JANUARY 2022


In the past, readers of Hixnews have written in about St. John’s Protectory a number of times.   This month, AH attempts to provide a more complete version of its history, gleaned from contemporary reports and news articles.


Introduction: A “Protectory?”

They could have called it something else.  In fact, they might have called it many things – orphanage, work house, poor house, refuge, even reformatory.

Although it was a little bit of each, none of those labels really fit.  Many of the boys housed in the Protectory were not orphans.  Some came from families which through illness or poverty simply could no longer take care of them.  Others had been removed by social agencies from abusive or dysfunctional households.  Some had been placed in the Protectory by the courts, in the hopes that the petty criminal behavior often shown by streetwise boys might be redirected positively.  At least one poor family persuaded their son to commit petty theft and be caught, hoping that he would be sent there and find a door to a better life.

Most people may have thought of it as an orphanage, but “protectory” fit it much better.


***

 

Antecedents
 




St. John’s Home for Boys, Brooklyn, NY, c1909

Brooklyn Public Library Digital Collections

The Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum Society of Brooklyn was established in the 1830s.  By the 1890s, the Society’s old Saint John’s Orphan Asylum for Boys in Crown Heights had grown, but with more than 900 young residents, once again it was at capacity.  For reasons similar to those just discussed, it had been renamed simply St. John’s Home for Boys.

Similarly, the Society’s flagship facility in Queens was by then called St. Joseph’s Home for Girls.  Somewhat smaller, it still could house well over 600 children.




St. Joseph’s Home for Girls, Flushing, NY, c1910

flickr.com


***

Bernard Earle

In 1885, Bernard Earle, a wealthy retired builder who had moved to Hicksville some years earlier, donated to the Orphan Asylum Society his home on “the Jericho Road ,” along with the 107 acres of farmland on which it stood.  The gift was contingent upon the Society’s establishing on the property a satellite facility of St. John’s Home for Boys, and also upon the Society’s calling it St. John’s Protectory.

Already well-known in New York as a philanthropist, especially with respect to Catholic causes, Earle apparently remained a businessman at heart.  From time to time, public notices in the New York newspapers continued to announce foreclosure actions which the kind philanthropist had initiated against his debtors.

Although renovation and construction were still in progress on the site, the first boys took up residence there in 1890.  A year later, this progress report from the Society provided a good summary of what had been done:






The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 12, 1891

The most obvious change to the property was yet to come: the construction of a chapel adjacent to the home, which was formally dedicated to Saint Bernard in 1896.




The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 11, 1896

Note: The Appendix to this article features a news story from 1895, which describes the Chapel in detail, and also adds some interesting notes about the operation of the Protectory.


***

Protectory Life

The annual reports of the Orphan Asylum Society, read in combination with contemporary news stories, give us some inkling of life within the Protectory’s walls.

The facility’s capacity was usually given as 125 boys.  Nuns were the core of the administration and educational staff; other positions, from choir director to farmhand, seem to have been held by men.  The total number of adults on hand cannot be known from the annual reports of the Society, which lump together staffing figures for Brooklyn and Hicksville .  As one would expect, schooling, farm work, and career training constituted the greater part of the boys’ routines.  The farm’s annual gross revenue seems impressive – $4,500 in 1892, as an example – but the annual expense of educating, housing, clothing, and feeding more than 100 boys also must have been impressive.  Career training was taken seriously – at the time the annual report was prepared, a number of boys had been sent to Ohio to learn “fancy glass making” from manufacturers.

Health was a concern.  By the 1890s, the world was acquiring a better understanding of how diseases spread.  The Society decided that its larger residences, which housed hundreds of children, should have “quarantine rooms,” in which sick children could be isolated before their illness spread.  Putting the new rooms in the most crowded facilities may have made a difference: there was a polio epidemic in the summer of 1916, but not one of the 1,700 children in the Society’s facilities contracted the disease.

