History Burning: The Story of the Now Burnt Belvedere Complex

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Did you know that the Bonaventure Avenue area was once known among locals as “Belvedere”?

That’s why the Orphanage and Convent — that burned badly this Friday — was known as “Belvedere Orphange.” Also, way back then, it wasn’t Bonaventure Avenue, it was McKie’s Grove.

Though referred to broadly as”The Belvedere Orphanage” by media last Friday, the orphanage was only one of two properties in the complex, and only half the story. The orphanage grew out of St. Michael’s Convent.

The Property Dates Back to 1826; Was the 3rd Oldest Structure in Town

It all started with a Nova Scotian lawyer, turned Newfoundland politician, named Hugh Alexander Emerson. He built what would become St. Michael’s Convent in 1826, as an extravagant home. He had it built for him by Alexander Norris, a Scots builder and carpenter who would later that same year get famous for his work on Government House and Retreat Cottage.

It is now, (or was?), the third-oldest structure in the city. The other two are the Anderson House on Signal Hill Road and the Commissariat.

St. Michael’s Convent Was the Deathplace of Famous Newfoundlander Bishop Fleming

Following the death ofEmerson’s wife, he sold it to Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming in the late 1840s, and it’s where the legendary Bishop Fleming died in 1850.

Fleming, who showed up by invitation to be a priest here in 1823, is credited as a founding force of turning Irish and British immigrants into Newfoundlanders and making St. John’s a functioning, self-sufficient city. Or to quote Wikipedia, he was “the single most influential Irish Immigrant to come to the Colony of Newfoundland in the 19th century.”

His claim to fame was getting the Basilica Church up. And, well, spreading Roman Catholicism across the island, among many other historical acts, such as the time he administered smallpox vaccines to the community of Petty Harbour, Catholics and Anglicans alike, while remaining in quarantine with them, because no physician or other clergyman would go there.

After Fleming’s Death,
the Convent Became an Orphanage (That Couldn’t Contain Demand)

In 1859, the convent took on new life as an orphanage for girls, and did so under the direction of the Sisters of Mercy; The Sisters of Mercy went on to be associated with a lot in St. John’s, including the Saint Clare Mercy Hospital & the St. Patrick’s Mercy Home for the elderly.

Eventually, the convent eventually could no longer house all the city’s orphans, prompting the construction of the Belvedere Orphanage on the same property.

… So “Belvedere Orphanage” Was Built on the Same Property.
But Why Is it a Heritage Building?

Belvedere Orphanage excites architects, and was made a Heritage Building, for exemplifying a “Second Empire Style Building.”

Along with the Benevolent Irish Society, this four storey building, erected in 1885, is (was?) the only surviving Second Empire masonry institutional building in Newfoundland.

The orphanage was one of many architectural feats in St. John’s by Bishop M. F. Howley, but the Orphanage was the last standing work of Howley’s. Howley was a renaissance man; a poet, scholar, and writer of operas.

Its cast iron window hoods were the most important architectural feature of the building, both for their rarity and their detailing. The first and second floor hoods were a little different, imparting extra pizzaz on the overall look.

The building exemplified all things ” Second Empire Style,” like those ornate cast iron window hoods, its brick construction and quoins, and having a central tower with a mansard roof. (A mansard roof is a  4-sided roof that slopes down into the top of the building, with a lower slope punctured by “dormer windows.” This type of roof allowed for an additional floor of habitable space).

Why Was the Orphanage Abandoned in 1967?

The orphanage itself closed in 1967. It was then, for a while, a schooling house, and eventually the offices of the Roman Catholic School Board for St. John’s, and for “The Monitor,” a Catholic newspaper.

The orphanage became mired by controversy in the 90s, as dozens of women came forth with lawsuits citing abuse. No charges were laid. The Sisters of Mercy vacated the premises in May of 1999, concerned about their safety in the aging building.

That same year, Myles-Legér proposed building a 114-townhouse subdivision in the area, despite the Belvedere Structures (the orphanage and convent) being protected Heritage Buildings. Although the development company purchased the Belvedere property from the Sisters of Mercy for $500,000, and were granted a demolition permit, it never happened.

The building wound up housing MCP for a while instead.  The day it burned, it was registered to Craig Williams, owner of Skymark Homes and Future Group.

It Had a “Pleasure Garden?”

Yes. Pleasure gardens were an eighteenth century thing, that continued well into the Victoria era. “Pleasure Gardens” were open to the public, and served as venues for entertainment.

Belvedere Convent had one out front, and it was one of the last of its kind in NL. In fact, it seems that such a garden is what granted Angel House on Hamilton Avenue and Howard House on Garrison Hill their heritage statuses.

In its day, the formal garden gave way to a lane of trees — a haven for held hands on dreamy dates — known as Belvedere Lane.Laneways like these are basically extinct in St. John’s. Once popular, they’ve all been paved over during one development or another.

Behind the Convent, there’s a single tree, known as the Shade Tree. Curiously placed and super old, it’s the subject of plenty of folklore.

About Author

Chad Pelley

Chad Pelley is an author, songwriter, and journalist who wrote for publications like the Globe & Mail and The Telegraph-Journal before founding The Overcast. Now he spends 25 hours a day keeping up with his email, and has no time to be his former self.

6 Comments

  1. Went to live in the orphanage in 1946 when my mother died in childbirth, leaving six children under the age of seven. Looking back I remember sharing stories of other kids who were sent to Belvedere because of the loss of parents, and relatives couldn’t afford to take care of them. We gradually adjusted to the life in the orphanage, it was nice to get three meals a day and sleep in a bed that you didn’t have to share with you siblings. I have read stories about abuse, most of them are absolutely false. Its unfortunate that former residents have smeared the reputations of the sisters who dedicated their lives to helping the less fortunate. My younger sister graduated in 1963 and in 17 years none of us experienced any abuse. Its a shame that that the good that was done is completely erased by false accusations. God bless the Sisters of Mercy.

  2. Pingback: Ghosts on the Loose after Old Canadian Orphanage is Torn Down | Mysterious Universe

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