Historic tales of Cornwall’s House of Refuge

By Adam Brazeau
CORNWALL, Ontario – Local historian, Sara Lauzon, is on a quest to uncover the mysterious lives of Cornwall’s forgotten “misfits” at the House of Refuge.

Lauzon showcased her House of Refuge exhibit at the Cornwall Community Museum, where she is also the summer exhibit coordinator.

She started piecing together the exhibit in 2012 as part of a Young Canada Works project. It features three panels full of pictures and clippings, two registries and other memorabilia.

“I don’t pick these projects, they choose me,” said 23-year-old Lauzon.

The fresh-faced historian has revealed that Heartwood, a long-term care facility located on Eleventh St. East, was formerly Cornwall’s House of Refuge.

The building was a place for the mentally ill, elderly, homeless and orphans – where 44 bodies were buried.

906 people were registered there and Lauzon is digging to find out all she can. She’s determined to uncover the identities of the buried. Her goal is to have a plaque inscribed with all 44 current names hanging in their honour..

“The people that are buried there deserve something to commemorate them,” said Lauzon.

Bodies were moved from the grounds in 1954, when the facility became an academy for girls and again in the ‘70s, when it became Versa-Care. Cornwall’s House of Refuge was established in 1913 and its doors remained open until 1952.

Lauzon constantly thumbs through the long yellow pages of the registry searching for new information and the names of the buried. Next, she delves into the museum’s archives for death certificates or any other documentation still in existence.

The registry pointed out that some of the inmates (as they were called) were transferred from the House of Refuge to the Brockville Asylum or St. Paul’s Home, a care facility for seniors.

Sometimes the frayed edges of the historic book make it difficult to put the pieces together.

“When you look at 906 names, you find 906 stories,” said Lauzon.

A few of the stories really stuck out for her.

She mentioned a couple dying there three days apart. Only one was buried on the property. And a child dropped off on Christmas and transferred out three days later.

“It kinda hurts,” said Lauzon.

For her, it’s much more than a hobby. Lauzon has been on the historical hunt since 17. She even has her own website documenting her discoveries, http://www.saraloveshistory.com. The tale of Sarah Mina Empey, that she uncovered, can be found there.  She’s also a third-year student at the University of Ottawa, majoring in History and minoring in Classical Studies.

“These are our founding forefathers, they helped make Cornwall” said Lauzon.

She also pointed out that the stories of derelicts and vagabonds are often the most authentic to the time period.

“The lower classes got the most experience of those times,” said Lauzon. “They had to work very hard for what they had.”

Staying at the House of Refuge meant those who were able, had to work to earn their keep. Having a garden and farm out back with horses and cattle, meant there was plenty to do.

On a visitor’s registry, the first few open pages were covered in writing. One harsh message said, “Ruth Gallenger is no good.” The name Morris was written over and over.

Another section documented the appearance and cleanliness of the facility, with messages such as, “1st class shape,” and “Everything grande.”

A main reason Lauzon took on the project was that the building is celebrating its 100th anniversary.

To find out more check out the Cornwall Community Museum at 160 Water St. West or visit, http://cornwallcommunitymuseum.wordpress.com.

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