EDITOR’S NOTE: Imagine Nashua: Then & Now is a weekly photo column by Don Himsel. Each week, he will feature an old photo within a more recent photo, along with the story behind it.
Florence Shepard wrote in a 1992 Telegraph column that the St. Joseph Orphanage in Nashua was one of two parallel institutions that once existed in the city.
What is known now as the Nashua Children’s Association, began as the Nashua Protestant Orphanage, which opened in 1899. It moved to its current spot on Amherst Street in 1925 and its name was changed in the early 1970s.
The other orphanage was at the corner of Main and Belmont streets, taking up that whole block right in front of what is now the Elm Street Middle School. It began about the same time but was run by the order of the Grey Nuns. Fr. Millette at the St. Louis de Gonzague Church was behind the effort. The orphanage closed in 1963.
The nuns’ work began in 1855 in Ohio. They administered to orphans in Massachusetts before starting in Nashua in 1901.
The first building in Nashua had only a 40-child capacity, according to the orphanage records. Within the first year, Fr. Millette began an expansion for 200 children. In the structure that resulted, the top floor was for girls, the middle floor for boys, and common rooms below that.
Harvard’s photographic collection shows the spotless and Spartan “boy’s dormitory,” with rows of beds and the only light provided by the sun through windows. The “boy’s dining room” had a similar look and feel. There were no overhead lights. The same goes for a photo marked as the “girl’s recreation room” – no lights save for the window. An image of Mary and Child hangs on one wall. A collage of other images is on an adjacent wall and a clock is the only other adornment.
A photo of the chapel shows tall wooden paneling, door and beam overhead with the expected Catholic icons in the compact room.
Harvard’s library collection features a typewritten document titled ST. JOSEPH’S ORPHANAGE. NASHUA, NEW HAMPSHIRE The date is unknown.
Established 1901. (Roman Catholic).
No endowment fund.
Governing Body – Sisters of Charity.
Sister Superior – Sr. A. Deguire.
Three buildings with large playgrounds.
Number of inmates – Boys 87, Girls 80, Total 167.
Public charges included – Boys 9, Girls 5, Total 14.
Age limit – three to twelve years for boys; three to sixteen years for girls.
Good library of fifty volumes.
Children while young attend kindergarten school in connection with orphanage, and when old enough attend the parochial school in Nashua.
Children attend Church of S.Louis de Gonzague.
Writer Stacy Milbouer looked back on the orphanage in a 1992 Telegraph story. She reported about one woman’s memory of a big, dimly-lit room with lots of that dark, polished wood. Another woman she wrote about said she went to the orphanage during the week, as her parents worked in the city’s mills. On weekends, holidays and vacations she and her siblings came home.
“Those were hard times, the Depression,” she told Milbouer. “You have to remember there was no daycare back then, and my parents wouldn’t trust us with anybody but the nuns.”
Though apparently she hated Sunday nights because she had to leave home to go back to the orphanage, once there, everything was fine.
“The food was good – everything but the oatmeal, that is. I hated oatmeal and we had to eat it every day. To this day, I won’t eat it,” the story read.
Those sentiments are echoed by Pauline Mooney, who lives in Nashua. “Horrendous” was the first word she used when talking to me recently about the short time she spent there.
“They wanted to feed me cold oatmeal and I couldn’t stomach it,” she chuckled. “I believe we were on Pine Street then, between Kinsley and Hollis. It doesn’t look anything like when I lived there. It’s much different; much different,” she said.
“I was an only child,” Mooney said. “My father worked at the shoe shop, my mother worked in the mill. It was during the war. They were working, so they had to find a place for me. It was a daytime thing. I went there in the morning and they picked me up in the afternoon,” she said.
She doesn’t remember the other kids, as she was very young at the time. “A lot of them were daytime children like me,” she did recall. She has no memory of playing and how she passed the time “because I wouldn’t eat my oatmeal, I had to stay there,” she said with a grin, pointing firmly to an imaginary spot on the floor in front of her.
“I probably stayed there a month or two and that was it. My aunt said to my mother, ‘I’ll take care of her, and she won’t have to eat oatmeal.’ Everything went well after that,” she said, again, smiling.
The building was torn down Nov. 17, 1965.
Don Himsel can be reached at 594-6590 or DHimsel@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Don on Twitter @Telegraph_DonH.