ORPHANAGES.  Since the mid-nineteenth century, Cleveland orphanages have cared for children, adapting to children’s changing needs and to large-scale economic and political developments. Colonial Americans, following the English poor laws, cared for dependent children as they did dependent adults: by providing outdoor relief that allowed recipients to live in their own homes; by boarding them out with the lowest bidder to be cared for and perhaps taught a trade at the expense of the town or county; or by placing them in public almshouses or poorhouses. In the first quarter of the 19th century, care of dependents in these institutions gradually replaced outdoor relief and boarding out. Cleveland's earliest public institution for dependent and neglected children was the City Infirmary, built in 1837 for the ill, crippled, insane, feeble-minded, and dependent of all ages. By mid-century, public funds also supported separate institutions for dependent children such as the House of Correction (established in 1858 and also called the House of Refuge) and the CLEVELAND INDUSTRIAL SCHOOL, established in 1857, with some financial support from the CHILDREN'S AID SOCIETY.

These public efforts were supplemented by several orphanages, financed by private donors, church collections, fund-raising bazaars, and orphans' fairs.  Sectarian rivalries inspired Protestants, Catholics, and Jews to found their own orphanages as each denomination sought to save the souls and bodies of its co-religionists from the others. The first Catholic orphan asylums were established in the 1850s during the administration of Bp. LOUIS AMADEUS RAPPE, partly in response to Protestant proselytizing in public institutions. The Catholic orphanages were run by nuns but were under the direction of the Cleveland Catholic Diocese. The Daughters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary opened ST. MARY'S ORPHAN ASYLUM FOR FEMALES (1851) and St. Joseph's Orphanage for Older Girls (1863); the two institutions merged as ST. JOSEPH'S ORPHANAGE FOR GIRLS in1894. The SISTERS OF CHARITY OF ST. AUGUSTINE opened ST. VINCENT'S ORPHAN ASYLUM for boys (1853), and, in connection with St. Ann's Maternity Home, St. Ann's Infant Asylum (1873). The asylum cared for the smallest children, often foundlings or the infants of the unwed mothers sheltered in the maternity home ( SAINT ANN FOUNDATION). An orphanage for Catholic children outside diocesan auspices was incorporated in 1896 as the HOME OF THE HOLY FAMILY. Protestants established institutions for their own. The Protestant Orphan Asylum, initially called the Cleveland Protestant Orphan Asylum, (BEECH BROOK) was proposed at a meeting at the FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH in 1852  and briefly received public funds for sheltering children from the City Infirmary. (There is no record of Catholic or Jewish orphanages receiving public funds.) The Jones Home (JONES HOME OF APPLEWOOD CENTERS) opened in 1886 with no official church ties, but children attended a Methodist Episcopal Sunday school and worship. The DISCIPLES OF CHRIST opened the Cleveland Christian Home in 1901. The Independent Order of B'NAI B'RITH established the Jewish Orphan Asylum in Cleveland in 1868 for the orphans of Jewish Civil War veterans (BELLEFAIRE-JCB).  An impoverished, short-lived orphanage, necessitated by the other orphanages’ exclusionary policies, cared for black children, 1895-1903.

A few of the children in orphanages had lost both parents.  Most had at least one, usually a mother, unable to care for her offspring because of the death or desertion of a spouse, illness, or inadequate employment. Many parents were immigrants lacking the skills to earn a living in the city. The children were placed in orphanages usually by parents – sometimes by a public official, priest, child welfare worker, or other family member - until the family could get back on its feet.  Sometimes this was days or weeks, more often years. The orphanages provided food, shelter, work skills so that the children could support themselves, and religious training in the faith tradition of the orphanage.  Parents were supposed to pay something in return but often could not.

The Federation of Charity and Philanthropy's Social Yearbook (1913) reveals that local orphanages differed in size and clientele. St. Vincent's Orphan Asylum, for example, admitted only boys, ages 3-14, and St. Joseph's Orphan Asylum, only girls within the same age range. Both had a capacity of about 250. The Jones Home and the Protestant Orphan Asylum took both boys and girls, with the former caring for 166 children in a year, and the latter, 369. The Jewish Orphan Asylum, which admitted both boys and girls and had a regional constituency, took in about 500 children a year between 1890-1918.  

