Orphan Life (Highland Heights in Connecticut) 1880-

STORIES & IMAGES

Everyone has a story to tell; at Highland Heights there were probably hundreds of stories, events, circumstances and situations worthy of telling. These are but a few that have been offered to the site. There should be more, and we encourage their inclusion in the website. Perhaps reading some of these will jog the memory of others. We hope you will contact us with yours.

Near miss at martyrdom

In either 1948 or 1949, a strong storm blew through New England with New Haven suffering a large portion of the damage. The winds were so strong, just short of hurricane strength, that a chimney was blown over on the girl’s north wing. A young girl who was saying her rosary as punishment for misbehaving barely escaped the weight of the bricks as they crashed through the roof close to where she was kneeling. Emergency services were called in and the boys from the south wing were enlisted to help remove the debris and transport some of the undamaged furniture to their side of the school. Adding to the problem was the ruptured fire extinguisher system that sprayed gallons of water throughout the area. Temporary arrangements were made for the girls to occupy a portion of the boy’s side until repairs could be made.

Free cokes

A Coca-Cola vending machine was located just outside the kitchen in the basement. Six ounce, glass bottles of coke were dispensed at a cost of just five cents and permission could be obtained from the house mothers to purchase one of the soft drinks. However, enterprising young people at Highland Heights found they could use a weighted slug instead of a coin to obtain the soft drink. Still others had found that they could reach into the machine where the bottles came out and manipulate the next bottle to be dispensed until it slid out of the machine at no cost.

Sledding down the hill and beyond

The driveway leading up to the third level at the side of the gymnasium was off-limits, except with the permission of Mr. (Coach) Davin, the recreation director. The driveway ended at the sidewalk in front of the gymnasium. During the winter, permission was granted for sledders to come down the driveway and continue along the sidewalk in front of the gym. Another driveway led into the first level playground at the other end of the gymnasium sidewalk, where the sledder could turn to end their ride. The same driveway into the first level also had a right turn down a cobblestone driveway to the front of the main building. It was forbidden for anyone to ride their sled down that driveway but some children, being the way they are, invariably challenged the rule and finished the ride to the main entrance. Sometimes they even went beyond, to where the driveway to the front also came up from another point on Highland Street. Severe punishment was levied for such disobedience, but there was always another boy who was willing to gamble that he wouldn’t get caught.

Flying kites to East Rock

Kite flying was a prevalent pastime at Highland Heights. There was a boy who once flew a kite out 3,000 feet in a quest to reach East Rock. The effort fell short but ultimately created a disciplinary situation. When it was time to go back inside, it took the boy a lot longer to bring the kite in than he had planned. As a result, corporeal punishment was meted accordingly. When the boy finally got to go on a hike to East Rock, he realized that it might have been almost impossible to sail a kite on the two miles of string it would have required for such a feat. And what would have happened if the kite came down with all that string stretched out? Would that have earned him more disciplinary activity? Fortunately, it never happened.

The sadness of a drowning

For dozens of years, the residents of Highland Heights were treated to their own beach on Long Island Sound, just outside of New Haven, Connecticut. There was never a major safety incident until the late 1950s. Sadly, a young ten year old boy became the first and only drowning victim at the Silver Sands beach.

Turtle in the tunnel

The laundry facilities for Highland Heights were located on the girl’s side of the first level playground. It was comprised of two floors with the steam presses on the lower level, which was actually below the playground. At the playground level there was a boardwalk with spaces between the wood to allow the steam to rise and disperse from below. In the winter you could find several girls standing on the boardwalk to take advantage of the warm air rising to the surface.

The biggest concern was to inadvertently drop something of value while on the boardwalk. Many an item had been lost that way. On one occasion a live turtle was spotted below the boardwalk. How it got there is anyone’s guess; he was a good-sized box turtle. Fortunately, it was learned that there was an access door from the courtyard to the area below the boardwalk. Permission was given to a boy to go into the area just outside the windows of the steam room and to rescue the turtle.

