Holy Family Orphanage
Marquette, MI

Last Rites for the Cavalcade King

The first orphanage in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan—the destination for area Native American and parentless children—was built in downtown Marquette in the 1870s and called “Rock Street”, followed in 1881 by a Catholic home named after St. Joseph in Assinins. By 1903, these two orphanages were overfull, thanks to a ruthless campaign of removing infants from their Native American mothers. Frederick Eis, a Bishop residing in Marquette, soon began to petition funds for a new orphanage in his city, one that would become the biggest orphanage in the region.

Inside Marquette’s Orphanage

Digitally time-stamped into the memory card of my camera is the time 6:43 A.M., the moment when the first sun crawled across the floor below the boarded windows in jagged streaks, threatening to impale everything in their steady, dusty path. I set myself down on the window sill with my face against the dew-dampened plywood and searched where the boards met for a gap.  Suddenly, as the orange sun teased the top of the pine trees across the road, the world around sparked to a deep glow.  While my pupils slowly adjusted to the sunlight, the shielded stained glass of the chapel lit up, shard by shard, to progressively reveal the chairs across the open worship space, long stripped of its glory but somehow retaining its religious atmosphere.

It was my first mass and I was seemingly alone; orphaned.

From the boarded-up choir loft above the chapel, minutes after sunrise. Obviously local kids have long had their way with this landmark.
From the boarded-up choir loft above the chapel, minutes after sunrise. Obviously local kids have long had their way with this landmark.

Built & Filled

Holy Family Orphanage’s construction began in 1914 and it opened in 1915 at a cost of about $100,000 and initially intended to serve white children only. Despite this, its first residents were 60 Native American children and 8 sisters, all transferred from Assinins. The building was eventually going to sustain about four times that number of little boys and girls, mostly between second and eighth grade.Later, infants and older children were accepted as well, many of which had one living parent, but one not able to support them.

Postcard, 1917
Postcard, 1917

Mostly brick but with a decorative frontage of South Marquette Sandstone, this orphanage included classrooms, bedrooms, bathrooms, laundry and kitchen facilities and, to serve the needs of one’s salvation, a large chapel.

There was a lot of praying, and even non-Catholics, be they Native American or Protestant, were forced to follow the exact regimen: at 6 a.m. they are their breakfast cereal, at 9 a.m. they had class, with some of the afternoon set aside for play.

1917 Map, Sanborn Fire Insurance Co
1917 Map, Sanborn Fire Insurance Co
1928 Map, Sanborn Fire Insurance Co
1928 Map, Sanborn Fire Insurance Co

Playtime in the Orphanage

A 1955 article titled, “Orphanage Tots Ready for Winter” describes 15 sleds and 15 pairs of skis, locally refurbished and delivered for the use of the children. Names of the sleds included, “Cavalcade King, Iron City Express, Silver Bladesman, and Royal Duke.” When the daylight faded, some children had chores taking care of the various livestock kept in and around the building while others cleaned. If the children stayed playing outdoors too late, a nun would waddle to the stone steps and blow a horn to recall them. After a bath, the children would retire to their dormitories until the next day, and so time went on.

The Catholic Diocese of Marquette opened Holy Family in 1963 to young Cuban refugees who fled their island home during its revolution through a program called Operation Pedro Pan. Most of the young ones were sent away by their parents to seek a sort of sanctuary, one that lasted until 1966.

A year later, the last orphan left Holy Family Orphanage and the building was only used for its offices—a role that kept the place alive until 1982, when the building was abandoned.

An antique clothes dryer and sample inline 4 engine, the latter used as a training piece after WWII to retrain veterans.
An antique clothes dryer and sample inline 4 engine, the latter used as a training piece after WWII to retrain veterans.

Money & Politics, or a Hot Potato

Lately, the orphanage has only received bad press, labeled as an eyesore and architectural blight, rather than as the local landmark I see when I look through my camera viewfinder; there are few modern institutional buildings that I think are equally beautiful. Despite the foul history as a place where Native American children were stored away from their parents to accommodate their integration into white culture, the past isn’t going to change. This truth was made especially clear to me in late 2008 when Jami Morgan, while commenting on another article I authored about the orphanage, wrote:

“My mother was placed here as an infant during 1946 after the State of Michigan removed her from her Native American mother. My mother was consequently adopted by a White family and never came to know her culture until she was in her fifties. Your photographs are very symbolic of the ruin Native American people have encountered as a result of the then-common practice of attempting to assimilate our people into the mainstream.”

I am still thankful for her insight.

The curtain closes officially when the walls crack under the weight of winter snow.
The curtain closes officially when the walls crack under the weight of winter snow.

Living Memories Live On

Since I’ve been researching this area, I’ve been lucky enough to receive correspondences from other former occupants of the orphanage and their families. Although the evidence is admittedly anecdotal, it suggests that most residents stayed one or two years and shared the orphanage with siblings. Most of the now-elderly children say they were well-treated, but admitted that abuse sometimes occurred; nothing hinting at the insistence of some locals that children were beaten to death here or left in the abusive Michigan winters to die—two claims that resurface constantly in reference to this location.

The last time the city sealed this door, they must have been changing out old road signs.
The last time the city sealed this door, they must have been changing out old road signs.

The fact is, that after being abandoned between 1982, Holy Family Orphanage was bought by a businessman named Roger Rinne and was to be converted into an assisted living facility, but necessary repairs were never made and he refused to sell the building for what it’s worth; he appraised it at $1.6 million while the City of Marquette estimated the value at $200,000. Since then, several potential buyers have tried to loosen his grip on the orphanage, but none have found the funding to follow through.

Rinne filed for bankruptcy in December 2009, however, so it is unclear (from a distance, granted) whether the building is owned by him or the city anymore.

Sunrise in the orphanage... between classrooms and whispers.
Sunrise in the orphanage… between classrooms and whispers.

Now What?

Although it is nice to imagine that this building might now find its way into the folio some yet-unknown visionary developer, I think it is more realistic to point out that, in the midst of a recession, a demolition order is much more likely. Perhaps the saving grace of this building is that fact that Marquette might not have the money to tear it down for a few more years.

All the same, I wish this empty landmark the best: it’s one of the most beautiful orphanages I’ve ever photographed and absolutely a treasure to be preserved.