Thursday, June 25, 2009

Girard College

Henri wrote in an 1852 letter home from Philadelphia of Girard College, founded by Stephen Girard a French-born, naturalized American, philanthropist, and banker. Childless, he devoted much of his fortune to philanthropy, particularly the education and welfare of orphans. Henri said, "Girard College is the most beautiful building ever erected in the name of charity."

Founder's Hall, built in 1848

An Overview of Stephen Girard from the Girard College Website

Stephen Girard (1750 – 1831), is a great American immigrant success story. Born in Bordeaux, France, Girard was the eldest of fourteen children. His mother died when he was eleven and he left home at the age of fourteen to spend the next twelve years sailing the seas, learning the international mercantile and shipping business.

Girard arrived in Philadelphia in June 1776 living in his adopted city for the rest of his long life. During his fifty-five years in Pennsylvania, he became the richest American of his time.

Girard was married to Mary Lum from 1777 until her death in 1815. They had no children.

Girard’s first fortune was in international shipping and merchant activities. He stayed in Philadelphia, sending his ships, crews and captains around the world. He deposited his growing wealth in the First Bank of the United States in Philadelphia ephemera. When the first Bank lost its charter in 1811, Girard bought the Bank building, left his money there, and reopened the building as the Bank of Stephen Girard. This made him America’s first private banker. He made his second fortune in banking and helped raise the sixteen million dollars required for the U.S. government to fight the War of 1812. By the time of his death, his fortune totaled approximately 7.5 million dollars.

One of the most interesting chapters of Girard’s life was his role in fightingPhiladelphia’s Yellow Fever epidemic in the summer of 1793. He was instrumental in running the city’s hospital at the Hamilton home “Bush Hill” using his business skills to better organize the hospital’s health care and record keeping, and using his hands for personal nursing. The significance of his heroism that summer is that we see, for the first time, the man who will again as an old man, step forward to assist his beloved city of Philadelphia in a way that no one else could.

As an old man, Girard started to think about what he would do with his fortune. With the assistance of attorney William J. Duane, in the 1820’s he wrote a long will outlining every detail of how his fortune should be used. He delighted in keeping the document secret, knowing that everyone wondered what would happen to the Girard fortune. Immediately after his death, the provisions of his will were made public. In addition to extensive personal and institutional bequests, he left the bulk of his fortune to the City of Philadelphia to build and operate a residential school for needy children from single parent households. This innovative social vision was considered breathtaking both then and now: to use the Girard fortune not to endow another Ivy League university but to assist children in need. In 1831, this bequest was the largest single act of philanthropy in American history.

Since its opening in 1848, Girard College has provided a free, residential education to over 21,000 children in grades 1 – 12 on its 45 acre urban campus in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Section. The Girard Estate remains open in perpetuity and provides much of the operating budget for the school.

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