Monday, November 7, 2011

The Los Angeles Orphans' Asylum

In 1856, the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, a society of apostolic life for Roman Catholic nuns founded by St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac in 1633 to serve the poor, took possession of the Los Angeles house of Benjamin D. Wilson, early mayor of Los Angeles, later state senator, prominent San Gabriel Valley rancher, and namesake of Mount Wilson, because Wilson was moving to his Lake Vineyard ranch in present-day San Marino.

The Daughters, also commonly known as the Sisters of Charity and "God's Geese" because of their wing-like bonnets or wimples, then opened an orphans' home, also known as the InstituciĆ³n Caratitiva, in the Wilson residence, quickly adding a second structure the following year. These structures were at the corner of Alameda and Macy streets (Macy now being Cesar Chavez Avenue.) Interestingly, the Wilson house was a frame one brought to Los Angeles in sections by New York via ship around Cape Horn. Included with the 9-acre parcel was a vineyard of some 6,000 vines and a 300-tree orchard. A school for girls also was run on the property.

The Daughters were requested for the specific purpose of creating an orphanage by Bishop Thaddeus Amat of the diocese of Monterey, which included Los Angeles. Based in Emmitsburg, Maryland, the Daughters began their work in Gold Rush California, starting in 1852 in San Francisco. Then, the society sent Sister Scholastica Logsden and Ann Gillen from Maryland, as well as three women from Spain: Angelita Mombrado, Clara de Cisneros, and Francesca Fernandez. Sister Scholastica, who joined the order in 1839, helped found orphanages in New York City and Natchez, Mississippi during the ensuing decade.

Leaving New York in October 1855, the five women, traveling with Bishop Amat, took a 25-day trip to San Francisco and were received by the sisters there, remaining for several weeks before journeying down the coast to Los Angeles, where they arrived in early January of the following year. They stayed briefly with prominent Californio Ignacio del Valle until their new home was established. Sister Scholastica was the leader of the Los Angeles contingent and became a well-known and highly-regarded figure in the city.

Notably, after she died in 1901, a paean to her was penned by Boyle Heights founder William H. Workman and published by the Historical Society of Southern California and the Pioneers of Los Angeles County. Sister Scholastica, who died at age 88, was from Maryland and was well-known to James de Barth Shorb, whose family estate there was called "San Marino." Shorb married a daughter of Benjamin D. Wilson, which would appear to explain why Wilson's home was taken over by the Daughters for the first asylum.

In 1858, the Daughters proved to be so highly-regarded, that they were asked to create a hospital, which was operated first in a county-rented adobe (the county also provided some funding for the care of patients) just north of the Plaza Church owned by Casildo Aguilar, a prominent Californio politician, and which was under the supervision of Sister Ann Gillen for almost a quarter century. For the first decade, the hospital was adjacent to the orphanage until an 8-acre site was found on the northeast edge of town and a two-story brick infirmary built there. The hospital later became St. Vincent's.

Despite the best efforts of Sister Scholastica and the other Daughters, the orphanage suffered from a common chronic condition of many Los Angeles institutions in those years: a lack of sufficient funds. Orphans' fairs and other benefits and events were held to raise money for the asylum, and there were occasional small appropriations by the state, but it was very often tough slogging.

In 1869, the orphanage, which initially was restricted to girls but by then included boys, was incorporated as the "Los Angeles Orphan Asylum" (and the hospital as the "Los Angeles Infirmary"). Part of the reason for incorporating was to provide a stable management structure for the institutions, but a significant aspect was the question of ownership of the property. Specifically, there was disagreement about whether Bishop Amat should be considered the owner, as head of the diocese, or the Daughters, as managers of the facility.