As a result of the misguided turtle, the girls came to realize the potential for mischievous boys to be found below the boardwalk. Thereafter, it was a shared measure of safety for the girls to always be on the lookout for boys who might be somewhere they did not belong, seeking sights they should not have been investigating. No one knew for sure how many shameful sightings were initiated before the potential activity was discovered, nor was is possible to prevent completely the successful accomplishments of a few very determined youngsters.

Was it really the best medicine?

Highland Heights had its full-time nurse. During the 1940s and 1950s the infirmary was run by Miss Catherine Coffey. Among the things remembered about the infirmary Miss Coffey oversaw was the constant smell of Noxzema. Some of the treatments for the ills of the children at Highland Heights included lining up during the winter months for our spoonfuls of castor oil, which was used as both a preventative and a treatment for colds. Some of the girls remember the application of hot vinegar in the treatment of head lice. ‘Painful’ is the way one girl described it.

Vitamins were provided in the interest of maintaining good health. Unfortunately, they were taken without providing water to wash them down. Physicals were given by a real doctor when new children arrived at Highland Heights, although he was only available on an as needed basis. Periodically he would be called upon to conduct additional physicals to update children’s records. He was frequently called in to diagnose an illness and recommend treatment for some of the more serious ailments such as tonsillitis, mumps, whooping cough, measles, or chicken pox. Small pox vaccinations were also administered if none had previously been acquired. Of course if it was a contagious disease, the child would be sent to a real hospital to prevent an epidemic.

A dentist also showed up periodically to do examinations and some minor drilling of smaller cavities. There was a small room off the auditorium that was set up for just these occasions. Eye examinations were also given infrequently and a local New Haven Optometrist was employed as needed to provide the recommended glasses.

Fortunately, epidemics were avoided for the most part. In the late 1940s there was a minor epidemic of yellow jaundice. But no serious repercussions resulted from it and all of the children who contracted it easily recovered with no further affects.

How do you bath 300 children?

The boys had a shower room in the basement where once every week or two each of the three divisions went down a stairway to the showers, wearing a linen toga. The toga was worn while taking a shower. There was a room full of showerheads, some of which did not work (but we didn’t know which ones until the water was turned on). There was only one control for all the showers and the Sister in charge determined the right temperature, with the help of one of her ‘pet’ boys.

The girls in each of their divisions had a room with a bath tub that was only emptied after five or six girls had used it. The ‘pets’ got the first bath in the clean water; otherwise, there was little choice in the matter of who got the dirtiest water.

Beyond the baths and showers, personal hygiene took place in the dayrooms where an area in each division, boys and girls, was set aside with rows of sinks at which washing oneself as completely as possible, without going fully naked, was achieved every day.

Problems with Friday night movies

There were movies every Friday night. They consisted of at least one cartoon, i.e., Tom and Jerry, the two black crows Heckle and Jeckle, Popeye, Mighty Mouse, Woody Woodpecker, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Porky Pig, and others. There was also a newsreel and, of course, a main feature. Westerns were among the more frequently shown. There was no such thing as a rating system as we have today. There was only the censorship of the Catholic Church. In fact, one movie managed to get past the critical eye of the censors and, when a woman in one film was shown partially naked in a bath tub (nothing was actually revealed), the movie was stopped and we were sent back to our respective divisions.

Visiting Sundays: a blessing for some, a sadness for others

Visiting Sunday was a joy to anticipate. Parents and relatives would come to visit with the children twice a month on Sunday afternoons. Children would pace their dayrooms, looking out the windows to see if they recognized the vehicle coming up the driveway or the family member coming up the sidewalk. Names would be called and everyone waited to hear theirs. Unfortunately, relatives did not always arrive on every visiting Sunday. As the day wore on and names were not called, it became obvious who had been disappointed. The fact is, some children never had a visitor. One had to wonder how they felt as almost everyone else went to the auditorium, at least occasionally, to be reunited, if only briefly, with their families.

Numbers Instead Of Names

On the boys’ side of Highland Heights, the nuns in charge of each division, Baby Boys, Upstairs Boys, and Victory Boys, had a numbering system by which they identified each of the boys. Former residents don’t know why numbers were often used rather than names but they were. Oddly enough, when one moved up to an older division, the number ID changed, so one would have to get used to being called by a different number. Kind of reminds one of another type of institution where numbers are used, doesn’t it?

