Writing our history: Infants at The Lutheran Home at Topton

The twists and turns of taking a look back

Middletown, Pa.    Tuesday, February 27, 2018

One of the typical tasks of celebrating a major organizational anniversary—as Diakon is doing this year with its 150th birthday—is development of a history publication.

While I am conversant on the major roots of Diakon’s heritage, two 1800s-era orphanages, I was surprised by a few things I found in doing additional research, including long-ago similarities among the organizations that created Diakon in 2000 and ... an unconfirmed link to Betsy Ross.

  • I knew, for example, that the Inner Mission Society of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Baltimore and Vicinity had long operated a “hospice.” The term hospice in the early 1900s did not have the connotation it has today; rather, a hospice was a faith-based home for non-resident young women living in the city for work or education. The Baltimore program was supervised for 40 years by Sister Zora Heckart, a Lutheran deaconess.
  • I did not know, however, that the Lutheran Inner Mission Society of Reading and Berks—an organization that later merged with The Lutheran Home at Topton—operated a similar program called the Lutheran Hospice for Girls. Located at 1520 Mineral Spring Road in Reading, the hospice was established in 1928 and was overseen by Sister Sara Sassaman, also a Lutheran deaconess. 
  • Both Tressler Lutheran Services and Lutheran Services Northeast, the organizations that created Diakon, carry on the histories of lots of other entities including Lutheran Social Services of Central Pennsylvania, Lutheran Inner Mission societies, Lutheran Social Services of Maryland and Lutheran Welfare Society of Northeastern Pennsylvania ... but also a smaller organization known as the Home for Widows and Single Women, Reading. 

Founded in 1876, the home predated The Lutheran Home at Topton, with which it merged in the 1970s. Similar to other regional organizations, the Reading home provided a residence for older women with limited resources. But here are (at least to me) interesting facts about this organization:

  1. A longtime member of the board of managers of The Home for Widows and Single Women was Mrs. Helen N. Palmer, whose later significant bequest would allow Diakon in 2017 to refurbish Old Main on The Lutheran Home at Topton campus and create the unique Helen Palmer Center for Permanency for Diakon Adoption & Foster Care (to be dedicated March 15).
  2. The Reading home was founded by Rachel D. Griscom who died in 1901 at the age of 93. Born in New Jersey, she moved with her parents to Philadelphia in 1809 and, later, to Reading, where at the age of 17 she became a teacher, an occupation she held most of her life. In fact, a published history notes that at one time she probably was the oldest teacher in both Reading and the Commonwealth. Equally interesting is the fact that same history includes this sentence: “While a little girl in Philadelphia, she saw Elizabeth Griscom Ross, who made the first United States flag.” Related? It would seem so, though I have not had time to investigate further. 

As you can see, writing a history is a lot like taking one of those ancestor-focused DNA tests; you simply never know what you will find. 

If you know more about any of these brief items related to our history, please email me at swangerb@diakon.org.

—William Swanger
SVP, Diakon Corporate Communications

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