By Amy Grant
In the late 1990s, the Gloria Dei Church congregation was preparing to celebrate a significant milestone. The church building — which was still standing and used for worship — would soon be 300 years old. The year-long “birthday” festivities were slated to attract an unprecedented number of visitors and tourists to the property.
But there was a problem: after almost three centuries of continuous use, the church building was in dire need of exterior repair and interior restoration. The stained glass window was broken in several places. The sanctuary walls were covered with chipped and peeling paint. The entire brick facade — from the lowest brick in the church wall to the top of the steeple spire — desperately needed repointing. Even the ship replicas hanging above the central church aisle were significantly damaged.
The congregation moved quickly to execute the repairs. Funding was provided by several foundations and endowments. Members of the church also pitched in. But it wasn’t enough. The project wound up costing significantly more than estimated. The church was facing a hefty deficit that would cripple its finances for the unforeseeable future.
Catharine Marett was certainly aware of the situation. She was about 90 years old and nearing the end of her life. She had already buried her sister, husband and brother-in-law in a plot facing the church. This would also be Catharine’s final resting place. Even though Catharine was not a lifelong parishioner, Gloria Dei must have held a very special place in her heart. Before her death, Catharine donated the bulk of her life savings to the church restoration project, sparing the congregation from financial ruin.
Despite having accrued a substantial net worth during her life, Catharine came from humble beginnings. She was born on March 15, 1907. Her mother, Katie Peoples, had recently immigrated from Ireland. Her father, Richard Oliver, was also of Irish descent and worked as a carpenter for a furniture store. The Olivers’ had two other children, Mary (born 1902) and Elizabeth (born 1905), and lived at 21st and Manton Streets in South Philadelphia.
The Oliver family appears to have worshipped at the Memorial Church of the Holy Comforter, located a few short blocks from their home. Built in 1874, “this splendid set of buildings” was designed by Frank Furness as an offshoot of the “strong and vigorous” parish of St. Peter’s Church in Society Hill. Catharine and Elizabeth were both baptized there and we can imagine that they were a fixture at Sunday services. This magnificent church is still standing today though it is in desperate need of repair.
In the early 20th century, infectious diseases ran rampant in Philadelphia, claiming thousands of lives every year. Those that spread through contaminated water supply lines were especially life-threatening. The simple acts of drinking water, bathing or eating food exposed to tainted water could result in death.
On Oct. 17, 1908, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported a surge in the number of confirmed cases involving waterborne diseases. Sadly, Mary Oliver, age 6, was amongst those diagnosed. Mary was struck with scarlet fever, probably through contact with tainted water. She died at home on Oct. 20th which no doubt devastated her entire family. Catharine, who was less than a year old, was likely isolated during this time to mitigate the risk of infection.
The Manton Street home understandably held sad memories for the Oliver family. They moved north to Watts and Girard about a year later. The Olivers’ would remain at that address until Elizabeth and Catharine reached adulthood. Their maternal grandfather, George, a watchman who worked for a locomotive works, moved in as well.
Catharine’s connection to Gloria Dei Church was probably forged by her brother-in-law, John “Stanley” Breen. Stanley, a World War I army veteran, married Catharine’s sister Elizabeth in 1928. According to Stanley’s descendants, his family has deep roots with the church going back to the early the 19th century. Stanley found work as a salesman and settled in Upper Darby with Elizabeth and several family members including his sister Anna Grimshaw Breen.
Meanwhile, Catharine had moved with her parents to Broad and Allegheny. She was working as a clerk for the electric company and probably caught the eye of many eligible bachelors. But it was Herbert Marett who won her heart. Six years Catharine’s senior, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Herbert had been raised in Germantown. His father, Philip, made finishes for the local brass foundry. At age 18, Herbert worked alongside his older brother Oscar building medical instruments. Ten years later, Herbert was a shipper in the electrical industry. While he and Catharine may not have had the same employer, it seems likely that their paths had crossed at work. They married in 1930, when Catharine was 22 years old. Catharine and Herbert soon moved to Springdale, PA and opened a retail store together.
At the start of the Second World War, the US government conducted a series of drafts to help build their armed forces. In 1942, they widened their search “beyond younger age groups.” Stanley, 47 years old and retired, and Herbert, 40 years old and still working, both enlisted in this “Old Man’s Draft.” However, it does not appear that either of these men were called to duty.
Nevertheless, the coming years would be hard on Catharine and Elizabeth. Sadly, both of their parents developed heart diseases around the same time. Richard, their father, was diagnosed with coronary thrombosis in 1942 and died after three months of suffering. He was 72 years old. Katie, their mother, developed arteriosclerosis and diabetes, which no doubt weakened her constitution. In 1952, Katie fell off her toilet at home, fractured her ankle, and was rushed to Ebenezer Hospital. She died two months later at age 77.
Catharine and Elizabeth’s parents chose Greenwood Cemetery as their final resting place. This also happened to be where their long deceased sister Mary was buried. The sisters opted instead to be buried together with their husbands in the Gloria Dei churchyard. Stanley died in 1978 at age 84. He was soon joined by Elizabeth in 1980 and Herbert in 1987. Sometime after Herbert’s death, Catharine moved into an assisted living facility and spent her final days there. She died at age 91 in 1998.
It is not clear how Catharine amassed a small fortune during her life, but we can speculate. Neither Catharine nor Elizabeth had children of their own to receive their respective inheritances. Catharine outlived her sister and brother-in-law and was probably named as their beneficiary. We can also imagine that Catharine and Herbert were successful in their retail business and contributed regularly to a savings account.
We may never know exactly why Catharine bestowed her estate upon Gloria Dei Church. However, we are eternally grateful for her significant contribution to the historic restoration of our property.
Type of Marker: Headstone on base
Structural Integrity: Excellent
Material Integrity: Excellent
Legible Inscription: Excellent
Inventory Number: 244
Plot Number: 497
Cemetery Section: 5
Marker Height/Length (in): 21.5
Marker Width (in): 31.5
Marker Thickness/Depth (in): 8