Gerard M. Foley

Travel & Photography Collection

My Name is Gerard

There is only one basic legal document to testify to this, namely a U.S. passport issued in September 1932. At many times I am addressed as Gerald, and at others as Gerhardt and other interesting variations. When this occurs, and I am able to bend my audience's ear for fifteen minutes or so, I recount a story which began in the late 18th century and ends in 1932.

Stephen Girard was born in France, and became a merchant ship captain. He was so successful that he settled in Philadelphia about 1775 as a ship owner and merchant. He married, but his wife died a few years after they were married, and he never remarried, and left no children. I found the date of his death at US History's page on Stephen Girard.

Girard died in 1831. At the same page is a section "Girard's Remarkable Will". It states:

"Girard's will was severely challenged by relatives who regarded his gift to orphans to be excessive and counter to their own welfare in seeking the huge estate value for themselves. In 1844, provisions of the will were argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Daniel Webster was the petitioner for the Girard family; a prominent Philadelphia lawyer, Horace Binney, argued for the defense. In 1844, the Supreme Court upheld the will as it was written. It was then considered a stinging defeat for Daniel Webster."

This, strangely enough, is relevant to my proper (and current) name. My father, Francis B. Foley, was born to Roman Catholic parents in Philadelphia in 1887. His father, Dennis, was a laborer at the Midvale Steel Company when in late 1888 or early 1889 he was laid off, probably because the U.S.Navy did not buy enough guns, shells and armor to keep the Midvale plant busy.

Some years before Dennis's brother had gone to the Black Hills of South Dakota, to work in the gold mines. He wrote to Dennis about the demand for labor there, so Dennis left his pregnant wife and their three children in Philadelphia and went to Lead, South Dakota, where he found his brother's statements were true. A man could get work 365 days a year if he wanted, for $1 a day. Dennis found a house near the Catholic Church and wrote his wife to come out with the children. When she arrived in Lead in December 1889 she found Dennis in the hospital. He died the next day. The newspaper said though he had been in the Black Hills only a few weeks, he made many friends. His fellow miners raised $500 for the young widow, who returned to Philadelphia to give birth to her fourth child, a third son.

The confirmation of the legality of Stephen Girard's will had led, in accordance with Girard's specific instructions, to the establishment of a boarding school for “male white orphans”, with preference to be given to boys from Philadelphia and New Orleans. My father (and his two brothers) were enrolled there and he was graduated in 1904. In the course of time he found work in the same steel plant in which his father had worked, educated himself as a metallurgist and became one of the world's top scientists in his field.

He married a girl, Anne Marie Flaherty, from another Irish Catholic family, who lived around the corner. She had suffered from rheumatic fever in girlhood, and when she became pregnant it was feared that she might not survive the delivery of the child. A relative (possibly the mother superior of a Canadian convent) acquired a relic of St. Gerard, the patron saint of expectant mothers, to lend to my mother. Whether by luck, the intervention of St Gerard, or the skill of Dr. John J. Moylan, she did survive my birth. A few days after the delivery Dr. Moylan called on her and asked "How's little Moylan today?" My mother replied that my name was not Moylan, but Gerard.

Now the webpage "The free exercise of religion" states:

"A French immigrant by the name of Stephen Girard had passed away in 1831 and his entire estate of $7 million - the equivalent of more than $125 million today - was bequeathed to the city of Philadelphia on the condition that it construct an orphanage and a college, and that "no ecclesiastic, missionary, or minister of any sect whatsoever, shall ever hold or exercise any station or duty whatever in the said college; nor shall any such person ever be admitted for any purpose, or as a visitor, within the premises."

This provision was well known in Philadelphia, and it was said that Webster's main challenge to the will was his assertion that this provision proved that Girard was an atheist, and that an atheist could not write a valid will.

So Dr. Moylan replied "You're not going to name him after that damned old French atheist, are you?"

When my 16th birthday approached, and I wanted a driver's license, I went to Philadelphia City Hall to ask for a copy of the birth certificate for Gerard Moylan Foley. I was told that there was none, but that there was one issued for a person born on that day named Moylan G. Foley. I still have the certified copy of this certificate, which was signed by Dr. Moylan. About half the information on it is incorrect. Fortunately, at the same time, I was in need of a passport to go to University in Scotland. My mother was still alive, and her affidavit was accepted as the basis for issuing a passport for Gerard Moylan Foley. I have used it ever since to get driver's license, Social Security card and so on.