Youth Villages Oregon has partnered with the Oswego Heritage Council on a new history project that will pay homage to the history of the organization's home, the former Christie School for Orphan Girls that was established more than 100 years ago.
The project, "Our Legacy, Our Future," is a collaboration between OHC Board Member and historian Mark Browne and Youth Villages Development Associate Sierra Parsons that will focus on the history surrounding the 110-year-old site of the former orphanage, which now serves as the regional headquarters for Youth Villages Oregon. A grand opening event will take place next Thursday, March 14, from 4:30-6:30 p.m. at 2507 Christie Dr., Lake Oswego.
The Christie School for Orphan Girls opened in 1908 after the Sisters of the Holy Names became inundated with orphans at their school, St. Mary's Academy, in downtown Portland. It was originally named the St. Mary's School for Orphan Girls, but the facility was soon re-named after Archbishop Alexander Christie, founder of the University of Portland and Archbishop of Oregon City.
The project curated by Browne and Parsons includes the documents and written biography of the school's narrative, as well as stunning photography dating back to its opening. It was actually the first building to be constructed on the property which would eventually become Marylhurst University and the Mary's Woods community. According to Browne, the school served as a home and educational institution for anywhere between 150 to 250 girls, orphaned or otherwise.
"While the home was definitely for orphaned children, parents who needed help or respite care would also send children here," Parsons says. "There were several sisters who came and knocked on the door who used to live here in the 1950s and wanted to look around. They were telling us their mom had nine children and just didn't have the capacity to take care of that many kids. She would leave them here during the summers, which was very common for the time."
According to Parsons, the Sisters were very forward-thinking in their educational practices. They incorporated the typical curriculum of reading and writing, but would also focus on a more holistic approach that included physical education. Photographs included in their project show many of the girls participating in activities such as running and swimming as much as they spent time in the classroom. Residents of Oswego would often send children to the Christie School to gain a better education, Parsons said.
Dozens of photographs, news clippings, blueprints and other items line the long hallway that runs through the second floor of the former Christie School and serves as the medium for the project. Looking over the photos and learning what life was like for the girls who lived there, it's not your typical idea of what life in an orphanage is like.
"They tried to make it as much like a home as possible. You'd go outside and play or be able to join the local swim team," Parsons says.
"This wasn't some Dickensian hellhole," Browne adds.
"Our Legacy, Our Future" will be open to public following the grand opening event on March 14. According to Parsons, Browne and the Oswego Heritage Council have been instrumental in getting the project off the ground.
"Mark is the absolute best, and the entire Oswego Heritage Council has been so generous and gracious in their help with time and resources," she says.
The project and grand opening celebration are part of a larger effort to connect the facility and its modern tenant, Youth Villages Oregon, back to the community it was once largely involved in.
In 1953 the school became a child welfare organization while continuing operations as an orphanage. In 2011 the school merged with Youth Villages Oregon and no longer serves as an orphanage; rather, the facility is used as a base of operations for Youth Villages which focuses more on keeping at-risk youth with their families or helping struggling families stay together.
For Youth Villages Oregon Executive Director Andrew Grover, this history project is a sort of tribute to the foundation the Sister of the Holy Names laid for the work Youth Villages does today.
"I think it's important to do this because you have to remember where you came from, and that we're here supporting the community in a different way, but in many ways it's a continuation of the (Sisters') mission," Grover says. "Because now we're doing more community work, it really felt important that we reach out and make sure that people know who we are, what we do, how we help. Really, we're serving the same population of kids who are the margins of society, have nowhere else to go and need someone to help them."
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