Manitoba History: Cityscapes: Asile Ritchot, St. Norbert
by Sheila Grover
Driving south along Pembina Highway through the community of St. Norbert, one is struck by the red domed roof of a large brick building, set back behind open fields on the east side of the road. X-Kalay now operates a half-way home in the complex to rehabilitate individuals with drug or alcohol problems. It is a cheerful and vibrant place with kids, animals, projects, a workshop and a garden, all of which soften the impact of the institutional environment.
Yet the architecture speaks clearly of another institution, long gone and for some best forgotten. This was Asile Ritchot, an orphanage founded and operated from 1904 to 1948 by the Soeurs de Misericorde, the Sisters of Mercy, to house the orphaned infants of poor families and unwed mothers.
Named for its benefactor, Father Noel-Joseph Ritchot, of St. Norbert Parish, the orphanage (“asile” in French) opened in 1904 in the smaller building on the south side of the present complex. The Sisters of Mercy, an order of Catholic nuns who worked mainly with unwed mothers, had recently constructed their maternity hospital in Winnipeg, the original Misericordia Hospital at the foot of Sherbrook Street. Homeless babies were transferred from the hospital to the orphanage to await adoption that might never come. Some of the young unmarried mothers, called “madelaines,” lived and worked in the orphanage as well.
This original orphanage was in fact an old house, previously owned by the Joseph LeMay family. Originally from Quebec, Monsieur LeMay was an early resident of St. Norbert, a businessman and, from 1870-76, a member of the Legislative Assembly. Upon his death in 1892, the LeMay home and surrounding land were acquired by Father Ritchot. In 1903, they were given to the Sisters. The house, which had been extensively renovated, contained kitchens, a chapel, a refectory, a large nursery and the sisters’ living quarters on the third floor. A laundry was added to the rear of the house and there was a barn on the property. Very quickly, overcrowding became a serious problem and infectious diseases killed many babies in the absence of adequate facilities.
In 1911, the larger portion of the building with the red domed roof was constructed according to plans drawn up by J. A. Senecal, the St. Boniface architect who designed St. Mary’s Academy, Misericordia Hospital and Provencher School. Finally, thanks to endowments by the Church and the provincial government, Asile Ritchot had enough space, electricity and, after 1919, running water to carry on its vital work. Large nurseries and dormitories were quickly filled with infants and small children, now permitted some play areas, open side balconies, proper sanitary facilities and large food preparation areas. The Sisters and madelaines moved their quarters to the old house portion.
What was the orphanage like? The steady stream of tiny arrivals never stopped, and only a few of the babies were adopted. Despite the tireless work by the devoted women, the infants spent long hours in their cribs, deprived of the individual attention that only a family could offer. Older children would be transferred to other facilities such as the old St. Joseph’s Orphanage on Portage Avenue West.
In the years before direct government involvement in the field of public welfare, charitable institutions such as this orphanage had to make their resources go a very long way. Surrounding the buildings were large gardens, cultivated labouriously by the Sisters and madelaines to provide food. Cattle, sheep and chickens were also kept. A small cemetery was located to the rear of the property.
The red-domed structure was a landmark in the community of St. Norbert, but it was the city to the north that it served. The sheer numbers of babies who passed through the orphanage until its closure in 1948 bears witness to a different age. Not only was birth control not available, but adoptions were not frequent when families already had several children of their own. The loving service provided by the Sisters of Mercy was crucial but generally thankless.
When the government took over the care of orphans in 1948, Asile Ritchot closed its doors, reopening in 1954 as an Oblate Seminary. The cemetery remains were relocated, the ground deconsecrated and a lovely little grotto developed. Young seminarians could stroll the grounds, reading and contemplating at a series of small fieldstone shrines. The grotto, stripped of its statues and crosses, remains an intriguing feature on the landscape.
The Oblates vacated this seminary in approximately 1970 and the X-Kalay Foundation took over the complex shortly thereafter. The large brick orphanage with its double-sided hallways enjoys new life, inhabited by people and families from all walks of life. The cries of the babies are gone but not forgotten.
Page revised: 23 July 2011