Church Farm School Turns 100

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The following was submitted by the Rev. Edmund K. Sherrill II, Head of School, Church Farm School

One hundred years ago, an Episcopal priest and five boys moved onto a dilapidated Chester County farm in Glen Loch, PA (now Exton). The priest’s goal was the creation of an Episcopal boarding school for fatherless boys—a school in which students would perform farm work to finance their educations. The priest was The Rev. Charles Wesley Shreiner, whose devout mother had struggled to keep her family together after his father left her to raise six children. He was no stranger to hard work, having undertaken a myriad of paying jobs from the age of six in a career full of twists and turns that finally led him to the priesthood and a very specific dream.

On April 1, 1918, with promising but impecunious students recruited from West Philadelphia churches, Church Farm School opened in an old carriage house and cannery. Thus began a century of backbreaking work, carefully planned growth and brilliant fundraising that coalesced to create the school of today, where nearly 200 young men “of promise and ability” attend high school and graduate to attend some of the nation’s finest colleges and universities. Last fall, all members of the Class of 2017 headed to competitive colleges with more than $3,000,000 in grants and scholarships. These include Johns Hopkins, Brown, Yale, Middlebury, Williams, Bates and Villanova, to name just a few.

Church Farm School is located on land adjacent to St. Paul’s Church (Exton), where Rev. Shreiner also served as Rector. The parish provided food for the boys in the early days, and a kindly neighbor supplied once-a-week baths when it was too cold to use the stream. Students, often referred by churches, generally came from low-income families usually headed by single mothers or were the sons of clergy and military households. Graduates would attend college with scholarships, go right to work or enter military service. Many alumni have come to say that, in spite of the hard physical farm work, “Church Farm School saved my life.”

Rev. Shreiner worked tirelessly to raise funds to support the school, speaking in churches and clubs incessantly. He, and, later, his son and grandson, delivered the fruits of the farm to donors throughout the region. Support from Diocesan churches and philanthropists expanded. The campus grew to include a school building, more cottages, farm buildings and the architecturally significant Chapel of the Atonement. The annual Christmas appeal was bringing in 5,000 gifts by the 1950s, and donors received farm-produced scrapple in appreciation.

Many Philadelphia and suburban families still recall eagerly anticipating an annual box of the school-produced meats.

Articles in the Saturday Evening Post and Readers Digest spread Church Farm School’s story and increased its support. In the ensuing decades, The Rev. Shreiner was succeeded by his son, Dr. Charles Shreiner, Jr. and his grandson, Charles Shreiner III. My own tenure as Head of School, the first non-family member in this position, began in 2009. An independent Board of Directors, of which Bishop Gutiérrez is a member, now governs the school.

By the mid-1970s, changing laws made it no longer feasible to operate a school as a working farm. Consequently, in a carefully planned effort through the 1980s and 1990s, hundreds of acres of Church Farm School land was sold. The proceeds created an endowment preserving the school’s mission to serve many promising young men who could not otherwise afford the excellent, faith-based education Church Farm School provides. Expertly overseen by the Board of Directors, this endowment, along with vigorous annual fundraising, allows the school to provide generous scholarships to deserving students much as it did while a working farm.

To meet the changing circumstances of how we live today and the modern demands of education that can prepare young people for lives of service, Church Farm School is a college preparatory boarding school (grades 9-12) for almost 200 young men from many diverse backgrounds and experiences. In the best tradition of Episcopal schools, students and staff live and work together in a caring community that models the best of civic responsibility and a moral compass. Chapel services are held twice a week and community service extends our presence into the wider community.

The theme of our Centennial year is A Seat at the Table – a witness to where young people can find themselves if given the opportunity to develop their God-given talents and abilities. Thanks to the caring and generous support of many, the school still offers boys who are willing to earn their way a vision of and means to build fulfilling and meaningful lives.

Where Church Farm School’s founder once remarked that, “If God gives us a vision of something he wants done, He also gives us the ability to do it,” I sincerely believe that today, a century into this remarkable project built on faith and hard work, we remain true to this timeless aim.

Numerous Church Farm School Centennial events—lectures, concerts, and other celebrations to which the public is warmly invited—are taking place throughout the school year. Please visit their website for more information.