In the early twentieth century, dismayed by the growing numbers of children in large congregate facilities, child welfare workers emphasized the importance of family life and advocated for non-institutional – rather than institutional - care for dependent children.  This shift did not put the orphanages out of business: two new institutions were founded. In 1909, the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio opened St. John's Orphanage for young girls, staffed by the Sisters of the Transfiguration; the facility moved to Painesville in 1929. In 1921, the ORTHODOX JEWISH ORPHAN ASYLUM began operation. The largest Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish orphanages moved to the suburbs in the 1920s. In 1925, the Catholic Diocese opened PARMADALE CHILDREN’S VILLAGE, which combined the boys from St. Vincent's and from St. Anthony’s  Home for Boys and Young Men in Louisville, OH.  The Protestant Orphan Asylum moved to Orange Twp. in 1926, changing its name to Beech Brook. In 1929, the Jewish Orphan Home opened in UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS, becoming  Bellefaire. These non-institutional names accompanied a change from the original congregate housing to smaller residential units. Both indicated the orphanages’ desire to shed their old institutional identities, to simulate family life, and to provide a new focus on the individual child’s emotional or behavioral problems.  

The Great Depression, however, prolonged the traditional role of orphanages as caretakers for dependent children as families, suffering economic hardship, continued to count on orphanages to get through the tough times. Orphanages, full to the brim, struggled to provide for more children for longer periods with less money as private gifts and church collections fell short.

Then the public sector transformed these private institutions. Social welfare legislation passed during the New Deal – old age and unemployment insurance and Aid to Dependent Children (later Aid to Families of Dependent Children) – provided some income support for parents and lessened the need for orphanages.  Dependent and neglected children increasingly came under the care of the Cuyahoga County Child Welfare Board (CUYAHOGA COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES),  which performed many services formerly provided by orphanages, including adoption, temporary shelter, and child-placement.  In 1932, the county built the Juvenile Detention Center to shelter dependent, neglected, and delinquent children.  

Beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, spurred by these changes and by public funding available for psychological and psychiatric care, the orphanages shed their old roles as shelters for the dependent children of needy families and re-defined themselves as residential treatment centers for children with emotional or behavioral problems. Beech Brook built new cottages more suitable for individual attention to children. Parmadale absorbed the girls from St. Joseph’s and the children from the Home of the Holy Family, and became PARMADALE FAMILY SERVICES. Bellefaire merged with the Jewish Children’s Bureau and absorbed the Orthodox Jewish Orphan Asylum Home in 1957 and became Bellefaire-JCB.  All the orphanages also offered a wide array of counseling and therapeutic programs off-campus.

The increasing reliance on public funds meant that the orphanages had to substitute secular goals for their sectarian missions and admit children of all faiths.  Even more important, this reliance almost ended decades of their exclusion of black children. The Protestant and Catholic orphanages in the nineteenth century had accepted a tiny handful of these children. But reflecting the growing segregation of Cleveland housing and education during the 1910s and 1920s, orphanages too closed their doors, especially after moving to the suburbs. Most dependent black children were placed in inadequate public facilities like the Juvenile Detention Center, regardless of their needs or their behavior, while dependent white children continued to be sheltered in the private institutions.  This racialized division of labor between the public and the private facilities remained in place until the late 1960s. Then pressure from the civil rights movement and the absolute necessity of public monies forced open the orphanage doors.  Black dependent children, however, continued to be over-represented in under-funded, often punitive public facilities,

The movement away from institutional care, even for emotionally disturbed children, continued into the 21st century. Parmadale shut down its residential treatment center and its off-campus programs in 2014. Beech Brook closed its residential treatment program in 2016 although it maintained its outreach programs.  Of the old orphanages, only the Cleveland Christian Home, Bellefaire-JCB, and the Jones Home of Applewood Centers, now affiliated with Applewood Centers, sheltered children in 2021.

Marian J. Morton 

Updated 2021



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Bing, Lucia Johnson. Social Work in Greater Cleveland (1938).

Morton, Marian J. "Homes for Poverty's Children: Cleveland Orphanages, l85l‑l933," Ohio History  (Winter‑Spring l989).

______________, “Institutionalizing Inequalities: Black Children and Child Welfare in Cleveland, 1859-1998,” Journal of Social History (Fall 2000).

______________, "Surviving the Great Depression: Orphanages and Orphans in Cleveland," Journal of Urban History, Vol. 26, No. 4 ( May 2000).

Polster, Gary E. "A Member of the Herd: Growing Up in the Jewish Orphan Asylum, 1868-1919" (Ph.D diss., CWRU, 1984.)

Polster, Gary E. Inside Looking Out: The Jewish Orphan Asylum 1868-1924 (1990).



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