Mary Brackett Willcox papers
Held at: Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center [Contact Us]100 E. Wynnewood Rd., Wynnewood, PA
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
Thomas Willcox (-1779), from Devonshire, England founded the Willcox family paper mill, Ivy Mills, in 1729 in Concord Township, Delaware County. The mill quickly rose to great importance in the Philadelphia area and the whole of the eastern coast as they became a leading supplier of paper for Provincial, Continental, and Federal currency, and a leading supplier of banknote paper.
Along with their status in industry, the Willcox family also became one of the most prominent Catholic families in the Philadelphia area. (The family was related to other prominent Catholic families, including the Kennedys and the Jenkins of Baltimore.) The family’s mansion, located next to the mill, became the center of Catholicity in Delaware County. Thomas Willcox and his wife Elizabeth Cole allowed their home to serve as a meeting place for the small number of Catholics living in the area. Congregations regularly met there for masses, which were performed by visiting order priests living in the Philadelphia area. This congregation came to form St. Thomas the Apostle parish, initially known as St. Mary’s, which is considered the first parish in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Mass was said on the Willcox estate for over a century until 1852 when, due to the increasing number of parishioners, a church was built. James Mark Willcox (1791-1854), grandson of Thomas Willcox, donated the land.
In 1827, after the death of his father, Mark Willcox (1744-1827) James Mark Willcox inherited and operated the family’s paper mill. James first married Eliza Orne (-1817), daughter of Capt. James Orne of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1813. They had two children: Mark Willcox (1814-) and William Jenkins Willcox (1815-1845).
James then married Mary Brackett Willcox (1796-1866), the daughter of Captain James Brackett (1780-1864) and Elizabeth Odiorne (1782-1870). The Bracketts were an old established Puritan family from Massachusetts, and appear to have had a close relationship with the Willcox family. James M. Willcox’s brother, John Willcox (1789-1826), married Mary Brackett’s sister, Elizabeth A.G. Brackett (1803-1879) in 1823.
James and Mary Willcox were married in 1819, and had several children: Mary Elizabeth Willcox (1820- ), Thomas B. Willcox (1822-1840), James Brackett Willcox (1824-1895), John Willcox (1827-1846), Joseph Willcox (1829-1918), Mary Elizabeth Willcox (1831-1846), Edward Jenkins Willcox (1834-1890), Henry B. Willcox (1838-), and Ida Eliza Willcox (1841-).
According to records, Mary Brackett Willcox remained staunchly anti-Catholic for several years after her marriage to James. She did, however, eventually convert to Catholicism. She was baptized in 1827 and received the sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation in 1842 from Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick, who had become a close friend of the Willcox family.
Mary played an active role in the Catholic community, including the construction of St. Thomas the Apostle Church with her husband James, and became a noted and respected figure amongst Catholics in the Philadelphia area. She became especially close with many priests and seminarians who spent their summer vacations on the Willcox estate.
Mary’s standing within the Catholic community is evidenced by her obituaries. The Catholic Standard article entitled “Death of an estimable Catholic lady,” noted that besides close friends and family, more than twenty clergymen, including Bishop Kenrick, celebrated her funeral mass. Another obituary noted that “Never was grief more sincere, for everyone there knew that a dear friend had gone forth from among them, whose loss should be sincerely felt and whose place could never be supplied.” (Smith, “Sketch of Mary Brackett Willcox,” 400)
From 1842 until his death in 1854, James M. Willcox invited seminarians attending St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, at the time located in Philadelphia, to spend their summers on the Willcox property in Ivy Mills, Delaware County. During this time, the Vincentian, or the Congregation of the Mission, priests who administered and taught at the Seminary, also visited and ministered to the Willcox home.
The correspondence, which makes up the bulk of the collection, reveals the close relationships that developed between the Willcox family, in particular James M. Willcox, and his wife Mary Bracket Willcox, and the seminarians as well as the diocesan and Vincentian priests who frequented the family estate. In their letters to Mary, many of the priests and seminarians often addressed her as “Ma” or “Mother.”
A well-educated and intellectual woman, incoming letters from the various seminarians and priests with whom Mary formed strong relationships, reveal that she often had serious and thought-provoking discussions about the teachings of the Catholic Church and Catholic faith. Even after her conversion to Catholicism, it appears that Mary continued to question and to explore the tenets of the Church.
A majority of the letters address the topics of religion and spirituality, and more specifically, the teachings of the Catholic Church. The priests and seminarians with whom she corresponded offer Mary advice about how to be a good Catholic and how to maintain a strong sense of faith.
Many of Mary’s correspondents were noteworthy priests who served in the Diocese of Philadelphia, including celebrated convert Edward J. Sourin, S.J. and Virgil H. Barber, S.J., as well as Seminary students, a couple of whom later became priests. The majority of correspondents were members of the Vincentian religious order (also known as the Congregation of Priests of the Mission). Among the noteworthy Vincentian correspondents are Mariano Maller, second rector of St. Charles Seminary, and Thaddeus Amat, who later became bishop of Monterey, California.
