Orphanages have played an important role in caring for the region’s children for more than a century
Orphanages often bring up thoughts of a Charles Dickens novel. However, orphanages played a key role in providing care for children across Northern Kentucky for more than a century. Many did indeed house orphans—children who had lost both of their parents. All of them, however, also filled other needs. It was not uncommon for one parent to die or be absent, leaving the other parent with the task of raising children and working. Daycares and other welfare services did not exist. As a result, many children were temporarily placed in orphanages until their parent could become financially stable and care for them. In time, other agencies developed to support families and the need for traditional orphanages became less prevalent. Orphanages, however, did not disappear in the region—they adapted to meet current needs and continue to do so today.
The first orphanage in the region was St. John Orphanage in Fort Mitchell. St. John was established in June of 1848 by the German Catholic community of Covington. Many children had been left without parents due to a major cholera outbreak. Initially, St. John operated as a foster care service. Children in unstable homes, or who were parentless, were placed in parishioners’ homes as caretakers. As the number of needy children grew, plans began to be made for a more permanent solution.
In 1868, the trustees of St. John Orphanage purchased a large parcel of land on what is today Orphanage Road. An orphanage was constructed on the site, and the Sisters of St. Benedict of Covington agreed to take charge of the facility. In 1876, a dormitory and chapel were constructed.
The Catholics of Campbell County took steps in 1866 to establish an orphanage in their community. That year, the St. Boniface Orphan Society was established to raise funds and build an orphanage and school. Four years later, the Walsh farm on the Alexandria Pike in Cold Spring was acquired and construction began. The new facility, named St. Joseph, opened in 1870.
Initially, St. Joseph was operated by the Brothers of the Poor of St. Francis of Cincinnati. The institution grew so quickly that an additional building was needed in 1871. Despite this early success, the orphanage struggled financially. In 1877, the Sisters of Notre Dame agreed to take charge of the orphanage. Their guidance and frugality brought about much needed financial stability.
As the need for traditional orphanages declined in the 1950s, plans were made to merge St. John and St. Joseph orphanages into one institution on the Fort Mitchell campus. The new facility was named the Diocesan Catholic Children’s Home in 1961 and eventually placed under the care of the Sisters of Notre Dame. The facility is currently known as the Diocesan Center for Children and Families and provides residential treatment, foster care, adoption, therapy and counseling services.
In the years following the Civil War, the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis at St. Elizabeth Hospital established a foundling home and orphanage in Covington on the hospital grounds. The program was temporary and met a specific need for those suffering from the devasting war, especially African American children who were admitted. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd also operated an orphanage and home for girls in Fort Thomas beginning in 1873. The orphanage program ceased operation as the need declined and the school, known as Our Lady of the Highlands, closed in 1983.
In 1880, a large group of Protestant leaders held a meeting to discuss the establishment of the Covington Protestant Children’s Home. During the following year, a permanent board of trustees was established with Amos Shinkle as president. A site was selected on Madison Avenue and 14th Street and a new orphanage, designed by noted architect Samuel Hannaford, was constructed. The building contained classrooms, a chapel and accommodations for 40 children. Shinkle himself personally funded the construction of the new facility, which was placed under the direction of a board of 36 women representing the various Protestant denominations of the city.
The original Madison Avenue location proved less than idea as the railroad expanded in that neighborhood. In 1924, the trustees acquired a 25-acre plot of land near Devou Park and constructed a new orphanage in 1926. Eventually the name of the institution was changed to the Children’s Home of Northern Kentucky (CHNK). Today, CHNK is a trauma-informed health care organization focused on creating holistic partnerships for health and wellness.
The Campbell County Protestant Children’s Home was established in 1884 when funds began to be collected for the construction of a building. In 1886, the George Fearon property on 14th Street in Newport was purchased and the home on the property was renovated for use as an orphanage. This property had been outgrown by the 1940s, and the need for a new facility became apparent. Property was purchased on the Alexandria Pike in Cold Spring and a new facility was occupied in 1952. At that time, the name of the institution was changed to Holly Hill Protestant Children’s Home, and to simply Holly Hill in 1971. Holly Hill moved to its current site in 1990 and continues to serve the needs of children in our community.
Each of these institutions continue to provide vital services to our region. Their work has become more holistic, meeting not only the needs of children but entire families. They have benefitted greatly from benefactors and volunteers over the years and continue to rely on support from individuals and foundations from throughout Northern Kentucky.