The Alliance Française de Philadelphia is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people learn French and deepen their knowledge of Francophone cultures. We do that by offering a wide variety of classes for all levels, many cultural events and a welcoming community. In the time since we temporarily closed our physical doors in March, we have continued to enthusiastically and successfully fulfill our mission by innovating and adapting our offerings and transitioning to an online virtual platform.
With more than 100 branches in the US and over 900 all around the world, the Alliance Française offers French classes for all levels from beginner to advanced speakers. It is also the opportunity to foster anyone interested their knowledge of French language thanks to cultural events like dinners, movies, lectures and so much more social cultural activities.
Notes from Alliance’s Documents at the Historical Society going back to 1903
By former board member Nelly Childress, for our centenary, 2003
Alliance Française de Paris
The Alliance Française de Paris was founded in 1883 to promote the French language in France’s colonies and abroad. From its inception, its purpose was not only to teach the French language but also to promote the culture of France, free of religious or political influence. While the geopolitical landscape has changed greatly since 1883, these primary goals of promoting the French language and French culture remain constant.
Alliance Française in the USA
The first Alliance Française chapters in the United States were founded in the beginning of the twentieth century: in Boston and Baltimore 1901; in Rhode Island, LaFayette, Detroit and Worcester in 1902; and in Cincinnati, Falls River, Lowell, New Bedford, Providence and Philadelphia in 1903.
Alliance Française de Philadelphie
The Alliance Française de Philadelphie was founded by Professor P. F. Giroud with the assistance of Mrs. Alexander J. Cassatt, Mrs. Robert
Coleman Drayton, and Mrs. Sidney W. Keith, in February of 1903. This original group of four gathered together an organizing committee of
forty, which included Mrs. Arthur Biddle, Mrs. George Biddle, Mr. Edwin Swift Balch, Mr. Thomas Willing Balch, and Mrs. John Cadwalader.
The first meeting of the Alliance Française de Philadelphie took place on March 9, 1903, at the Acorn Club. In the first year, over 120 members met regularly on Monday evenings from November (1903) to May (1904) for lectures, concerts and poetry readings.
In 1908 the Charter for the Alliance Française was signed and the goals of the Alliance Française de Philadelphie were formalized: to teach the French language and to explore French culture. The Alliance Française also dreamed of raising endowments in order to one day have its own conference rooms, classrooms and a library. Over time that dream has been reached, first with a small space rented in the Art Alliance (only 2 classrooms and no office!) up to our current location, with 7 classrooms, office space, a media room, a library and a kitchenette. Today’s dreams are not only to have but also to own our own space and to continue our mission.
Alliance Française Mission Culturelle
The Alliance Française’s goal of promoting and exploring French culture has been an important focus of its activities since it was founded, but equally as important was an atmosphere of openness and welcome to everyone. Receptions have always been held after each event in order for the all of the members, guests, lecturers to mingle with each other. So went life at the Alliance Française through two world wars:
- In 1946, members of the Alliance Française de Philadelphie responded to a call from the Alliance Française de Paris to raise money for CARE packages to send to post war France. In total, the Alliance Française de Philadelphie raised $375.00!
- In 1947, the United States sent a Friendship Train to France which was loaded with wagonloads of food, medicine and supplies to help the people recover after WWII.
- In 1949, Thornton Oakley, then President of the Alliance Française, was a member of the Mayor of Philadelphia’s Reception Committee when the Train de la Reconnaissance Française came to Pennsylvania. The Train de la Reconnaissance Française was sent by France to the United States in gratitude and recognition of the Friendship Train of 1947. The train, fifty boxcars long, one for each of the forty-eight states, and one each for the District of Colombia and the District of? Hawaii, was laden with gifts, artwork and treasured items, which represented the gratitude and recognition of the French towards the United States. These two trains were gestures on the part of the United States and of France that further forged their brotherhood.
- In 1965, the Alliance Française hosted a fundraising concert by Charles Aznavour (see the AF Scholarship segment for more information)
- In the 1970’s the Alliance Française celebrated its 75th anniversary by sponsoring an exhibit of the works of Mary Cassatt and of Emlen Etting at the Art Alliance.
- In the 1980s and 1990s the Alliance Française focused its cultural efforts on fundraising events like the annual Bastille Day party & silent auction, wine lectures and special guests, such as hosting chef Jacques Cagna from France.
