An organization established and led by women. A charitable cause once considered “one of the worthiest among all the philanthropies in of the city.” An orphanage that served as a place of refuge, care, and comfort for children in need.
On this episode of History from Here, your host Sara takes you to the former site of the Protestant Home of St. Catharines on Ontario Street.
Efforts among St. Catharines women to form a charity to aid needy children and elderly persons began in 1874, following a public visit from Galt philanthropist Annie McPherson. Inspired by McPherson’s work in her community and recognizing the troubled circumstances of many unemployed families in St. Catharines, twenty-two local women from churches across the city came together to form the Ladies’ Christian Association. The organization sought “to do collectively what every benevolent heart desires to do individually…to elevate the physical and moral condition of the poor, and as far as possible, relieve their necessities.” In their first year of work, the women provided aid to 256 people in need.
The Association very quickly realized that to best serve the community, they would have to establish a shelter, particularly to house disadvantaged children and the elderly. At first, the group rented a home on Ontario Street, which they promptly outgrew. Then in 1876, the prominent Thomas Rodman Merritt offered a generous donation to the Home – but on one condition. If the Association could raise $5000 to construct a suitable building, then Merritt would donate a large tract of land just down the street for the new Home, as well as an additional $1000 towards the organization’s efforts. They had three months to make a plea to the citizens of St. Catharines and raise the funds.
And, they did it!
On November 8, 1877, a formal opening ceremony was held at the new Protestant Home on Ontario Street. The building was designed with a combination of Italianate and Second Empire details, standing distinguished with a slate-tiled mansard roof, a tower above an ornate entryway, and stone lintels topping the windows. Within months the yard was cleared for a playground to keep children “healthy, happy, and amused” and the rooms were at capacity. By the time of its 60th anniversary, the orphanage had cared for 1028 children.
Though run by St. Catharines’ women over its decades of operation, the Protestant Orphan’s Home, as it was later known, was supported by the entire community. Beyond monetary donations from the City’s wealthier citizens, families donated clothing, shoes, toys, and books, or would take children out on daytrips; barbers gave children free haircuts; officials gave free passes on the Welland Railway to Port Dalhousie; business-owners offered treats of ice-cream and candy; and farmers filled children’s wagons with fruits and vegetables during visits to Market Square.
By 1900, the Home cared solely for children, including those with single parents working long hours and child refugees, such as those who had escaped the Armenian Genocide in 1915. Many of the children at the orphanage attended St. Andrew’s Ward School.
The orphanage operated until 1949, when a routine fire inspection deemed the building unsafe, and the Home was forced to close. The land was promptly purchased for the new Hotel Dieu Hospital, but not before descendants of Thomas Rodman Merritt put claim to the land, stating that Merritt had only donated the land for the express purpose of building the orphanage. The claim, however, was denied. The Home was demolished in 1951 to make way for Hospital parking.
Today, a townhouse complex now sits where the Protestant Home of St. Catharines had once stood tall. Here, children once again play in the playgrounds nearby, each with bright futures ahead.