Lost boys remembered

Students pay tribute to orphans who lie in 120-year-old unmarked graves

Published on June 19, 2010

The Villa Nova orphanage - named after a forgetful saint - has been mostly forgotten.

Joycelyn Moulton, a junior high student, said many of her fellow students thought Villanova Junior High was named after Villa Nova Plaza.

Joycelyn, a Grade 8 student at Villanova, researched the orphanage for her heritage fair project.

The orphanage was started by Father Patrick Morris in 1885 and was home to about 80 boys.

The Villa Nova orphanage - named after a forgetful saint - has been mostly forgotten.

Joycelyn Moulton, a junior high student, said many of her fellow students thought Villanova Junior High was named after Villa Nova Plaza.

Joycelyn, a Grade 8 student at Villanova, researched the orphanage for her heritage fair project.

The orphanage was started by Father Patrick Morris in 1885 and was home to about 80 boys.

In addition to being a home for the children, it was also a vocational school.

The boys were taught tailoring, carpentry and other skills, and they operated a farm and greenhouse on Little Bell Island.

They took a boat - a raft by some accounts - across the water, and worked the land with a team of oxen reportedly donated by William Whiteway, then-prime minister of Newfoundland.

In June 1889, some of the boys quenched their thirst with water from a bog hole and came down with typhoid - an infectious bacterial fever.

Fifty-six boys became infected and the remaining 35 moved to Morris's home so they wouldn't catch it.

Many people in Conception Bay South believe Patrick Maher, Richard Byrne and Matthew Kenny, along with two other boys, died and were buried behind what's now Villanova Plaza, a shopping square. A teacher, Morris's sister and Morris himself also succumbed to the illness.

On Thursday, spurred by the school's student leadership committee, the Villanova Junior High school held a ceremony to tell students about the area's rich history.

Joycelyn had heard about the orphanage from a family friend, Adrian Heffernan.

Beginning at age 10 in the 1950s, Heffernan spent 5 1/2 years in a Church of England orphanage.

On Thursday, he told Grade 5 and Grade 6 students - an audience generations removed from the presence of such institutions - what that life was like.

Each boy had a number (his was 12) and they had to be in bed by 7:30 p.m.

They ate hash three times a week and were paid two cents a week to do their many chores.

"There was not one day when I was happy in the orphanage," Heffernan admitted.

But the experience, like that of hundreds of children in the province, at least allowed him to get an education, Heffernan said, his voice quivering with emotion.

"Had this not happened, I fear I would have had only a Grade 7 education and would have ended up on somebody's farm in the Goulds," he said trying to hold back tears that would flow freely later in his presentation.

He called the children "wise beyond (their) years" for wanting to recognize the orphanage and the tradition of charity it stood for.

"I am pleased that young people such as yourselves are showing such deep thoughtfulness and great leadership," he said

"The best way to pay tribute to Father Morris and the boys of Villa Nova Orphanage would be to pay it forward," Joycelyn said in her presentation.

"By that I mean, that each one of us realize that while there may not be orphanages today, there are still children that desperately need love and compassion."

"I think it's really good what we're doing because I didn't know about the orphanage or anything until Joycelyn brought it up," said Molly Clarke, who gave a presentation on the shut-down of the institution with Emily Whelan.

"I think it's a very good idea to get the students more aware of the past and our history," said Kathryn Bowers, another presenter.

The students want the presentation to be held each year - and they'd like the gravesite recognized.

Regina O'Keefe, who lives nearby, was always told the area was cursed.

"Local people said the piece of land had a very unhappy history," she said.

Before she and her husband built a house near the site, O'Keefe, a member of the CBS Heritage Society, wanted to find a way to recognize the children. She has spent years researching the orphanage, which was named for St. Thomas of Villanova, also known as the Father of the Poor.

The heritage society worked to erect a monument in front of the Conception Bay South town council in 1989.

After Thursday's assembly, the students laid a wreath at the memorial site and made a pledge to remember the orphanage.

Much of the history of the orphanage is oral, and there's some debate about the exact location of the graves.

The current owner of the property could not be reached for comment.

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