A Long Overdue Celebration of Life

Sara Lauzon ~ Wayback Playback
A Long Overdue Celebration of Life
Photo provided.

On May 22, a customer walked up to the bar at the Royal Canadian Legion (where I work), and complimented me on my previous article. After thanking him, we began discussing various subjects about Cornwall’s history. Eventually, the topic of a particular tombstone was brought up, and to my surprise, this special memorial was not known to him. (This is the beauty of "finding" subjects to write about – They tend to find me!)

Between the years 1913 and 1952, what is now known as Heartwood Nursing home (at 201 Eleventh Street East), once operated as a local poor house.

In 1890, Canada created the “House of Refuge Act.” This act stated that every county, or union of counties, was to provide a home accompanied by an industrial farm. This act aimed at removing severe cases of destitution from town streets, and organized it with administration. 

During the facility’s thirty-nine years of operation, 906 residents called Cornwall’s House of Refuge home. These people were admitted to the local poor house for various reasons. Some of the reasons for admittance listed in Cornwall’s House of Refuge register included: that residents were mentally ill, elderly, unable to work, “idiots”, and women who were pregnant out of wedlock.

What surprises the majority of people I discuss this subject with, is that the entire grounds surrounding Heartwood Nursing Home is an unmarked cemetery. In April, May, and June of 1985, the area just West of the building was being transformed into Gretchen Court. During the excavation work on the property (as Benak Limited began digging the foundations for homes), the remains of twenty-nine bodies were discovered. (Residents of Cornwall’s House of Refuge with no living relatives to claim the bodies were buried on the property in unmarked graves, some of which have been untouched since their original burials.) The bodies that were discovered in 1985 were moved to St. Lawrence Valley Cemetery, on the outskirts of Long Sault. For the second time, these House of Refuge residents were buried in unmarked graves.

On June 23, 2016, citizens from our community helped me write a new chapter in Cornwall’s history: after eleven months of fundraising, a monument was unveiled, commemorating the lives of the twenty-nine former House of Refuge residents, and a small ceremony took place. Surrounded by dozens of people, their graves were blessed by Father Haley, and for the first time since their original burials, they received the celebration of life they had always deserved.

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