Orphanage housed kids for 129 years

Wednesday, September 26, 2018 - Updated: 2:26 pm

QUESTION: I have heard my grandmother talk about St. Paul Orphanage. When did it begin and when did it close?


ANSWER: St. Paul Orphanage began in 1836 when three Sisters of Charity from Emmitsburg, Maryland, established a home for orphaned girls in the city of Pittsburgh. The institution was granted a charter by the state on April 3, 1840.

In 1845, the Sisters of Charity were recalled to Emmitsburg and for two years the orphanage was under the care of women in the community. In June 1846, the Sisters of Mercy were given care of the orphanage, and for the next 119 years they continued to provide it their dedicated service.

In 1846, no arrangements were yet available for the care of boys at the orphanage. At that time, St. Michael Diocesan Seminary was located in Birmingham (now Pittsburgh’s South Side). The bishop decided to locate it elsewhere and donated its frame building and 200 square feet of ground “so that a suitable place could be established for the care of orphan boys.”

Soon afterward, a brick building was constructed, and by 1851, St. Paul Orphanage cared for 70 girls (at the Webster Avenue building) and 24 boys in Birmingham.

While the number of orphans at both locations increased, it became apparent that a building housing both groups was desirable. Such a building was constructed on Tannehill Street in Pittsburgh and was dedicated June 10, 1866.

Gradually, the new site (on 300 square feet of city property) also proved inadequate to house the growing number of those in need of its services. On May 27, 1900, the cornerstone was laid for the new “St. Paul Orphan Asylum” on “a plateau at Idlewood between Crafton and Carnegie.” The land, described in documents as “17 acres of ground with a good orchard and several acres of timber,” was purchased for $28,000.

Children took up residence in the new building at Idlewood in 1902, and by 1919 the number of children residing there peaked at 1,200. In addition to acquiring more land, other improvements were made steadily (a chapel wing in 1907, a hospital unit in 1911, a separate school building in 1920, a new maintenance building in 1924 and a new boy’s dormitory in 1927). The last addition, an activities building containing a gymnasium, swimming pool and auditorium, was dedicated in 1956.

The work of the orphanage continued until August 1965, when its program was combined with that of Holy Family Institute in Emsworth. In September 1965, St. Paul Seminary was opened on the orphanage site.

These few words are an inadequate testimony to the tireless effort of all those involved in the 129 years St. Paul Orphanage existed. Within the complexities of its era, it continually provided a place for those who were in need. Generations of caregivers, residents and friends remember it with pride. It is only one part of the incredible social service contributions made by Catholic religious and lay men and women over many years in this region.


Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.

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