Monday, June 22, 2009

Our History

On May 25, 1949, a small group of lawyers and judges assembled in Room 416, City Hall, the chambers of the Orphans Court Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia, at the invitation of Judge John P. Boland. They met to discuss the formation of a new organization, similar to those that were springing up throughout the country bearing the name of the sixteenth century's preeminent lawyer and jurist, St. Thomas More, canonized on May 19, 1935. One year after More’s canonization, during the American Bar Association’s Annual Convention in Boston, a group of Catholic lawyers founded the St. Thomas More Society of America. Its purposes were to encourage the study of English law and the life and juridical idealism of St. Thomas More, and to disseminate those ideals to the practicing bar nationwide. Beginning in 1940, the national Society held its annual meetings in Philadelphia to coincide with the annual meetings of the American Law Institute. The meetings were hosted by a group of Catholic Philadelphia lawyers led by Walter B. Gibbons who served as Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association in 1943 and 1944. In early 1949, this group decided to create an affiliated local organization, the St. Thomas More Society of Philadelphia, and Judge Boland undertook to schedule the organizational meeting. At that meeting, Judge Boland was elected president of the new organization. The following week, the Society sought and obtained the approval of Denis Cardinal Dougherty. Reverend Bartholomew F. Fair was designated as chaplain. A proposed Constitution provided for direction by four officers, three elected council members, an advisory board selected by the council, and the chaplain. There was an official prayer:
"Almighty God, Who didst vouchsafe to endow Thy servant Thomas with the qualities and grace to be chosen the Patron of the Legal Profession, we beseech Thee that by his life, learning and teaching we may derive profit and also merit our own eternal salvation. Amen."
The purposes of the Society were generally stated as follows:
"...To disseminate the ideals of St. Thomas More; to promote the practice of traditional ethics of the legal profession; to consider legislation with relation to the fundamental moral principles which underlie American Society; to widen and deepen the intellectual culture of members of the Society, and to extend and maintain their social relations with one another."
The first general activity, a dinner, was held on St. Valentine's Day, February 14, 1950, at the old Whitman's Restaurant, 1626 Chestnut Street. The price was the princely sum of $3.00, including gratuity. The featured speaker was Robert Granville Burke, president of the Guild of Catholic Lawyers of New York City. In 1952, the Philadelphia Bar Association -- the oldest bar association in the nation -- was completing preparations for the celebration of its 150th anniversary under a newly elected Chancellor, Bernard G. Segal, the first Jew to hold that office. One of Segal's first duties as Chancellor was to attend the ABA's midyear meeting of the House of Delegates in Chicago in February 1952. The ABA meeting was accompanied by the celebration of a Red Mass. Chancellor Segal was impressed by the splendor and tradition of the ceremony in Chicago. Upon his return to Philadelphia, Segal contacted recently installed Archbishop John F. O'Hara, whom he had met years earlier while lecturing at Notre Dame University where O'Hara was president. Segal asked about the possibility of a Red Mass being celebrated during the bar association's anniversary proceedings. On March 12, 1952, the 150th Anniversary of the Philadelphia Bar Association opened with the celebration of a Red Mass at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. The ceremony was sponsored by the Saint Thomas More Society of Philadelphia. An overflow crowd attended the Red Mass. Archbishop O'Hara delivered the homily on "The Natural Law." It was a magnificent occasion -- and the officers of the Society quickly laid plans to assure that the tradition would be continued. Ever since, the annual Red Mass has been the St. Thomas More Society's most visible activity. By the early 1960's, the Society's presentations were offered on a monthly basis, often under the prodding of John B. Gest, a senior lawyer who spent a substantial amount of his time on the affairs of the Society and other charitable activities. From time to time, the Society also awarded citations to acknowledge the efforts of Catholic lay leaders from the legal community. In 1975, the Board of Governors re-established an annual lecture forum. The forum was named in honor of John B. Gest, the former president of the Society who had placed great emphasis on luncheon discussions of an intellectual nature. In 1980, a forum presented by Honorable Joseph F. Weis, Jr., Judge of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, and Paul Bender, Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, was very well attended. With the exception of 1985 and 2001, when the demands of private practice of law overwhelmed the Board of Governors, the Gest Forum has been an annual event. In 1982, the Board of Governors authorized an annual award to a member of the Catholic legal community. There was unanimous agreement that the award should be made in honor of St. Thomas More. However, the qualifications for and the recipient of the award were subject to substantial discussion. Eventually, it was decided that the award would be presented to a member of the Catholic legal community who, in some way, personified the principles and ideals of St. Thomas More. The Board was reluctant to go further in specifying qualifications, believing that the achievements of the recipients themselves would ultimately define the purpose of the award. Immediately following the thirty-first annual Red Mass in 1982, the first St. Thomas More Award was presented to John R. McConnell, a civil trial lawyer, former Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, instructor on trial techniques, and a former officer of the Saint Thomas More Society. Several of the early recipients of the award, Judge Armand Della Porta, James L. J. Pie' and Professor William D. Valente, had previously received citations from the Society in recognition of their Catholic lay activities. Significantly, the St. Thomas More Award is not restricted to recognition of activities undertaken on behalf of the Society. Also, the