St. Joseph’s Orphanage memorial to honor former residents

WCAX [South Burlington VT]

January 18, 2023

By Melissa Cooney

St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington closed in 1974 and former residents since then have been sharing stories of abuse. Now, an exhibit on display at the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington chronicles those stories and a new healing garden at the former site is in the works.

Keislich Park is where part of St. Joseph’s Orphanage used to be. Now, the city is working on a healing garden in honor of the 13,000 children who came through the orphanage. And right now, the “Voices of St. Joseph’s Orphanage Exhibit” is on display in Burlington.

“It means that we are now visible. You cannot hide us any longer,” said former St. Joseph’s resident Brenda Hannon, who lived at the orphanage on Burlington’s North Avenue from 1959 to 1968.

Hannon is involved in restorative justice to bring stories of abuse of former residents to light. The Voices of St. Joseph’s Exhibit is making a stop in Burlington, where residents like Hannon said they witnessed and experienced abuse.

“Former residents of St. Joseph’s Orphanage have come together to get some form of healing, validation, having our stories heard and believed for a change. And just letting people know really what went on at the orphanage and we formed our group,” Hannon said.

The exhibit, which showcases pictures and stories of residents like Hannon, began at the historical society in Montpelier and then moved to the Billings Library at the University of Vermont. Now, it’s in the Fletcher Free Library, the first location where children are likely to be stopping, something Hannon said is significant.

“What I hope that they will take away, the children will take away from this is, to watch out for each other as children. Pay attention to what’s going on,” said Hannon.

As the city reflects on stories of abuse at the orphanage, there’s also a healing garden in the works at Keislich Park on the property of the former orphanage.

“The project was probably one of the most profound that many of us have ever experienced. We know it’s just not typical to have a client that wants to express decades or a century plus of trauma,” said Jon Adams-Kollitz with Burlington Parks, Recreation, and Waterfront.

Adams-Kollitz said the city is working with former residents to bring the vision to life, some of which is already on the ground.

“There is a central arbor structure. That’s sort of the focal point of the design, and the artists that we’re working with have already coordinated and harvested some salvageable trees from the property that we’ll use,” he said.

For the past year and a half, they’ve been working with survivors and listening to stories. Now, they’re in the process of figuring out how much it will cost to build, noting it will be paid for by donations.

“It helps us heal with this memorial garden healing space. Because it feels literal like we are coming through to freedom to the light into the heel,” said Hannon.

The goal is to get the basic structure and some artistic elements completed this coming construction season.

The orphanage was run by the Catholic Diocese of Burlington, which has acknowledged the abuse and apologized to the victims. When asked for comment on the exhibit, the diocese said they were not asked to participate and so have no comment.

The exhibit is in the Fletcher Room of the Fletcher Free Library through Feb. 18. Every Sunday and Thursday there are special reflection hours from 1 to 3 p.m.