St. Francis Orphanage

Jeff Allard, a Rhode Island College student nearing graduation, presented a Sunday afternoon Ranger Series program on February 7,2004 at the fascinating Woonsocket Museum of Work and Culture. Jeff had recently spent six weeks developing an understanding of daily life in Woonsocket's former orphanage, St. Francis Orphanage, which is currently the Mt. St. Francis Nursing Home very visible on top of a hill in Woonsocket.

Woonsocket’s St. Francis Orphanage, the largest of the French Canadian orphanages in the city. “The French Canadian Community in Woonsocket was greatly concerned about ‘La Survivance’, the preservation of the culture, language and traditions they brought with them from Quebec,” said NPS Ranger Kevin Klyberg. “Obviously, this extended to the orphans of the community as well, as there was a desire to see them raised in a familiar atmosphere where the children would be raised and educated in the culture and most importantly the language of their ancestors.”

This was a college project for Jeff, but it was derived from his past employment at the nursing home triggering a curiosity of what life used to be for these children - both emotionally as well as day to day activities and habits at the Home. Jeff also stated that the location of Rhode Island College was formerly called the State Home & School and another much smaller Woonsocket orphanage, St. Vincent's lasted only about ten years on Pond Street. He stated that there was really very little published information on either Home, but he sought out old employees or former children whose lives had been touched, either superficially or profoundly, by this home for children.

 

From the first couple of sentences, the sense of ownership amongst the audience was quite visible. The emotion, mostly in a very positive venue, was still very compelling today. Jeff gave the parameters of his interviews and research and then proceeded to give a brief history of the orphanage, which was founded by Father Charles Dauray of the strong French-Canadian Precious Blood Church after the Bishop gave him encouragement. Two benefactors funded the home - Mr Joseph Hills in 1906 with $50,000 and D. L. Gideon- Archambault who had left behind $40,000 in 1903. In 1904, four nuns were brought to Woonsocket from Quebec and started caring for children in a house on Hamlet Avenue diagonally across from Precious Blood Church. Initially, this was day care only, but as the numbers of orphaned or needy children grew, the children began living at the house.

   

The Orphanage was built by the Fall of 1912 and was dedicated by the Bishop on November 24, 1912. The architect, Mr. Fontaine, also built Woonsocket's famed Mt. Charles School  with identical large, granite steps. In September 1913, the Orphanage was officially opened for boys and girls. Almost immediately, the audience made it quite clear that this, however, was one of the very hard parts of being at the Home. Brothers and sisters were separated immediately and barely ever saw each other again. Though most were favorable towards the nuns and the values learned, the sense of family loss and that lingering emotion prevailed forty, fifty, sixty years later.

Mr. Allard stated that he had attempted to gain access to records at the Home, but was unable to obtain, at least in the time frame allowed. However, the records have not been made public, so the numbers of children served is unknown. Allard put out posters requesting interviews from past employees and children and about 8-9 responded.

The interviews were fascinating with experiences ranging dramatically with range of stay. Some children stayed only weeks while other children were there for almost twenty years. Often, children's parents were ill with consumption (aka tuberculosis), or one parent was deceased, or the family fell apart. Generally, the boys had to leave in their teen years to work on farms or go to school elsewhere, but the girls stayed through late teens and even into her twenties for one woman.  Memories of Sisters Virginia Daley, Helen Regan, Sister Timmy and Sister Reiber came easily as did memories of cribs being close and figures touching through the slats. "Wonderful values" many stated as to their living at the Home. Often, children's parents were ill with consumption (aka tuberculosis), or one parent was deceased, or the family fell apart.

Even with the sadness of losing one's home temporarily or more permanently, most agreed that the stability and the strong spiritual and moral code of values left a permanent foundation from which they have drawn strength for the rest of their lives. The rigid atmosphere was much like many families struggling in hard economic times, with "three squares of toilet paper allowed" only when solids were passed. The fear of God sometimes overrode the love of God, but generally, the warmth of the friendships and nuns sustained a feeling similar to family. Prayer started the day and permeated their existence, but fun and movies and sometimes, baseball made life fun.

Education followed a similar pattern to the regular French schools in Woonsocket. Half day in French, half day in English until eighth grade when some of the girls were sent to St. Claire's School while others had to gain their GED later after they were sent from the Home. The boys went away to work or to school in Buffalo, New York. In the 1950s, St. Francis opened its doors to outsiders for schooling as fewer and fewer orphans were housed. Life was very predictable and consistent with a wake-up at 5:30, followed by breakfast and mass, school, lunch, school, supper, prayer and off to bed.

After Jeff Allard finished, he took further comments and stories from the audience of about 60. Many remembered the "purge" routine of brown sugar and onions before winter to thicken blood and the Spring ritual to thin the blood. Canphor was put in the linens to kill germs and the home was kept very clean. As the children grew older, they went with the nuns on errands to see the "real world" in Woonsocket. It seemed very different and quite wild, some stated. Though the emotion certainly showed through on those in the audience, most were very thankful for their solid foundation and experiences at the St. Francis Orphanage in Woonsocket. The Home closed as an orphanage in the 1970s.

 

 

 
 


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