Stories from the Past : Hopewell Valley
A Home in the Country
The Story of St. Michael's Orphanage
By 1948 the population was around two hundred as the idea of the foster home was starting to be the next best solution for destitute children. By 1955, orphans were no longer being sent to St. Michael's, and at the time of its closing in 1973, there were just 56 children housed there. The time for large institutions this to house children had now passed. With the need for this massive Gothic style structure, perched on the outskirts of Hopewell no longer necessary, the upkeep of it became a burden to the Diocese. The cost for temporary repairs needed to stabilize the building was "several million dollars" in the early seventies, so they decided to demolish the once grand structure. As the last of the children were preparing to leave the place that had been their only home, workmen began drilling holes in the walls for the explosives to bring down the structure.
The 180 acre farm was purchased, but the Bishop never lived to see his dream realized. He passed away in 1894. Bishop James A. McFaul would continue to carry the torch and see the project through to completion. With sixty thousand dollars left in the will of Bishop O'Farell for its construction and funds received from other generous sources, building was begun in October of 1896. Hopewell itself was still in a growth spurt that was sparked by the construction of railroad in the 1870's. It must have seemed like the perfect location for such a place, nestled in a fertile valley in this rural setting. The building was dedicated on May 30, 1898. What an impressive structure it must have seemed to the local community at the time.
I pulled my car into the driveway off Princeton Avenue in Hopewell on a chilly, overcast day and stopped at the chain stretched across the roadway. The asphalt before me disappeared into the trees as it made a gentle rise. The dense undergrowth was slowly taking over. This was once a grand place and now nothing remains except the land and the memories of those who remember. St Michael's Orphanage and Industrial School was located here for seventy five years, starting in 1898. In the late 19th century large institutions like this were considered the solution to the problem of homeless children. It would grow over the years into an immense operation that included not only the home, described as a modern up to date facility, but also a huge working farm that supplied much of the food for the school. The days of the poor house and the miserable orphan asylum were gone. This was to be a fine home in the country.
This facility was the dream of Bishop Michael J. O'Farrell, the first bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Trenton. The forerunner of St. Michael's, was St. Mary's Home in New Brunswick. After just four years, St Mary's had reached capacity and the Bishop felt that Hopewell Valley was just the place to build a new institution to care for the orphans of the Diocese. Bishop O'Farrell solicited funds for the purchase of the Jeremy Van Dyke farm, just south of Hopewell Borough, from his friend and supporter, Col. Daniel Morris of Atlantic City. The rehabilitation facility, Morris Hall in Lawrenceville is named in his honor.
With its towering central section rising four stories, and two three story wings flanking it, it was by far the largest structure for miles around. Its first floor was composed of course light colored stone, while the floors above were of dark red brick. A grand circular drive brought guests up to a large stone entryway that projected out from the building. The dedication was an auspicious occasion attended by dignitaries and important citizens from far and wide. The front of the building was festooned with American flags and the guests arrived in their wagons to hear speeches and celebrate this fine new institution.
The entire operation was run by the Sisters of St. Francis, whose convent was located in Riddleboro, Pa. St. Michael's opened on July 2, 1898 with eighty children moving there from St. Mary's in New Brunswick. The facility ultimately would have a capacity for four hundred and fifty children. Everyone helped out around the place. The girls helped with the food and meals, while the boys did the cleaning and many of the heavier chores. Everyone helped out with the laundry and yard work. Even the nuns rolled up their sleeves and did much of the farm work early on. It wasn't unusual to see the sisters milking the cows or making butter out in the barns. For many years the nuns even butchered the cows. In fact, as one nun told a reporter in 1973, back at the convent an assignment at Hopewell was likened to punishment. "I was scared to death when I was sent here the first time, I loved it while I was here, and I cried when I left." stated Sister Mary Fink.
In an ongoing effort to defray the costs of running St. Michael's, and to make it more self supporting, Bishop McFaul added the 150 acre Drake farm to the property. The June 3, 1904 edition of the Trenton Times reported that a new chapel was under construction at the time and the farm had three hundred acres of land under cultivation and included a first class dairy operation with sixty cows, forty sheep and four thousand chickens. All through the first several decades of its existence the facility continued to grow, as did the need to place so many unfortunate children. A large nursery wing was added in 1914, and a separate building constructed just for the boys was completed in 1933. Since proper physical training was needed, in addition to the spiritual training, a gym was built in 1922.
Many years ago when my children were very young, I lived near the property. Many of the farm roads and lanes were still there and we often hiked around the property exploring. Their mother had attended school there, and we were fascinated by the mystery of what it used to be. One day we came across a large hole in the ground and noticed yellow tiles visible below the surface. Reaching in, we pulled out some small pieces of what must have been a tiled wall. Excitedly, we raced home to show off our treasures to mom. From her childhood memories at St. Michael's, she quickly identified them as being pieces of a bathroom wall. We decided that when the building was blown up on its seventy-fifth birthday, the rubble must have been used to fill in the massive basement areas. So to this day, when I ride by the property on Princeton Avenue, and remember seeing that building standing so proudly on the crest of the hill so many years ago, I know it's not really gone. It's still there, you just can't see it.
Jack Koeppel 2006
Originally published in HVHS Newsletter Vol. XXV No. 1, Fall 2006
Top - The driveway for St. Michael's Orphanage & Industrial School in Hopewell in 2006.
Left - St Michael's on opening day in 1898. George H. Frisbie Collection, HVHS
St.Michael's Orphanage Band were invited to perform at events and programs all over the area during the 1920's and 1930's.
Top - This aerial photograph shows the St.Michael's property
and farm about 1948. Below - This undated image shows some
of the orphans in sailor suits posing on the steps of St. Michael's.
This postcard image shows the immense Gothic style structure that housed St. Michael's Orphanage just outside of Hopewell for seventy-five years.
Beverly Weidl, Curator
Hopewell Public Library
The research for this article was part of an exhibition at the D&R Greenway Land Trust in Princeton in 2007. It was created to raise awareness about the threat of development on the property, and the effects it would have on the community. The land was ultimately purchased by the Greenway and preserved as open space for future generations to enjoy.