Life

Yesterday and Today: Orphans home to town homes

By Bill Sawchuk, St. Catharines Standard

Left: Protestant Orphans Home, which was built in 1877 and stood on the east side of Ontario Street, a few doors south of Welland Avenue. — Edwin Poole, 1904; Special Collections Room, St. Catharines Public Library.
Right: Protestant Orphans Home, which was built in 1877 and stood on the east side of Ontario Street, a few doors south of Welland Avenue. — Edwin Poole, 1904; Special Collections Room, St. Catharines Public Library

Left: Protestant Orphans Home, which was built in 1877 and stood on the east side of Ontario Street, a few doors south of Welland Avenue. — Edwin Poole, 1904; Special Collections Room, St. Catharines Public Library. Right: Protestant Orphans Home, which was built in 1877 and stood on the east side of Ontario Street, a few doors south of Welland Avenue. — Edwin Poole, 1904; Special Collections Room, St. Catharines Public Library

Our old photograph this week shows the Protestant Orphans Home, which stood on the east side of Ontario Street, a few doors south of Welland Avenue. It was constructed in 1877 by prolific St. Catharines builder Samuel Dolson according to plans drawn up by local architect William B. Allan.

With its combination of Italianate details and French Empire design — its multi‑coloured, slate‑tiled mansard roof, a short tower, and the two‑coloured stone lintels above its windows — it resembled several other St. Catharines buildings of the 1870s, two of which still survive: today’s Pony Mini Mart building at the corner of St. Paul and Academy, and the Bodymax building at 16 Welland Avenue. Most of all, it bore a striking resemblance to St. Joseph’s Convent, a Roman Catholic edifice built just a few years earlier at the corner of Church and James (demolished in 1972).

This new institution was launched with considerable help from Thomas Rodman Merritt, who gave the land on which the Home stood as well as $1,000 towards constructing it. The building opened in November 1877. By 1881 it had 27 inmates.

The ornate old building served the community for the next seventy-plus years. Unfortunately, an inspection of the premises by the Fire Marshal’s office in 1949 found the building to be unsafe. It was closed forthwith and the vacant property was soon placed on the market.

As it happened, the Religious Hospitalers of St. Joseph, a Roman Catholic religious order, was then assembling land for their new Hotel Dieu Hospital just down the street from the Orphans Home. They would be happy to purchase the Orphans’ Home property for hospital use.

But first there was a legal tussle about whether the land should revert to the Merritt family since it would no longer be used for the purpose for which T.R. Merritt had donated it. In the end, the site did not revert to the Merritts. In 1951 the former Orphans’ Home was razed and ultimately replaced by a Hotel Dieu parking lot, one of many that sprouted up around the new hospital.

But in the past decade that section of Ontario Street south of Welland has gone through another transformation as complete as the one back in the early 1950s. The Hotel Dieu closed a decade ago and new purposes had to be found for the property it had once occupied — a process that goes on to this day.

The former Hotel Dieu parking lot (eventually extended well beyond the original Orphans Home property, all the way to Welland Avenue) has been replaced step by step by a Mountainview and Walker Industries townhouse development, now bounded by Ontario, Welland and Montebello Place. 

Dennis Gannon is a member of the Historical Society of St. Catharines.  He can be reached at gannond2002@yahoo.com