-Waring Company on Mermaid Lane, as a place centrally located and, perhaps, in spite of its unconventionality, giving a more dignified and impersonal setting than a private home. Soon we were joined by Henry and Marion Dearden and others who encouraged us to go forward with our plans.

Among those who started the Meeting were six couples who had worked in Europe with the American Friends Service Committee soon after World War I, and it will be remembered that Vincent Nicholson was the Committee's first secretary. Many Friends feel that the Service Committee had a great deal to do with the union of Arch Street and Race Street Friends, and this would seem to have been the case with Chestnut Hill, the first United Meeting.

We earnestly desired that the new Meeting might be, not only a geographical convenience, but, because of its small size and freedom from tradition, an adventure in more living spiritual experience than we had hitherto known. In the first gathering, and among others definitely interested, were members of six Monthly Meetings and four Yearly Meetings (Philadelphia Arch Street, Philadelphia Race Street, New England and London) -- a fact which promised to assure our forgetting the barriers between groups of Friends.

On the following Sunday, November 16, fourteen persons met for Worship. Every week after that, the Meeting was held, the normal attendance varying from 8 to 30.

The Yarnall-Waring Company office, in the mid-twenties, was in the gray stone residence which the company had purchased in 1918, which still kept many of its residential features, while the manufacturing was housed in a one-story building at the rear. At the left of the front door was a good-sized room with a fireplace. Here, on Sunday mornings, we pushed back a few filing cabinets and adding machines and arranged chairs in a semi-circle before the fire with, as time went on, a second row of small chairs for the children.

To some Friends who came as visitors, accustomed to the usual meeting house benches and "facing seats," our arrangements seemed disturbingly informal. To us, the setting was part of a great adventure, and each Sunday morning was a new and unpredictable experience. Most of us were young married couples, coping with home building, small children and the host of demands which those decades bring. Chestnut Hill Meeting clarified our confusion and at the same time brought us the strength of shared experience. Many of us realized for the first time that the texture and life of the meeting depended, not on elderly Friends, remote on a "facing bench," but on our own imperfect, struggling selves. The minutes of a business meeting in January 1926 include this paragraph:

Some of our Meetings for Worship during this year and a half have fallen short of our ideal, some have risen, we feel, to genuine heights of spiritual experience. Together we have sought and sometimes we have found; always we have felt growing fellowship. We think, on hearing the Second, Third and Fourth queries, that we might truly answer, "Our love for one another is indeed sincere and joyful." We have learned much of deepening human friendship, and through that experience have come nearer to the sense of God's reality and presence for the realization of which our Meeting exists.

During these first years there were occasional "tea-meetings" on Sunday evenings, when we brought our own sandwiches and made coffee or cocoa on an ancient gas stove in the dark old kitchen. A number of invigorating speakers came to us on these evenings -- A. Neave Brayshawe from England, Seal Thompson from Wellesley, Rabbi Fineshriber, Alexander Purdy, Jim and Sarah Gamble just back from a visit to Russia, Patrick Malin, Hornell Hart and others.

Occasionally we held informal meetings for business in our various homes and in September 1925 we sent a letter to the two Meetings in Germantown, that on Coulter Street belonging to the "Orthodox" Yearly Meeting held at 4th and Arch Streets and that on School Lane belonging to the "Hicksite" Yearly Meeting held at 15th and Race Streets, asking for some form of recognition. Each of the two nearby Meetings appointed a Committee of Oversight, who were helpful to us in many ways and, for the time being, we continued to keep our own memberships in the established Meetings to which we had belonged, without power to accept new members. Eight years later, by authority of Abington Quarterly Meeting (Arch Street) in cooperation with Philadelphia Quarterly Meeting (Race Street) we became a United Meeting. In 1939 both Yearly Meetings recognized the category of United Members, so that individuals joining the Meeting might be listed in that way instead of being required to align themselves with one Yearly Meeting or the other. Our three-part membership list -- Arch, Race, United -- continued until 1955 when the two Yearly Meetings ended the separateness begun in 1827 and, happily, became one.

In addition to the monthly business meetings, which soon appointed clerks and committees, we had various social events in addition to tea-meetings picnics on the lawn, musical evenings in various homes, and, on one occasion, a Ground-hog Eve party. Children have always been an important part of the Meeting. Some brought picture books, others held favorite toys as they sat in meeting. One small boy had an imaginary friend named Gunghy for whom he reserved an apparently empty chair next to his own, determined that no one should sit on it and injure Gunghy.

The minutes of a business meeting early in 1927 include a report from the First Day School Committee. "The school has been held for the past four weeks. The lessons consist of Bible stories, drawing and clay modeling. A Victrola with hymn tunes and marches has been used successfully. Most of the children are too young for any definite teaching, however. The children go out of the meeting for worship after twenty minutes or half an hour, and occupy a room on the second floor. The teachers are interested parents --who volunteer for two or three weeks at a time."

A great attraction to our active children was the quarry next door on Mermaid Lane. It had a depth of eighty feet in the center, with precipitous cliffs, which were climbed up and down by both boys and girls. Fortunately no serious accidents occurred and the quarry was later bought by the Yarnall-WaringCompany and filled in to form a parking lot.

For several years the office, with its cheerful open fire, met our needs. As early as May 1926, however, the minutes of an informal business meeting had referred to the possibility of building a meeting house of our own, but "there was a decided feeling shared by all that no definite action should be taken for some time to come." Earlier that year, on January 24, the minutes record that "a contribution of $10.00 from an interested member was acknowledged. This represents our first property ownership." Other matters discussed on that occasion included the placing of signs announcing the Meeting, in the nearby railway stations, and at some point on the Yarnall-Waringproperty. A list was read of the twenty-five adults and children who were attending the Meeting, and another list of persons who might become interested and who were to be called on--and invited, both to the regular meeting for worship and to the Sunday evening tea--meetings.