Separation Of Boys And Girls

As pointed out in the History section, the Highland Heights complex was divided by wings, the girls in one wing of the building, the boys in the other. Even the first level playground had its imaginary dividing line and it spelled trouble if boys and girls were caught socializing too blatantly with the opposite sex.

As one became older, there were more activities made available that allowed a limited amount of interaction between genders. However, monitoring was very strict and acceptable distances were expected and maintained at all times. One of the few exceptions was the occasional trip to a roller skating rink in downtown New Haven. There it was possible and even forgiven if a boy and girl held hands while skating. Perhaps a few more daring rendezvous’ were arranged during these permitted moments of social discovery. Some of these post-skating arrangements have come to light from former residents. They have since become memories of the heart. Regardless of the installed restrictions, nature somehow has its way.

An Introduction To Institutional Life

A past resident of Highland Heights wrote this story. He used it as part of his brother’s eulogy when he recently passed. It was a tribute to the hero he saw in his brother.

Circa 1951, my mother (single parent) needed emergency surgery and there were no relatives in the state to watch us so, at what seemed like the middle of the night, my five siblings and I were brought “temporarily” to two City orphanages. The youngest three were taken to St. Anthony’s (near the railroad station in New Haven) while my older brother and sister and myself were taken to Highland Heights. My older sister was taken to the girl’s wing, while my brother (age 7) and I (age 6) were taken to the boy’s dormitory by a very authoritarian nun.

The room seemed very large and full of metal frame beds. We made our way to an empty bed and I was instructed to get undressed and put on the pajamas that she handed me, then get into bed. She would not let me keep my underwear on, however, and insisted that I strip completely in front of her before donning the PJs. I was then told not to get out of bed, for any reason, until the lights were turned on in the morning. We were not asked if we needed to go to the bathroom and I was much too scared of that nun to tell her I had some serious business to do. I watched to see where she put my brother to bed. The nun then walked away down a long hallway. I waited for as long as I could, to be sure everyone was asleep. I was so scared, but knew my brother would know just what to do. I got out of bed and quietly made my way over to my brother’s bed where I woke him up and told him about my problem. He had spotted a bathroom on our way in and he would take me there and keep a lookout.

So there we went, keeping low and quiet, like a couple of commandos, until we got to the door-less bathroom where I went into a door-less stall. Then just as I started to do my business, my brother motioned to me that the nun was coming back. I couldn’t flush the toilet because she would hear it and the only place to hide was a rag closet. So into the closet we went to await our fate; certain death, I thought. Somehow, the nun passes the bathroom into the dormitory and back down the hallway again without noticing the two empty beds. We were finally safe to finish our business and return to our beds.

A Beginning Of Institutional Life

Many of Highland Heights’ alumni started in St. Anthony’s in New Haven, CT. In the late 1920s, St Anthony’s, the church, began taking in orphaned, abandoned, or children in temporary need who were under the age of four. New Haven had two orphanages at the time, one run by the City, the other, St. Francis/Highland Heights, was run by the Catholic Charities. Neither of these had the facilities to take care of children under four years old. Many families that were destined for orphanages were split up due to the age restrictions. The younger ones went to St. Anthony’s, where they specialized in the under-age-four group. Eventually, as the young child became older, they were transferred to one of the other orphanages. St. Anthony’s, the Catholic Church, is still functioning as such, but has long since discontinued its infant orphan care.

Lessons In Sharing

Most of the children at St Francis Orphan Asylum during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, were not actually orphans. They had a least one living parent. It was the circumstances of their family life that brought them to the orphanage also known as Highland Heights. Visiting Sundays allowed the children the opportunity to renew and reinforce the love of their parent or parents, even if they did not totally understand the circumstances that placed them where they were.

A seven year old girl kept an 8” x 10” photograph of her mother in her locker where she could look at it and experience the love she felt for her. When another, older girl began showing the exact picture to all the other girls, claiming the beautiful lady in the photo was her mother, the six year old was expectedly upset, especially when she checked her locker and found the photo missing. An understandable scuffle ensued when the younger girl tried to retrieve the picture of her mother, explaining to all who would listen that the photo had been stolen from her locker and that it was really her mother.

