Holyoke's Greatest Charity

Bethlehem House

Bethlehem House

      To write a history of the noble deeds done in the name of charity in Holyoke would mean a volume in itself, but no record could be so incomplete that it would not include the story of the Sisters of Providence and their work for the city and the Catholic Diocese of Springfield. From humble beginnings, forty years ago, the work of the community has grown until today its network of asylums, hospitals, and homes reaches to every corner of the Diocese.
      The order is the great charity order of the Diocese. In the city they have charge of the House of Providence Hospital, Mt. St. Vincent, the orphanage for girls, the Institute for Boys, and the home for old men at Brightside, and the Harkins' Home for Aged Women. Under their charge, too, are three other great hospitals, St. Vincent's at Worcester, the House of Mercy at Springfield, and Farren Hospital at Montague City, besides Greylock Rest at Adams. There are at the present time three hundred sisters in the community, and the beneficiaries of their noble work are numbered by the thousands. At the Brightside Orphanage there are 125 boys at the present time. At Mt. St. Vincent there are 120 homeless little girls, and at Bethlehem there are seventy-five babies. The House of Providence Hospital cannot supply the demands on it, though there are sixty-five beds there. In the new Beaven-Kelly home there are forty old men spending the declining years of their life under happy conditions, while at the Harkins Home there are as many aged women.
      The late Monsignor Harkins did may fine things for Holyoke, but no greater service than when he was instrumental in getting the order to locate to the city. He had been a student at Kingston, Canada, and was there acquainted with the splendid work of the Sisters of Providence. Two sisters came to Holyoke in June, 1873, and it was then that he was able to put in operation a plan he had for the establishment of a place where the poor working girls of the parish might go in time of sickness. He made application for a body of nuns to come to the parish and start the work. In September of that year he went to Kingston with Dr. J.J. O'Connor, afterwards mayor of Holyoke, and looked over the field. They were favorably impressed and agreed to send the Sisters. They came in November, headed by Sister Mary Edward as Superior, and Sisters Mary Patrick, Mary of the Cross, and Mary Mt. Carmel. Monsignor Harkins was in charge of the South Hadley parish at that time, and so it was in the parish house over the river that the Sisters first took up their work.

