Cathedral Village Oral Histories
Last year, churches around the country provided hope during the Covid-19 pandemic by creating video sermons that were shared online. PHS documented this response by collecting the recorded Easter sermons of PC(USA) congregations and worshiping communities and preserving them in Pearl Digital Collections.
This year, we’ve created a collection of oral histories recorded at Cathedral Village, a Presbyterian affiliated senior-living community in Philadelphia. Hear from Ann Silverman, a resident of Cathedral Village who—with the help of PHS—captured the experiences of senior citizens during the pandemic.
What motivated you to record oral histories with residents at Cathedral Village?
I observed a serious impact of the Covid on many residents here in independent living. I didn’t have access to nursing home residents because they were quarantined and they weren’t allowed to do visits during most of covid.
I wanted to record some of their observations and recollections. And I thought that elderly people would have an interesting perspective over a lifetime of experience. And I’ve always been interested in history.
Was there anything surprising that you learned while doing these interviews?
There were some responses that were pretty common. I did six interviews so far. Some things were similar and other things were very individual. I interviewed several pairs of people, couples. That was a little bit interesting, a little different dynamic. The thing that was pretty common thread through the interviews, was that people in this community felt protected. I didn’t hint at that, it was spontaneous in other words. The staff here had been extraordinary. I thought that was quite notable.
Was there anything challenging about doing the oral histories?
Not particularly. When I interviewed couples, it didn’t surprise me that one individual dominated the conversation. There were sometimes very good reasons for that. One person had difficulty speaking; or one person had a degree of dementia. But I was always glad that I had gotten both voices. I tried to be even handed but that wasn’t so necessary.
Did listening to the interviewees give you a different perspective about the pandemic or make you think differently about your own experiences during the pandemic?
[Yes.] Particularly the couple that was quarantined for lengthy periods. There was one couple I interviewed who had tested positive. They had an extraordinary experience in the nursing wing of Cathedral Village. How the nursing staff delt with them, the isolation they experienced, and the lack of social contact and family, how they kept entertained and busy—that was very enlightening to me. I didn’t have a picture of what that isolation was like until I talked to them.
Other people, not so much. One person did reveal a major life change that was precipitated by the death of a partner. He was unable to be with the partner. Of course that was outside my own personal experience.
Why did you think it was important to capture these stories?
I’m familiar with other oral history projects and I do access oral histories sometimes electronically. For example, some of the files in the Library of Congress. And also I’ve done an interview for Wyck, I’m a volunteer at the Wyck House and Garden in Germantown. So I’m very interested in the immediacy of oral histories and what they can possibly tell to future researchers and future audiences. They’re a really interesting potential source, a kind of eyewitness source.
What do you hope people take away from these interviews?
That’s an interesting question, but I have no idea. I think it will depend on what the questions are that are guiding the investigator. I wish that I knew more about the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. My father remembered it, but I didn’t really ask him a lot of questions about it. I didn’t ask my grandmother who must have had a lot of recollections. I thought this is such a life changing event and there will be so many collections formed. There will be an overwhelming amount of information. You know gradually over time it will sift down. People will make their own interpretations, tell their own stories, and repeat their family's story. These interviews will add a teeny tiny bit to the accumulation of eyewitness information.
Why did you reach out to PHS with this idea and how did we help you capture these stories?
I have a couple of friends and former colleagues [from Community College of Philadelphia] who have done work with PHS. A personal friend of mine Jackie Akins, she was a history professor, her students did work in the PHS archives, she’s familiar with other teachers who have done this from Community College. I thought well, I don’t want to do this and have it land nowhere. I want to find a repository so I thought of PHS because Cathedral is a Presbyterian Institution. Jackie put me in touch [with PHS] and I asked if there would be any interest in training me and lending me equipment and then archiving whatever I came up with. That was the connection. [PHS] trained me. I had no idea how to use the equipment that they lent me. [They] created a handbook for me.
Click here to listen to the Cathedral Village oral histories.
Click here to view the COVID-19 Pandemic Digital Collection in Pearl.