Spending two weeks in the “isolation room.” Standing inside a closet as punishment. Being tied into bed at night. These are some of the memories shared by former residents of the Halifax Protestant Orphans’ Home in award-winning journalist Lois Legge’s Wounded Hearts: Memories of the Halifax Protestant Orphans’ Home.
In addition to inserting snippets of sociological context, Legge provides the reader with basic facts about the Home and its inception. Founded in 1857, the Orphans’ Home was initially located on North Park Street in Halifax before moving to a new location on Veith Street. Like many other aspects of Halifax life, the Orphan’s Home was affected by the Halifax Explosion of 1917, which destroyed the Veith Street facility and resulted in the death of some of the children and staff. In 1924, the Home moved to a different location, also on Veith Street. That building continued to house the Orphans’ Home until 1970, when the facility was closed for good.
Though the facts are interesting in their own right, the meat of Wounded Hearts lies in the eight chapters dealing with the reminiscences of previous residents. Legge goes beyond each individual’s experiences at the Orphans’ Home, providing a context for their lives as a whole and how their time at the Home impacted them.
The Orphans’ Home had as part of its operating structure a “Ladies’ Committee” but Legge notes that the minutes and notes of that group, for the most part, don’t dwell upon how the children were treated. How well the committee truly understood the situation at the Home is open to question. Former residents recall that the matrons put on a show for visits by the committee and others, dressing the children up for such occasions and allowing them access to a toy room that was otherwise off-limits.
The question of accountability for the treatment endured is raised by both Legge and some of the residents interviewed for the book. Legge notes that despite, in later years, receiving a large portion of its funding from the provincial government, the orphanage “operated without the province’s supervision and had complete day-to-day control over the children,” (p. 12) who were, in effect, “left to the mercy of the matrons.” (p. 12) The children were “often beaten by staff members who scared them and taught them, as one person put it, ‘about the uncertainty of life’.” (p. 2) Despite their harrowing experiences, many of the former residents went on to forge happy relationships and rewarding careers. And so, Wounded Hearts is also about the ability of people to rise above their circumstances—to, in Legge’s words, form “compassionate hearts out of the wreckage of their own.” (p. 2)
Legge’s preface states that she wrote the book hoping “to help heal these wounded hearts of long ago.” (p. 3) An unflinching look at a less-than-flattering chapter in Halifax history, Wounded Hearts does not make for light reading. Nonetheless, it is a story that needs to be told, for the sake of those whose have yearned for so many years to have their voices heard.
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