House of Providence Hospital
House of Providence Hospital

      At that time there was neither hospital nor alms house in Holyoke, and the opening of the home at South Hadley was the first work in this line of public charity in the vicinity. In 1875 the Parsons property, where stands today the House of Providence Hospital, was purchased, and the Sisters took up their residence in Holyoke. In 1878 the parish at South Hadley was set off, and the orphans were brought over to the Institute.
      In 1875 the Sisters of Providence accepted the care of the boys' school at St. Jerome parish. This was the first parochial school established for boys, not only in Holyoke but in the entire Diocese. Though not primarily a teaching order, nevertheless it was only during the present year (1912) that the Sisters of Providence have laid aside their teaching duties and gone back to their chosen field, among the orphans and the aged. And for the first time in the year 1875 appears on the list of members of the community the name of Sister Mary of Providence. The following year she was made principal of the St. Jerome School, and from that day to this the story of the Sisters of Providence in the Springfield Diocese is the story of the life work of this wonderful woman.
      The community was incorporated in 1878 and took over its own name the Parsons property. A story was added to the building that year and hospital work began in Holyoke at that time. From 1878 to 1893, when the new City Hospital was erected, the House of Providence was the only institution of its kind in the city.
      There were far too many orphan children for the Institute at the time, and on the advice and through the agency of Dr. O'Connor, the Ingleside property was bought from Messrs. Chandler and Holman. The original price was twelve thousand ($12,000) dollars, but when Mr. Holman heard that the would-be purchasers were the Sisters of Providence he insisted that the price be made ten thousand ($10,000) dollars, and had his way.
      Sister May John, the Mother-General of the order, came from Canada and with Sister Mary of Providence, drew the plans for the new orphans' home. No architect was required for the work, and in the opinion of builders ad architects alike, they would have trouble improving on the work of the two great leaders of the community. Toomey & Shea built the home, and it was dedicated on Washington's birthday, 1880, by Bishop O'Reilly. Father Harkins celebrated the first high mass in the chapel, and the home became at once the refuge of orphan boys and girls and aged men and women.
      It remained for Mother Mary of Providence to show the way to less daring spirits to make something out of nothing. No sooner would ceaseless labor on her part and the part of the other members of the community serve to life the burden of debt that has borne heavily on their shoulders, at all times, than some new need appeared, to be met with the promptness and an optimism born of a great faith that God would smile on enterprises undertaken in the name of charity. There was not a dollar in the community charity when the first home at Ingleside was built. There is not a dollar now, but there is one of the finest organizations of its kind in the country.
      An addition to Ingleside was necessary in 1887. Mother Mary drew the plans herself and the work was done at a cost of twenty-two thousand ($22,000) dollars. The original debt had been cleared by that time, largely through the efforts of Sister Mary Leonard and Sister Mary Theresa, who went into the rough mining districts in the far West to solicit aid, and collected six thousand ($6,000) dollars. A great fair was held in 1880, at which the Sisters cleared seven thousand ($7,000) dollars. The Holyoke Water Power Company gave as a donation to the fair a plot of land on Maple street, for which tickets were sold aggregating two thousand ($2,000) dollars. When the tickets were drawn, Mother Mary Edward held the lucky number. She promptly sold the lot for two thousand ($2,000) more.
      In the last few years of his life Bishop O'Reilly wanted to see the Sisters of Providence make a diocesan order, a step which was naturally opposed by the mother order in Canada. The case was brought to the papal court, where Bishop O'Reilly was represented by Rev. Dr. Thomas D. Beaven, then pastor of the Holy Rosary Church. The day that Bishop O'Reilly died the papal decree granting his petition arrived. He was unable to sign the parchment, but Bishop Beaven, soon after elevated, carried the matter through.
      On the day he was consecrated, Bishop Beaven secured for the Sisters of Providence title to the Wilkinson estate which bordered the Ingleside property on the south, and included one of the finest pieces of property in the valley. On this property stand at the present time the mother house of the order in the Diocese, the Orphanage for Boys, Bethlehem, and the Beaven-Kelly home for Aged Men. It was twenty years ago this month that they took possession of the property. It added a burden of twenty thousand ($20,000) dollars to their already large liabilities, but Bishop Beaven had paid twenty-one thousand ($21,000) dollars for his share, and he paid twenty thousand ($20,000) dollars more for the improvements, made immediately, so that the buildings could be utilized. The Sisters have developed the possibilities of their fine estate to the limit. They have one of the finest herds of cattle in the valley, and they are able to materially reduce their expenses by this means.

A Brightside Group
A Brightside Group

      In 1894 the present House of Providence Hospital was opened, and it was dedicated y Bishop Beaven, October 4th in that year, and so efficient has been the management of the institution that it has, year after year, paid its expenses and more, while other similar institutions have to depend on other resources to make their deficits good.
      Rev. Dr. John J. McCoy, in his comprehensive and accurate history of the Springfield Diocese, pays a tribute to Mother Mary of Providence that every reader who has ever stood in her presence will echo when he says: "She is a marvelous woman, small of frame and delicate appearing, low voiced, with an almost hesitating manner, yet with the mind of a man fit to direct armies. In a crowd of nuns she appears as wishing to seem the least; but once you catch her thought so lucidly expressed, and feel the force of her blue-gray eyes, you now you stand in the presence of a superior woman . . . God has abundantly blessed her work; it has prospered and grown almost miraculously; and we are sure that when the future historian writes the names of the women who have brought glory to the American church, the name of Mother Mary of Providence will be found in the upper lights."

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