Subsequently, the nun in charge interceded and forcefully escorted the six year old to her office. When it was explained what was going, the nuns approach was something as follows. “Now Missy, we must learn to share with each other.” The little girl’s response was, “But she stole my mother’s picture and was saying it was her mother.” As the lesson continued, the nun countered with, “Now, now, Missy. She doesn’t have a mother and she only has the picture. You have the real mother, now don’t you?” Then came the ultimate slap in the face. “That will be three licks for fighting.”

‘Licks’ were whacks on outstretched hands with a long strap almost one-half inch thick, made up with two outer layers of rubber and an inner layer of leather. What an amazing lesson for a seven year old who was only trying to defend her right to possess her own picture of her own mother. The older girl merely received a reprimand. After all, she was a true orphan, wasn’t she? Such is sometimes the case in institutional life.

See Census of Children HERE

More on Highland Heights History in Connecticut

In 1852, four Catholic Sisters of Mercy were sent to New Haven, Connecticut from Providence Rhode Island to teach at the newly expanded parochial school known as St. Mary’s. The day they arrived at their temporary Mercy Convent on George Street, their attention was directed to two little girls in desperate need of a home. Through a spontaneous act of kindness, the girls were taken in to share the small residence in downtown New Haven. So began the inadvertent founding of the orphanage that would later be called Highland Heights.

By 1854, the number of young girls under the care of the four Sisters had grown to fifteen and a larger facility was necessary. A new St Mary’s Convent was found and established in a building on Church Street. One section of the convent was reserved for the children and was called St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum.

Within ten years, the number of residents at St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum had once again outgrown the limited space available. In addition, it was determined the building on Church Street was more compatible to business purposes than to the activities of children; therefore, another location was sought. On April 6, 1864, Eli Whitney Jr., son of the great industrialist who invented the cotton gin, donated a gift of approximately twelve acres to the Catholic Church for the needs of their orphanage. At the time, there was a cottage on the property which would have to be enlarged to accommodate the increased occupancy. With the completion of the necessary modifications, on June 2, 1864, 44 girls and the four Sisters of Mercy were transferred from the heart of downtown New Haven to an open stretch of countryside lying along Highland Street between Whitney Avenue and Prospect Street. Two years later, the number of girls had increased to ninety, and two orphaned boys were listed among the residents. Several adjoining buildings on the property were pressed into service but conditions were becoming less than favorable.

By 1873, it was recognized that another expansion would be necessary to accommodate the steadily increasing number of both girls and boys. In the meantime, the orphanage had been renamed St. Francis Orphan Asylum, after the Saint who was known for helping the poor, and boasted a corporate management comprised of church and community leaders. During a meeting of the corporation in February 1873, plans were approved for the construction of what would become the main brick building, which they thought would be sufficient to house three hundred residents. The building was ready for occupancy in November of 1876.

Ten years later there were more boys at the orphanage than girls and more nuns were assigned to the school. As a result, more room was required for classrooms, dormitories, dining halls, and administration offices. By the mid 1890s, the south wing for boys was under construction. When it was finally ready for occupancy in 1896, there were one-hundred and ninety-four boys and one-hundred girls in residence, and plans were put in place for a north wing for girls. By 1906, the north wing and added laundry area were completed. During construction, the dining areas were expanded and provisions were made for more spacious playrooms, a larger chapel and kitchen, an auditorium, Sister’s Community Room and more living quarters for the nuns and the home’s chaplain.

Highland Heights Orphan Asylum
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4 thoughts on “Orphan Life (Highland Heights in Connecticut) 1880-

  1. My mother and her sister were placed there in 1938 they were 5 and 4 year olds. My grandmother had an affair on my career military grandfather he got custody of his daughters but couldn’t take care of them being in the Army. My mother was there until the age of 17 when she got pregnant just to get out of there! She said most of the Nuns were mean.

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      1. Yeah it was for her and we her children. Lacking that parent child connection she didn’t know how to relate to us. She did her best! I had a talk with her years ago about it and told her I understood she cried like a baby, but at least she knew one of her children understood.

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