St. Mary's Orphanage

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In the mid-19th century, Catholic Bishop Claude M. Dubuis charged the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word to care for the orphans of Galveston. From 1867 until 1968, the Sisters not only provided a safe haven for the children but also educated them.

The  original St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum, located at 69th Street and Seawall Boulevard, housed 93 children, who were cared for by ten nuns. On September 8, 1900, a Category 4 hurricane came ashore and carried with it devastation that remains on record as the deadliest natural
disaster and the worst hurricane in U.S. history.

As the hurricane blasted through the island - with winds estimated at 140 mph - the nuns tied a piece of clothesline around each of their waists, and then each tied line around the wrists of six- to eight children, and attached the children to their line. It was a valiant effort, but God had other plans. The orphanage was completely destroyed and much of it washed out to sea. All of the ten nuns and 90 of the 93 children aged two to 13 drowned. Three boys, somehow ended up together in a tree floating in the water.

A day after the storm, they made their way back to land. The sisters were found with the children still tied to their waists. Thirty thousand people, almost the entire population of the city, were left homeless.

Shortly after the storm, St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum reopened a new orphanage on 40th and Q streets, known as the Wharton Davenport Estates, and the orphans, who had been staying at St. Mary’s Infirmary, were moved to a large frame house there in 1901. A year later ninety orphans
and a staff of nine sisters occupied the orphanage.

“According to ‘Serving with Gladness,’ a history of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, the original building that the orphanage was relocated to in 1901 was a wood-frame building,” says Lisa May, director of Archives & Records, Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

“A three-story brick building was completed in 1950, to replace the 1901 building. It was built on the same site, the property purchased on Avenue Q and 40th after the storm.” 

 Placeholder imageAccording to the Galveston Insurance Board Description & Estimate for the property, a new orphanage was erected at 4005-23 Avenue Q in January 1950, to replace the old orphanage, says Casey Edward Greene, a Rosenberg Scholar at the Rosenberg Library in Galveston. “The newer structure had a basement and three floors.”

By the 1960s, foster care had become a government funded program, and St. Mary’s - and most all orphanages throughout the U.S. - were no longer needed. 

But the story doesn’t end there.

On August 2, 1967, the transfer of the property and improvements of St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum was deeded to Galveston Junior College, District of Galveston County, Texas, Greene says.

The Catholic institution that had devoted its resources to the care and education of orphaned youths would now serve as an institution of higher learning for people of all ages.

The college opened its doors on September 18, 1967, with an enrollment of 703 students. The building that once was used to nurture and educate orphans was renamed Moody Hall - in homage to the Moody Foundation, which provided a grant to purchase the building from the Galveston-Houston Catholic Diocese and pay for furnishings.

The college offered associate degrees in nursing, vocational nursing, and law enforcement - all valuable and much needed skills on the island and elsewhere.

“I think that repurposing historic structures for modern use is of utmost importance. I remember as a young child accompanying my mother - who was a graduate of St. Mary’s School of Nursing - to visit the nuns at the orphanage,” says Gaynelle H ayes, who retired from Galveston College on August 31, 2018, after 50 years.

“Later, as an employee, I was asked to give tours of Moody Hall to former residents of the orphanage and was fortunate to have the opportunity to hear about their childhood experiences at the orphanage and how they evolved as adults.”

Theron Waddell, veteran professor of government and history at the college, said he can recall the early days and revels in the growth of Galveston College on every level.

“The old main building of St. Mary’s Orphanage was the original building for the campus. However, it was too small to house the growing enrollment, and four temporary classrooms consisting of four portable building were added until the construction of the Mary Moody Northern building was completed in the early-1970s,” says Waddell, who began teaching at the college in 1969.

“The college began with a traditional ‘junior college’ orientation for students taking coursework for transfer into senior colleges and universities and a limited set of offerings, mostly in the health sciences partnered with UTMB,” he says.

“With legislation, which helps fund workforce education programs, it has expanded its offerings to fill a variety of training programs to enable graduates to find gainful employment in the Galveston and Texas economies.”

Throughout the years, Galveston College expanded both its degree programs and its campus. Students could pursue education in the areas of horticulture, fast food management, criminal justice, and microcomputer applications.

The college added the David Glenn Hunt Memorial Library, a new Regent’s Hall, Moody Hall was remodeled, a new fine arts building and gymnasium were built, and satellite parking was added adjacent to the main campus due to record enrollments.

But 108 years and three days after the Great Storm of 1900 destroyed 3,600 buildings and caused an estimated $20 million in damages - more than $560 million today - the island was again in Mother Nature’s crosshairs.

On September 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike struck Galveston Island with maximum sustained winds reaching 110 mph and extending outward nearly 120 miles from the eye. The Category 2 storm packed a Category 5 storm surge. Due to the massive damage and number of deaths, the World Meteorological Organization retired the name Ike in April 2009.

It was the costliest storm in U.S. history with property damage estimated to be $29 billion, including more than $1 million in damage to the Galveston College campus.

The effects of the catastrophic storm left homes, businesses and lives in tatters - but true to the spirit of this resilient community, Galvestonians came together to rebuild.

Less than a month later, classes at Galveston College resumed on an adapted schedule. In 2009, a generous donation from The Seibel Foundation enabled the expansion of the Cheney Student Center by developing the Abe and Annie Seibel Wing, at no cost to the local taxpayer.

The following year, the college purchased a 4.3-acre site on the island for the Charlie Thomas Family Applied Technology Center where students could pursue education in the welding, industrial systems, heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration, and electrical and electronics technology areas.

Galveston College also offers programs in culinary arts, cosmetology, medical administration, and more. And since 2015, Galveston College has consistently been ranked the No. 1 community college in Texas.

Through a series of generous financial gifts - including a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, and $3 million from the Moody Foundation - Galveston College continues to grow, with its eye on the future and its roots in the past.

Like the Great Storm of 1900 and Hurricane Ike, Mother Nature has launched heavy assaults on the island, but Galveston has guardian angels on its side.

Dwayne Jones, executive director and CEO of the Galveston Historical Foundation, says the college’s link to the past is a fitting tribute to the nuns who devoted their lives to nurturing youth.

“The reuse of historic buildings like this one are strong commitments to local history and give us a connection to the past,” Jones says.

“St. Mary’s orphanage played an important part in Galveston’s story by providing a home for orphans on the island from the 19th century through the 20th. While there were orphanages all over Texas, this one stands out for its mission on Galveston Island and as the longest orphanage in operation in our community. The building continues to tell that story better than any other similar buildings as a place of higher learning with Galveston College.”