Quarantine rooms seem not to have been fitted into the Protectory, a non-decision which later may have proved significant.  The global influenza of 1918-1919 was more highly contagious than polio, and at one point, at least half the boys in the Protectory, as well as a number of the adults on staff, were simultaneously ill with the “Spanish flu.”  The newspapers reported no deaths among the boys (which does not necessarily mean that none of them died), but one nun, the well-liked Sister Bernadine, did die of influenza.  She had had spent a quarter century – her entire career of service as a nun – at the Protectory.

On the day of her Requiem Mass at St. Ignatius, townsfolk respectfully gathered along the route to view the cortege that bore her remains south to the church from the home.  Clearly, the village did not consider those at the Protectory to be outsiders.




Excerpt of article from

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 16, 1918


***

From a Boys’ Perspective

Boys, especially older ones, got to venture “beyond the fences” with some frequency.  Perhaps the most common reason was so that they could march in the village’s regular parades.  During the Great War, the Liberty Bond drives involved parades, social activities, and displays of military vehicles and weapons, all of which most boys would have found interesting.  The 1919 Independence Day parade and homecoming celebrations for those who served in uniform would have been exceptionally memorable.

Although the number of boys at the Protectory was small, it was able to field sports teams that competed against teams from other organizations or schools.  Its choir and chorus often performed at public events, as did its band.  A high note (yes, that’s a pun) occurred in 1934, when the Protectory Band was invited to play in the parade that celebrated Brooklyn ’s Tercentenary.


*

Perhaps the best outing a boy might have all year happened on Thanksgiving Day – and not for the reasons you might guess.

If we could look back a century or more, to some past Thanksgiving, and see the streets of some American town or city, we might think that we were witnessing a Hallowe’en.  Costumed children (then called “ragamuffins”) would be running through the streets, stopping passers-by and ringing doorbells, holding out their hands, and saying “Anything for Thanksgiving?”  With luck, they’d get a candy or cookie in response.  With better luck, they’d get a penny or two.




Looking like a nightmare directed by Federico Fellini, ragamuffins in
an unidentified early twentieth century American town compete for
attention, hoping that some pennies will be thrown their way.

Bain News Service, Publisher.
Scramble for pennies - Thanksgiving. [Between and Ca. 1915] Photograph.
Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2014689991/>.

It all goes back to the story which Americans associate with the first Thanksgiving.  Had it not been for the good will and generosity of strangers – the native Americans – the Pilgrims would not have survived their first winter in America .  Thanksgiving is a way of celebrating and re-creating that selfless kindness.

Somewhere along the line, however, by the nineteenth century, American popular culture had tapped into the legends of the Elizabethan era, when bands of beggars, singing rowdily and playing music, would arrive at a town one day and half-intimidate the locals into giving them alms (which they often did, just to get the beggars to leave town as soon as possible).  Ragamuffins originally were children dressed to look like beggars, wearing ill-fitting worn old clothes, and deliberately smudged with coal dust to look dirty (the homemade masks and more fanciful costumes came later).  They’d start Thanksgiving Day by assembling in some designated spot, and then “march” in what was called the Ragamuffin Guards or the Ragamuffin Parade.  Serenading the public was optional.

On the day after an especially good Thanksgiving for the Protectory boys, newspaper readers saw the following:




Wow, that means that there were more than
 enough celery stalks to go around.  Yippee!

Excerpts  from the Huntington
Long-Islander, November 27, 1914


*

Obviously, Christmas at the Protectory was always a high point .  The newspaper report of the 1903 holiday informs us that the arrangements had been made by Sister Superior Adelaide and her five assistants.  The day began in the Chapel at 7:00 AM, when Father Fuchs celebrated Mass, at which the boys’ choir sang, with the professional choir master singing solos.  The meal began at 11:30 AM, and after a suitable interval, the boys’ gifts (“useful articles, books, candies, nuts, and fruit”) were distributed.  Christmas trees stood in two public spaces, each tree bedecked with ornaments made by the boys.

Prior to Christmas, the boys had been visited by H.B. Fullerton,* who had spoken to them about new scientific advances in agriculture.