By the spring of 1927 the possibility of a meeting house began to be seriously considered and during the next years a number of sites were explored and discussed. On April 9, 1929 the Property Committee reported that the Yarnall-Waring Company agreed to lease to us a strip of land 125' by 70' fronting on Mermaid Lane, for $100 a year, to be paid in two installments of $50.00 each. (This rental was substantially increased in 1950.)

We knew, in undertaking a building, however modest, that we would have to go outside our own group for help, although we would all give as generously as possible of our own resources. A careful list of "prospects" was prepared and each of us undertook to visit or to write to a number of these people. This was the first United Meeting in the two Yearly Meetings, and the first new meeting house in the city of Philadelphia since "Hicksite" Friends had built their West Philadelphia Meeting at 35th Street and Lancaster Avenue in 1901.

In addition to soliciting special individuals we sent to the heads of families in both Yearly Meetings a folder, telling of our situation and our plans and asking for contributions toward the probable cost of $10,000. This went out in the spring of 1930 and about the same time Anna Pettit Broomell, of ' Greene Street Meeting, wrote an article for The Friend and The Friends Intelligencer entitled Who Builds Our Meeting Houses? The Monthly Meeting minutes of April 24 remark that "its pithy statements are so much to the point that the meeting thought it worth using as propaganda material." This, too, was printed as a small pamphlet and widely distributed.

By the spring of 1931 the funds collected and the sorting out of many possible plans and procedures brought us finally to the point of decision. The Monthly Meeting on April 17, at the home of Howard and Katharine Elkinton, approved the lease which had been drawn up for the piece of land belonging to the Yarnall-WaringCompany and "came to an unanimous agreement to go ahead with the building as soon as possible." D. Robert Yarnall, G. Lupton Broomell and Howard W. Elkinton were appointed as trustees to carry out arrangements for the lease, and to sign the contract with the builder.

During the summer arrangements were made to borrow, from the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting at 4th and Arch Streets, twelve benches, stored in their basement. On these benches, later given to us, we still sit, forty-one years later.

On the 9th of September 1931 the Monthly Meeting was held, for the first time, in the new meeting house, several days before the first Meeting for Worship. "The Property Committee reported the completion of the meeting house, at a cost of $7000.00 plus a few extras . . . The Meeting pronounced unqualified approval of the new building and the clerk was directed to forward a minute to Melvin Grebe, the contractor, in appreciation of his services and the results of his efforts." Gratitude and appreciation were recorded to various people who had worked in various ways, and particularly to Henry Dearden, who had drawn the original plan, professionalized by J. Linden Heacock, and had worked untiringly, as Treasurer and member of the Property Committee, in seeing his ideas made concrete.

The personal journal of one member of the Meeting says, on September 13, "Today we shall have our first Meeting for Worship in the new Chestnut Hill Meeting House, a significant event. What do we expect of it? How will it affect our informality?" and, several weeks later, "After three Sundays in the new meeting house we are a bit stunned. Sixty there last week, of whom only a few were casual visitors . . . Must we, when we suddenly double in size, have a few people preaching or can we continue to share out of the fullness of our lives?"

In 1934 the property of Chestnut Hill Meeting was increased by the gift from Gwynedd Monthly Meeting of a section of the beautiful burial ground at Plymouth Meeting, with several Trust Funds for its care, to be held by the Friends Fiduciary Corporation.

Informal study groups contributed greatly to the life of individuals and of the Meeting. One of these groups met on Sunday evenings to read aloud and discuss together George Fox's Journal. Another group met on alternate Saturdays and considered the large subject of "Training for the life 'of the spirit, worshiping together in silence and seeking, through study and discussion, for the "availability of the Eternal Presence" and for "the place of the individual member in the Meeting for Worship, Quaker to Quaker, first hand."

For a number of years the new meeting house met our needs. The very small room to the right of the entrance from Mermaid Lane served the double purpose of kindergarten, for the youngest children, and kitchen. Monthly Meeting suppers were prepared there and served on trays which people held on their laps in the meeting room. The washing and wiping of dishes was an extremely sociable undertaking in which both male and female volunteers participated. Two members of the Supper Committee recently recalled the occasion when we borrowed five or six electric waffle irons and attached them to outlets in the several rooms, planning an unusually exciting meal, -- only to find ourselves in total darkness. The overloaded fuses spoiled our plans, there were no waffles, and we ate some less exciting substitute by candle light!

At various times the feeling that the meeting house premises were not large enough to meet the needs of the Meeting was expressed by various members. Several groups of the children of the First Day School were accommodated in portions of the Yarnall-Waringoffices, and the meeting house kitchen did not provide sufficient accommodation for preparing a meeting supper. Although the meeting room was large enough for most meetings, it was too small for such groups as weddings or funerals.

The only step that was taken toward expansion, however, for many years was the purchase from the Yarnall-WaringCompany of the piece of land which the Meeting had leased since 1930. When the new addition was finally completed in 1964 (forty years after the founding) the beloved meeting room with its fireplace was kept as it had always been, with the addition of folding doors between it and the "gather room" which replaced the former narrow hall, so that for special occasions the space can be greatly enlarged. A modern kitchen and a spacious assembly room with two small class rooms have proved useful in many ways and on many occasions.

Through the years since 1924 individuals and families have come and gone, younger generations have become middle-aged, and have had their own children. Some of them have continued their association with Chestnut Hill Meeting, some have moved away, or turned their allegiance elsewhere. But among the present membership of over two hundred there is still a warm affection, a continuing sense that we are "members one of another," in that which is eternal.

Elizabeth Biddle Yarnall