Spring is upon us, and with it comes all kinds of golf outings, runs, galas and other fundraising events for schools, churches and other nonprofit organizations and worthy causes. Most of these are a win-win for all involved. They’re a perfect way for people to support good causes and worthwhile organizations, while having a good time and enjoying themselves. One of the added fundraising efforts at many of these events is the silent auction. Around for decades, the silent auctions offer gift certificates, event tickets, jewelry, autographed sports memorabilia, vacations, gift baskets and, best of all, unique experiences!

The reason that I say “best of all” is because you can’t usually buy these “experiences” even if you wanted to and had the money. Usually these exclusive experiences are offered by someone with connections as a one-time courtesy to raise money for the organization. Through the years, I’ve watched people bid on all kinds of unique, cool experiences: a yacht fishing trip, a chance to be an on-air radio guest, have a street named after them, celebrity meet-and-greets, celebrity-led studio tours, a front row reserved pew at Christmas Eve Mass and a graduation ceremony, the chance to drive a race car at Daytona, a chance for your child to be “principal for the day” at their school, overnight sleepovers at museums, lunch in a hot air balloon, backstage passes at a concert or Broadway show, limo package to NYC for soldout show tickets, VIP insider tours of businesses, a private firetruck ride for some lucky kids, cooking lesson and tasting with well-respected chefs, group grape-stomping and wine tasting at a nearby winery, chance to ride on a Thanksgiving Day parade float, in-person golf pointers by pro golfers, a chance for a cameo in a movie and a private helicopter ride with a traffic reporter. There are thousands more, but these are some that I remember off the top of my head.

Thanks to the successful bidding of my younger brother, John, a Cabrini alum, I attended one of these unique “experiences” this past Saturday night. While golfing in the Cabrini Classic Golf Outing last year, John bid on a dinner for six at the Cabrini University Mansion and then generously invited me and some other family members as his guests. Honestly, it was “la-di-da.”

Here’s a little history of the Mansion that I took off of the Cabrini website: “Designed by Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer, the elaborate Elizabethan Tudor-style Mansion was constructed between 1901 and 1903 for financial leader James W. Paul Jr., son-in-law of famed Philadelphia financier Anthony Drexel. The Pauls hosted numerous events at Woodcrest, including the 1909 wedding of Mary Astor Paul to millionaire Charles A. Munn of Washington, D.C. In 1925, members of the Paul family sold the Mansion and 120 acres of the Woodcrest Estate to Dr. John T. Dorrance, inventor of the formula for condensed soup and president of the Campbell Soup Company. In 1953, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (MSCs) purchased the property for use as an orphanage and retreat house. Four years later, the MSCs founded Cabrini College, which enrolled 43 women in its first class. The Mansion at the University was named to the National Register of Historic Places in October 2009.”

Today, the Mansion is used as offices at the university and for special events like holiday parties, student dances and weddings. When I told my son about going, he said that he had attended a wedding reception there and it was elegant and classy.

The Mansion is stately and majestic — just beautiful — and I felt like I was underdressed without a hat and white gloves. Really, being there by ourselves made us feel like we were actors and actresses, straight out of a scene in “Downton Abbey.” The experience not only gave the six of us the entire Cabrini Mansion to ourselves for the night, but we had our own personal host, Dan Katzenmoyer, catering manager at Sodexo, one of the leading food service companies in the world. Dan gave us a tour of the Mansion, shared its history and made sure that our fantastical night was utterly fantastic.

During a leisurely cocktail hour in “the parlor,” Dan piqued our interest about our surroundings by telling us the Mansion’s infamous ghost stories. According to Mansion legend, Mary Dorrance, daughter of Campbell soup founder John Dorrance, supposedly played as a child with the son of the carriage master, Xavier. The Mansion was the family’s summer home, and when Mary was on vacation there, she was happy to have another child to play with there. As the children aged, and fell in love, her father forbid Mary to keep company with Xavier because they were of different social classes. Distraught, Xavier ran to the bell tower and hung himself. Mary, who discovered that she was pregnant with his child, was so upset by his death that she threw herself off of the balcony in the Mansion and killed herself and their baby that she was carrying. They supposedly were buried in the peach orchard nearby where Woodcrest Hall on the campus now stands. It’s alleged, Dan said, that Mary, with her long blond hair and blue dress, still roams the Mansion. We sat there in the stillness of the Mansion, as I thought that I better limit my drinks, just in case I would have an unexpected rare encounter with Mary when I was by myself later in the hallway on my way to use the restroom.

As we retreated to the main dining room, our “Downton Abbey” scene amped up another notch. There was a huge dining table that could easily fit a dozen and a half guests set up for fine dining for the six of us. We were introduced to Pat Flack, of Limerick, who would serve as our gracious server. She is a fellow Archbishop Prendergast alum, just like my sister-in-law Marie and I, so we instantly bonded with her (three cheers for the garnet and gray!).

We sat down to the experience’s highlight, a six-course dinner prepared by Chef Nathan Selden, who was trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Chef Selden handpicked and prepared the menu and would come out before each course was served to describe the selection in detail, its ingredients and method of cooking and answer any questions. Here were our six courses: French Quarter shrimp and celeriac remoulade; cream of asparagus leek soup with wild mushroom garnish; champagne of mango sorbet in orange basket; roast lobster Xavier with crabmeat, fennel buerre blanc; roast tenderloin of beef, rosti potato, asparagus tips, merlo glace; and strawberries romanoff with chocolate truffles. Accompanied by baskets of freshly baked homemade bread and honey butter, the meal was over-the-top gourmet.

We sat at the table after dinner for a long time, mostly because none of us could move. I admired the baskets of fresh roses that adorned our table as centerpieces and wondered who the lucky people are who get to eat in those beautiful surroundings on a day-to-day basis.

“That was just gluttonous,” my other brother Chuck said, and we all laughed, knowing how right he was. Everything was so incredibly delicious and so artfully presented that it was almost impossible not to indulge in each and every course presented. However, by the end of the meal, we almost needed a dolly service to roll us out to our cars — we were beyond stuffed!

“Do we have the use of the beds here, too?” we joked, because by the time that we finished the six-course dinner, which began at 6 p.m., it was almost 11. We seriously felt like we needed either a nap or a walk around a track to energize ourselves before we could drive home. We had a lot of laughs that night. I mean, how often do you ever get to see how the other half lives with your own personal top chef, host, server and a six-course dinner on fine bone china in a private mansion?

“So, John, what else did you successfully bid on at the Cabrini Classic auction?” one of us kiddingly asked, as we cleansed our palates with mango sherbet served in frozen oranges, intricately carved into cute little baskets, waiting for his answer and silently hoping it was another “experience” that he just may be kind enough to share with us as he generously did this time.

After I arrived back at my house and reality hit me in the face, I smiled as I reflected back over the surreal night that I had just experienced. Fine dining at the Cabrini Mansion, even with Mary in her blue dress lurking around somewhere in the background, sure beat the heck out of ordering pizza and considering it a special Saturday night dinner treat! I have to start paying better attention to the items up for auction if I am out and about at any charity events this spring.

Readers can contact Peg DeGrassa at pdegrassa@21st-centurymedia.com.

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