As the population of the city surged during the later 1880s, the famed "Boom of the Eighties" being in full swing, the Daughters sought a new site. In 1889, to honor Sister Scholastica's fiftieth year as a Daughter of Charity, a fund was established that initially collected $3,000 for a new home for the asylum. A new site, purchased for $12,000, was located at 917 S. Boyle Avenue at what is now Whittier Boulevard, where, in early 1890 the cornerstone was laid. The following year, on Thanksgiving 1891, the imposing Romanesque-style structure, designed by the architectural firm of Curlett, Eisen and Cuthbertson (which also designed the Los Angeles County Courthouse, which was built around the same time) was finished at a cost of $150,000 and over 400 orphans were moved to the new facility.

The snapshot photograph above is of the Boyle Heights asylum, taken in September 1925. For over sixty years the facility served thousands of orphaned children in Los Angeles. Concerns over structural integrity came about in the early 1930s when construction crews blasting the hillside next to the asylum for the extension of Sixth Street weakened the massive structure's foundations. While the building was used for classes during the day, children and staff slept at the basement at St. Vincent's Hospital in the evenings.  This was followed by damage wrought by the 10 March 1933 Long Beach earthquake, as noted by commenter Ruth Suess, which led to her and other resident children being moved from the third floor to the basement.

The damage to the building, as well as the notorious freeway construction projects that controversially carved through much of Boyle Heights years later, led the Daughters to abandon the site and move the facility to Rosemead in the San Gabriel Valley. From 1953, the facility has operated as Maryvale, but has been reconfigured as a residential home for girls from ages six to seventeen. There are also adjunct facilities in El Monte and Duarte.  According to an architecture database (click here), the Boyle Heights facility was torn down "after 1957."

For more information, see and

A very good 1997 overview by Cecilia Rasmussen in her much-missed column, "Then and Now", from the Los Angeles Times is here:

An excellent article on the history of the Daughters of Charity in Los Angeles is from Michael Engh's notable book, Frontier Faiths, and the excerpted piece can be viewed here:

The photograph is courtesy of the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, City of Industry. Contribution by Paul R. Spitzzeri, the museum's Assistant Director.


  1. Your information is wrong about the reason for the weakening of the structure being due to highway construction.
    It was the 1933 Long Beach earthquake that caused it. I was
    there! Bricks falling all over our play yard from the cupolas and chimney things up on the roof. And the noise !! Earthquakes make so much noise ! We were just kids and it was pretty terrifying. The Fire Department said that we could no longer sleep up on the third floor where the dormitories were and they moved us down to the beautiful auditorium on the first floor. We were taken to St. Vincents' Hospital for breakfast every morning for a while after the earthquake struck. It rang the Angelus as it happened right at 6 PM.

  2. Hello Ruth, thank you for the comment and the clarification. Actually, the LA Times article did say that damage from the earthquake, as well as the 6th Street bridge construction project, weakened the structure--somehow the quake part was left off the blog post. Then, 20 years later, the construction of freeways led to the moving of the orphanage out to Rosemead. Again, thank you for the additional information!

  3. A little added info.: After we were allowed to return to our classrooms , they had built a huge wooden chute for the
    purpose of dismantling the big bell tower The chute travelled
    right past the classrooms , which were on the second floor,
    and all day long during class we had to listen to the sound
    of the bricks tumbling down to the ground from the bell tower down that wooden chute.

    Another interesting, at least to us who survived it, was the
    fact that being good girls and (mostly) obeying the rules.
    we were still playing at the far end of the playground and not up next to the building . Due to the fact that the Sisters' dining room was located right under the windows
    there and we could look down on them while they were eating, we were forbidden to go that far down to that end of the playground until the Angelus rang. That would be at six o"clock. That end was where all the tumbling bricks were crashing down from the little chimneys and other
    rooftop structures, We would all have been crushed to
    death under that massive barrage. So, sometimes it pays
    to obey the rules. At least, that day it did for us.