* Fullerton was in charge of the LIRR’s Demonstration Farm, created to expose Long Islanders to improved farming methods.  He also worked personally with President Roosevelt to find ways of improving the nation’s food supply.


*

June of every year meant a graduation ceremony.  With fewer than 125 boys of school age, the graduating class size was small, and the ceremony would have been very personal and emotional for all.  Speeches were made, the chorus sang, prayers were offered, and the graduates received academic, athletic, and other awards, as well as their diplomas.

At some point, the Protectory introduced the idea of allocating to each older boy a personal garden plot, 20’ x 20’ in size.  This allowed the boys to compete with each other, and thereafter, gardening prizes for their plots also were awarded to boys upon graduation.


***

Home or Stalag?

Life cannot always be all sweetness and light.  If it were, there would be no need for a Protectory.  One likes to believe that most of the boys who lived at the Protectory understood that life there was better than any alternative open to them – but for some of the boys, life there was never going to be as they wanted.

The facility had only been open for a matter of months when four youngsters ran away, allegedly because they had been cruelly forced to work long hours.  They also claimed to have been jailed in a communal cell with “tramps,” after seeking refuge at a church.  Their allegations were published – and then shown to be lies.  Three of the boys were too young to be assigned work at the farm, and admitted they had lied.  The fourth had run away before, and been returned, but also had not been assigned any work.  The four had been confined in a clean room, not a cell, by themselves while they awaited transportation back to the Protectory.  The newspaper printed the correct account once it was known.

How one felt about residing at the Protectory likely depended on why one was there.  For example, the two teens who were sent there for stealing 50 pounds of lead pipe probably regarded it as a prison.  The impoverished woman who was willing to pay the very significant sum of $10 to someone who promised to get her son (already convicted of grand larceny) into the Protectory (by having him commit a petty crime!) probably saw the home as his last chance to learn how to live honestly.

The public may have been made hyper-aware of such cases.  The police certainly were.  In one case, the press was informed that police records showed a young man recently arrested for burglary had previously “spent a term in the Catholic Protectory,” and was still “on parole.” One imagines that honest graduates who were making their way through life sometimes encountered the stigma generated by mistaken understandings of the Protectory.


***

The End Came Quietly

In 1937, the Protectory closed, all its boys having been transferred to the Brooklyn home.  The complex was abandoned, presumably only after the Chapel was deconsecrated, and any critical items were removed from the buildings.  I have found nothing online about the reasoning that led to the closing of the Protectory in 1937.  Were there no pandemic, I would fly to New York , and examine the final records of The Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum Society of Brooklyn .  They are held in the Center for Brooklyn History collection at the Brooklyn Public Library.

One can, however, speculate with some confidence.  The prolonged Great Depression still lingered.  The previously independent Asylum Society was effectively dissolved by merging it into the Diocesan Charities of the Diocese of Brooklyn.  The timing of this change suggests that the Diocese was doing what it could to respond to the economic pressures of the day.  Before the Depression hit, the Society’s facilities had always depended on donations – regular small donations from many, many people, and extraordinary large ones from the wealthy.  But jobs and fortunes alike were lost in the 1930s, and the Society’s donations all but evaporated.  Continuing on its own would have been impossible for the Society.

Political and legal forces may also have been at work.  It may have been easier for the Brooklyn Diocese to keep all its facilities within its territory.  One can also speculate that Nassau County would have been unwilling to assume any implicit responsibility for 125 needy Brooklyn boys who could be equally needy in Brooklyn .

In any case, the Protectory closed, and rather quietly.  I have not yet found any news articles about the closure, or about the fate of the nuns who had served there.  I imagine that a great many people mourned its passing, and I cannot honestly believe that Hicksville was in any way better off without it.


***

Appendix



Compare the drawing above with the postcard image included
at the start of this article, which shows the veranda and
other modifications made to the original Earle house.

The Brooklyn Eagle, December 22, 1895


*****

 

 

 

 

’Bye for Now!