Ask McGehee

In 1838, following a series of yellow fever epidemics, a Catholic orphan’s asylum was established in Mobile on Conti Street across from the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, then under construction. Within three years, Bishop Michael Portier, the first Catholic bishop of Mobile, had contacted the Sisters of Charity convent in Maryland and asked for their help.

The sisters arrived and set up three schools; two were for orphans, separated by gender, while the third was for local girls. Older children were often “bound out” to local merchants, and their wages contributed to the costs of running the facility.  

The new schooling system worked well until early 1847 when the bishop received word that, come April, the sisters would no longer work in orphanages housing boys. So Bishop Portier once again sought help. This time, he contacted the Brothers of the Sacred Heart in France, and a boys’ facility was set up at St. Francis and Warren streets. Farmland was purchased in 1856 to produce food for the orphans. This consisted of a small house and barn on North Lafayette Street, dubbed “the Brothers’ Farm.” The male orphans moved to the farm to assist with operations, growing a large variety of plants and selling surplus crops at the city market to raise money. 

As decades progressed, the operation became known as the Male Orphan’s Farm and Industrial School. Outdoor farming gave way to greenhouses where boys learned to grow hothouse plants and flowers, which they sold to the public. Shops were later added, offering training in tinwork, shoe repair, pipe fitting and electrical work. In 1900, a spacious four-story building was completed to house orphans and brothers, also providing classrooms,  a chapel, dining hall and playroom.

- Sponsors -

When one of those brothers came into an inheritance, he used the money to purchase band instruments for the boys. Within a year, that band was a regular feature in Mobile Mardi Gras parades and even represented Alabama in 1933, marching in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural parade.

Interdenominational Setting 

By 1926, enrollment had reached 130. The Mobile Register, noting the growth, also explained,   “their gardens are widely known and are famous for shrubs and plants. Thousands of people patronize them yearly.” It further stated that the school “treats Catholic, Protestant and Jewish orphans alike. Prior to admission the orphan is not questioned regarding his denomination or religious belief.”

Each orphan was “given a profession: farmer, florist, shoemaker, plumber or tailor. When he is old enough to leave to enter upon business, he is not left as an infant to the outside world, but rather prepared to fight his own battle.”  

Two years later, the barns on the east side of Lafayette Street had given way to the new Bishop Toolen High School, offering local girls the same sort of education as the boys attending McGill Institute. The once rural setting was becoming increasingly suburban. The facility was renamed the Catholic Boys Home in 1935.

Within 10 years, Mobile’s population had doubled, and it was decided to replace the buildings housing McGill Institute and the Catholic Boys Home. The orphanage and greenhouses on North Lafayette Street were demolished for a new McGill Institute, and the boys’ home moved westward.

A New Home on Dauphin

In May of 1946, the Mobile Register reported the breaking of ground for a new facility “at the end of Dauphin Street past the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio rail crossing.” The 37-acre site was well beyond the city limits, and across Dauphin Street, herds of cows belonging to Graf’s Dairy happily grazed.

The streamlined building was complete by the fall of 1949 and, like its predecessor, contained classrooms, a dining hall, chapel and housing for the boys and the brothers. Bishop Thomas Joseph Toolen explained that the goal was “to give the boys a home they will be proud of, one they will want to bring their friends to see and a home in which they will be happy, and one in which they will form themselves into patriotic, useful citizens.”

Despite more than a century of success, the Catholic Boys Home closed its doors in the summer of 1971. A growing national preference for foster care had experts terming such facilities as obsolete. By the mid-1970s, Mobile Gas abandoned its Bienville Square site, remodeling and enlarging the former boys home for their own use. Mobile Gas has been there ever since.

Text by Tom McGehee

Get the best of Mobile delivered to your inbox

Be the first to know about local events, home tours, restaurant reviews and more!