- A portion of the proceeds from our Bastille Day celebrations went to restore the Eakins murals at the Rodin Museum.
-In 2003 the Alliance Française celebrated its centenary with a lunch at Le Bec Fin, in the presence of Jean-David Levitte, Ambassador of France to the United States and, in the evening, a soirée at the new Constitution Center.
-In 2008 the Alliance Française extended the first invitation for an official visit to Philadelphia to the new French Ambassador to the United States, Pierre Vimont, as part of our Mardi Gras celebrations.
- Currently we are working to expand our scope to include Francophones and Francophone cultures from all parts of the world: Africa, Canada, the Caribbean and beyond.
In perfect harmony with the Alliance Française’s efforts to promote French culture in Philadelphia through our lectures and parties, is the publication of French Philadelphia on the historical ties between France and Philadelphia. French Philadelphia was first published in 1976 as a collection of walking tours put together by Annette H. Emgarth meant to highlight the French influence in Philadelphia. This booklet was reprinted in 1991. In the early twenty-first century Alliance Française Board Member and Temple University Professor Emeritus, Lynn H. Miller took Mrs. Emgarth’s original booklet, and working diligently, made it into the book we now publish. The first edition of this new version of French Philadelphia was published in 2006, and has already been reprinted. In 2007, the French translation, Philadelphie à la Française was published. Both versions of the book are wonderful resources for anyone who has an interest in the history of Philadelphia, be it based on culture, architecture, politics or any other historical aspect of the city. It is an interesting read for life-long Philadelphia dwellers and will certainly reveal new and interesting information about the city, as well as for anyone coming to visit the city, for any amount of time, without ignoring anyone else who has an interest in Philadelphia or in French culture.
Alliance Française School
In 1906 the Alliance Française de Philadelphie began to host evening French classes. These classes continued into the 1970s when the Alliance Française School was opened. The school has continued to grow through the 1990s. Today our school has over 20 professors of various ethnic and cultural origins but whose common love of French language and culture brings them all here to us. In the very early twentieth century as political tensions with France increased our enrollment declined slightly. As those tensions have receded, the new wave of Hispanic immigrants and the increasing importance of Spanish in the United States, along with financial hard times continues to cut into our student numbers. The Alliance Française remains dedicated to teaching the French language and holds firmly to the belief that there is a place for a French school and cultural center in the Philadelphia area.
Alliance Française Scholarship
The Alliance Française scholarship is the perfect example of the Alliance Française’s dual role as language school and cultural center. It has had various permutations over the years, but the general goal has always been to send American students of French to France in order to truly experience French culture while improving their language skills
The first Alliance Française scholarship was awarded in 1904 to a university student for a summer of study at one of the schools in France. Beginning in 1959 the Alliance Française held a scholarship fundraiser at the Academy of Music in November. At that point the scholarship was given to a student from the Delaware Valley for a year of study at the Alliance Française de Paris or any other recognized institution. The scholarship provided for the airfare and $1000 to be applied to the student’s studies.
In 1965 the entertainment at the fundraiser was provided by Charles Aznavour, a well known French singer, composer, lyricist and actor.
In the 1996, former Alliance Française president, Pierre C. Fraley established the current scholarship fund that bears his name and which ensures the continuation of the Alliance Française scholarship and mission.
In the same vein as the scholarship, the Alliance Française hosts an almost continuous stream of interns from France. They come for a stay of 6 or 9 months as part of their academic program, they are required to spend their third year of University abroad. They help in the office, in organizing events and running the school and also serve as a resource for all of our professors and students. They bring with them the latest in everything from France.
As we continue to go forward in the twenty-first century, the Alliance Française will maintain the presence of France and French culture
in Philadelphia, through the continuation of our mission, and with the continued cooperation of numerous other institutions that are
dedicated in their own manner to the promotion of a country, a culture and a language that we love. Though the French identity is
ever-changing and ever-broadening, our mission is large enough to encompass it all.
While this short history offers you a taste of who we are and what we do, Alliance Française founder M. Giroud put it best. “When one is asked: ‘What does one do at the Alliance Française?’ the best answer would be: ‘Come and See!’” Even today, we truly feel that this is the best answer we can give!