award has been presented to persons who were not active members of the Society, such as Honorable Carol Los Mansmann, Judge of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, and Honorable Genevieve Blatt, Judge of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, both of whom are from Pittsburgh, William Bentley Ball, an appellate lawyer from Harrisburg, and Brother Bartholomew Sheehan, S.J., whose career as lawyer, judge, and banker took place across the Delaware River, in Camden, New Jersey. On occasion, the St. Thomas More Award recognizes sustained activity in a specific area and that recognition permeates the entire evening, including both the Red Mass and the awards dinner. In 1994, for example, the award was presented to John Rogers Carroll, an outstanding criminal trial lawyer who spearheaded the development of outreach programs to help lawyers suffering from alcohol and drug addiction. During the mid-1980's, at the suggestion of the Society's first woman president, Georganne V. Daher, the Board of Governors restudied the basic purposes of the Society. On April 3, 1986, the study committee recommended "that the Society's major present objective should be the care and cultivation of its membership, with special attention to the particular needs of lawyers in particular age groups, to assist by providing a meeting ground for a dialogue on issues confronted in the profession but often overlooked." Stated another way in the report, "the Society should be a crucible for the thoughtful consideration of issues, including the ethical struggles which lawyers face daily, as well as for the advocacy of the Catholic viewpoint on issues affecting the legal and larger community." Adhering to these introspective purposes, the Society was reluctant to undertake activities the main focus of which is outside the legal community. Thus, the Society did not attempt to duplicate the work of other organizations devoted to worthwhile activities, such as Citizens for Educational Freedom, the Pro-Life Lawyers Guild, and others. However, the Society cooperated with those groups, exchanging information and mailing lists, and encouraged members to support those organizations. That introspective perspective was promptly tested. In mid-February 1989, the Women's Rights Committee of the Philadelphia Bar Association passed a Resolution that the Board of Governors of the Association be asked to direct the Chancellor to urge the American Bar Association to file an amicus brief in the Webster case, then pending in the Supreme Court of the United States, supporting affirmance of the abortion policy stated in the Roe v. Wade decision. The Resolution was to be presented to the Board of Governors of the Philadelphia Bar Association on February 23, 1989. The proposal would have put the Philadelphia Bar Association on record as opposing the fundamental Catholic ethical principle that all human life is sacred and should be protected as a matter of right. The Society undertook to organize the opposition to the Resolution. The proponents of the Resolution were committed to the proposition that an individual's right to decide all aspects of medical treatment is an absolute right. Emphasizing the absoluteness of this right, they recognized no exceptions -- even when the exercise of the "right" necessarily destroyed innocent human life. This view had substantial support in the secular news media and in academic circles. Moreover, inasmuch as it was being presented as a "women's rights" issue, there was an element of intimidation on the mostly male governors of a profession that only recently began admitting women in substantial numbers. The Society's officers decided to urge the bar association to refrain from establishing any partisan position on the abortion issue. At the February 23, 1989 meeting of the Philadelphia Bar Association's Board of Governors, Gerry St. John, Ann Cuddy, Fay Stack and Maureen McCullough represented the Saint Thomas More Society and spoke in opposition to the proposal, requesting that it be rejected or tabled. Immediately after the presentation, the Chancellor, Peter Hearn, addressed the Board, reading from a three-page typewritten statement. Chancellor Hearn noted the deep feeling on both sides of the question, the fact that there were many organizations available for both sides to present their views and that there was no associational purpose to be served by the bar association adopting a partisan position. His motion to table the Resolution was adopted by a near-unanimous vote of the Board. The forceful stand of the Society not only received wide support from its members, but also earned the respect of those who tended to support the proposed resolution. During the year 2000, Cardinal Bevilacqua appointed Father Gerard C. Mesure, then a first-year law student, to be the Society’s third chaplain. Father Mesure quickly learned of the difficulties that confront one who attempts to shepherd a flock of lawyers. On October 9, 2001, at approximately 5:15 p.m., as the liturgical procession was preparing to begin the Red Mass, it became increasingly apparent that the homilist was not in the Basilica. (It was later learned that he had recorded the wrong date on his calendar.) The new chaplain was quickly pressed into service. To the delight of the entire Board, Father Mesure delivered an outstanding homily, one of the best ever given at Philadelphia’s Red Mass. The 2001 Red Mass was significant because it was the fiftieth Red Mass sponsored by the Society. And on March 12, 2002, the Society sponsored a Mass celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the Philadelphia Bar Association. The voluntary organization of lawyers, judges and law professors had weathered fifty years of service to the legal community in Philadelphia, and the Society was still going strong. In 2002, the Board voted unanimously to seek to be included in the IRS Group Exemption granted to certain Catholic organizations. Under the sponsorship of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Society received official recognition of its tax-exempt status, and contributions to the Society are deductible as provided in the Internal Revenue Code and Regulations. The Society proudly awarded the 2007 St. Thomas More Award to the Honorable Antonin Scalia, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. The response for the award dinner was so overwhelming that the Society moved the event from its previous venue to The Union League’s Lincoln Hall.