Letters from these Vincentian priests document their work in the Philadelphia diocese, in particular their work as administrators and teachers at the recently-founded St. Charles Seminary, as well as their efforts as missionaries in other parts of the country. The Vincentians, who had come to the Diocese of Philadelphia at the request of Bishop Francis Kenrick, played a significant role in the development and growth of the diocese.
Letters from Alexander Frasi, for example, document the beginnings of St. Stephen’s Church in Philadelphia, founded in 1843. Bartholomew Rollando’s letters document his work at St. Mary’s Chapel in Galveston then located in the Vicariate of Texas. He was stationed there during the U.S.-Mexican War (1846-1848), and several of his letters discuss how the war was affecting that part of the country. Some of this correspondence also addresses events that took place in ante-bellum Philadelphia. There is some mention, for example, of the Nativist riots that shook the city in the spring and summer of 1844 when Protestant mobs targeted the Catholic community. According to some records, Bishop Kenrick and a few priests, who felt that their lives were in danger, fled the city and stayed at the Willcox home for a couple of days on their way to St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore.
Letters in the collection also concern the Willcox family, including the deaths of two of Mary’s children, John and Mary, who died within less than a year of one another in 1846. There are also letters relating to the death of Mary’s step-son William in 1845, and her husband James M. Willcox in 1854.
Besides incoming correspondence, the collection also includes a few letters from Mary B. Willcox and a few relating to other members of Mary’s family, as well as miscellaneous drafts, notes, and other writings that Mary likely wrote.
Also included is a scrapbook circa 1850 that includes letters from several U.S. bishops to James M. Willcox acknowledging the receipt of copies that James had printed and sent to every bishop in the country of Bishop Peter Augustine Baines’s Sermon on Faith, Hope, and Charity (1825). The volume also includes items relating to the funeral of Joseph Theophilus Cauffman (1720-1807), father-in-law of Mark Willcox (1744-1827). The last folder in the collection includes a photocopy of Mary B. Willcox’s unfinished sketch of Ivy Mills from the time of her marriage in 1819 until 1859 (A slightly different transcription of Mary’s sketch is included in Smith’s “Sketch of Mary Brackett Willcox,” 397-399), and a photocopy of the section on the Willcox family genealogy from John W. Jordan’s Colonial And Revolutionary Families of Pennsylvania (1911).
A description of the collection and full or partial trasncriptions of many of the letters to Mary B. Willcox are included in Sara Trainer Smith's “Sketch of Mary Brackett Willcox.” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia 7 (December 1896) no. 4, 395-453.
Accession number 1990.010
From information provided in Sara Trainer Smith's "Sketch of Mary Brackett Willcox," it seems as if her son, Joseph Willcox (1829-1918), donated the collection to the American Catholic Historical Society.
An older finding aid is available on the PAHRC website:
The arrangement of the collection has been altered from this finding aid.
This collection was reorganized based on the correspondents represented in the collection. Based on Sara Trainer Smith's description of the collection in her article entitled, "Sketch of Mary Brackett Willcox," it appears that some of the materials originally in the collection were removed, including Mary B. Willcox's unfinished sketch of Ivy Mills from the time she moved there after her marriage to James M. Willcox in 1819 until 1859, as well as letters relating to James Brown, a Seminary student.
- Amat, Thaddeus, Bishop, 1811-1878
- Barber, Virgil H., (Horace), 1782-1847
- Frasi, Alexander, C.M.
- Maller, Mariano, C.M.
- Moriarty, P.E., (Patrick Eugene), 1804-1875
- Penco, Anthony, C.M.
- Rollando, Bartholomew, C.M.
- Sourin, Edward J., S.J.
- Tornatore, John B., C.M.
- Willcox family
- Willcox, James Mark, 1791-1854
- Willcox, Mark, 1744-1827
- Willcox, Mary Brackett, 1796-1866
- Wirzfeld, Michael A., Rev.
- Catholic Church--United States--History--19th century
- Catholic Church. Archdiocese of Philadelphia (Pa.)--History--19th century
- Catholic women
- Delaware County (Pa.)--History
- Family life--Pennsylvania--19th century
- St. Charles Borromeo Seminary (Overbrook, Philadelphia, Pa.)
- St. Thomas the Apostle (Church : Glen Mills, Pennsylvania)
- Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Faith Charlton and Heather Schubert
- Finding Aid Date
- ; December 2011
- Access Restrictions
This collection is open for research.
Wirzfeld's name was torn out of many of his letters. In her "Sketch of Mary Brackett Willcox" Sara Trainer Smith notes that his letters, like some others in the collection, are "only private and particular instructions," and "could not be made public property." (p. 452)
Correspondents include the following: P.E. Moriarity, O.S.A.; Virgil H. Barber, S.J.; John D. Jennings; Richard O'Connor; Rev. Patrick F. Sheridan; Sister Mary Michaella; Anthony Penco, C.M.; Robert Kleineidan, C.M.; Joseph A. Gallagher; F. McAtee; T.D. O'Keefe, C.M.; Andrew Rossi, C.M.; F. Burland, C.M.; William Lambert; Bishop Carbonelle