    1. yes, I remember the nuns dineing room, where we would peek down at them from the play ground, I was there from 1946 to 1950 we always gossiped about rather the nuns had hair under their veils, or did they really shave their heads


  4. Hello again Ruth, thanks so much for the additional recollections of the 1933 earthquake and the orphans asylum is appreciated. Sounds like matters could have been a great deal worse!

  5. when was the orphanage torn down? I lived just below Boyle heights in the forties when I was a young boy and I believe I saw
    the orphanage on one of my walks through Boyle heights.

    1. it was torn down in 1957, and sadly all records of former students were lost or destroyed, I was there between 1946 and 1950, seems like a dream

  6. Hello Anonymous, a link has been added to the post from an architecture database from the University of Washington Library that only states "after 1957." Other online sources suggest 1956. Thanks for the comment and question.

  7. I attended school there (it was a boarding school then, from pre-school to 8th grade) from 1937 to 1940 and sleep on the 3rd floor. I attended school from the 4th, 5th,6th and 7th grades, school was taught by the Nuns. Was there all week and went home on the weekends and best friend was Iva Mae Humphery who had two sisters, Betty and Sally. ..... June of 88yrs

    1. P.S. from above.......June ..

  8. Hello June, thanks very much for leaving a comment about your years when the former orphanage was a boarding school. What was it called when you were there?

  9. My great grandmother was an orphan who lived at this orphanage. I have been trying to find information about her for our family genealogy and don't know where I could find the orphanage records dating back to the late 1880s or 1890s.

  10. Very interesting read! Especially the commentaries from the folks that attended and lived there!!

  11. My family history with the Daughters of Charity goes back to 1886 when my great-grandparents and grandfather and his two sisters (Giuseppi, Cecilia, Christian, Fortunata, and Priscilla Scottini) arrived in Los Angeles having come from Austria-Hungary to Vera Cruz, Mexico, to San Antonio, Texas, and finally here.
    They arrived with very little in possessions, only speaking Italian and Spanish, and from all evidence homeless. Family oral tradition says that the Sister gave them lodging on their property at the corner of Macy and Alameda. This is verified by the following inscription in the book – The Key to Heaven by Rt. Rev. Bishop Fitzpatrick signed Chris Scottini, dated April 7, 1893, Los Angeles Cal. with the address of SE corner of Macy and Alameda. I donated this book to the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles. Cecilia was employed for many years by the Sisters as a wash woman, and I am sure that the children were schooled by the Sisters.
    In 1896 my great-grandmother, Cecilia Scottini, in her name only purchased a home a few blocks north of Macy and Alameda for cash - $850 in gold coin. – 318 Bauchet Street. The deed was recorded with County Recorder; many years ago I checked this document and noted by Isidore Dockweiler was listed as the attorney/notary.
    From my research Isidore Dockweiler was a very active Catholic attorney and acted on their behalf. Since my grandmother spoke very little English, I am sure the Sisters were instrumental in helping.
    As a young man working at Los Angeles City Hall (1954) I would look out at that large brick building in the distance and thank the Lord for the help to all given by the Sisters of Charity.

  12. Hi anonymous of August 12, wow, thanks for the information on the Scottini family. Do you know that the Italian-American Museum of Los Angeles just had its grand public opening three days ago? Hours are Tuesday-Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thanks for visiting the Boyle Heights History Blog!

  13. I am looking for information on our grandfather. his mom was killed by a trolley in los angeles in 1936. he was placed in an orphanage, in the area. we are trying to find information for our family history. his name as we know it was jesse james martin(ez)dob 8/5/1896 not sure on spelling. his mom was Pilar Gonzalezdob poss. 1880.


  14. My great grandmother was taken in at this orphanage in 1892. How would I find any documentation about her and her sister? Thank you for any and all responses in advance.

  15. Hello Anonymous of 13 March, sorry for the late response. Unfortunately, I don't know if there are records from the orphanage, though maybe someone out there does? I could search the 1900 census by name, if you send her name to me: Thanks!