By Celine Klosterman
Margaret Carlin walked through the newly painted and carpeted first floor of St. Vincent Center, eyeing a former children’s recreation room turned office with a sign marked “Immigration.” “It all looks so foreign to me, but it certainly is modern,” the former resident of St. Vincent’s Home said Feb. 4. “I’m impressed; I can’t believe they’ve done this much to it.”
St. Vincent’s Center has undergone a dramatic facelift to better serve the 51 people who work at the Davenport Diocese’s headquarters and 13 priests who live in the building. But Carlin and others who lived there decades ago recall when the facility had another identity entirely — as a school and children’s home.
“We never liked to call it an orphanage. It was St. Vincent’s Home,” said Carlin, a member of Holy Family Parish in Davenport. She lived at St. Vincent’s from the time she was in first grade to eighth grade, beginning in the mid-1930s, after her mother died of tuberculosis.
Her visit last week to the building was her first since the 1963 wake for Msgr. Martin Cone, former director of Catholic Charities in the diocese, who served St. Vincent’s Home. On the first floor, she passed a conference room she recalled was the office for Mother Superior of the Sisters of the Humility of Mary who served at the home; the girls’ stairway and boys’ stairway; and four former recreation rooms for young and older boys and young and older girls.
On the north half of the second floor were younger girls’ dorms and a large bathroom; the south half was comprised of boys’ rooms, Carlin recalled. “We weren’t allowed in here,” she said, crossing an empty doorway to what were once boys’ dorms. Sisters’ bedrooms were on floor two as well.
The oldest girls at St. Vincent Home slept in an area that now houses the diocese’s finance department on the third floor, across from what used to be a chapel. “We had to be real quiet when the nuns were in there,” Carlin said, pointing to the former worship space. It’s now offices for the bishop, vicar general and chancellor, down the hall from conference rooms that were once classrooms.
Barb (Koch) Weiss, who lived at St. Vincent’s from 1939-41, said she’d love to be able to see the building as it was during her time there as a seventh- and eighth-grader. “But time marches on,” said the resident of Reno, Nev.
She recalled rising early each day at the home to do chores, such as making breakfast or cleaning a guest room for visitors, and go to Mass before school. Her three brothers would milk cows or care for chickens at a barn outside St. Vincent’s, or plow fields to grow vegetables that she’d later help prepare for meals.
Weiss’ friend Fran (Williams) Childs, who lived at St. Vincent’s from 1935-40, when she was ages 9-14, has similar memories. “You had playtime after doing the dishes at night; you could go outside until sunset.” In warm weather, girls went swimming in a pool on the property, and boys and girls played on separate playgrounds.
Childs and Weiss looked forward to visits from their respective mothers. “I didn’t like being away from my mother, but it was the greatest place when you look back,” said Childs, a member of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Davenport. The Sisters served as surrogate parents, she added.
“The nuns were strict, but that was all right,” Weiss said. “It was probably good for us.”
Ruby (Phillips) Hopper, who lived at St. Vincent’s Home from 1959-65, beginning in fourth grade, recalled that the Sisters who taught in classrooms were kind. But she said she had negative experiences with one Sister who supervised resident students.
Hopper’s positive memories include learning penmanship and how to cook. Apple orchards on St. Vincent’s grounds meant that during picking time, “we’d peel and peel apples. There’d be applesauce, apple butter, apple pie… anything you could make out of an apple, they’d make. For a long time after I left, I wouldn’t eat an apple,” the Clinton resident said.
She said she feels a little sadness knowing her former home is now an office building. Childs does, too. But the Davenport resident’s recollections of St. Vincent’s haven’t changed. “I have very loving memories,” she said. “It was home.”