Halloween at the Holy Rosary Residence in 1965. The residence closed in the mid-’80s. Photo courtesy RCAV Archives

‘Don’t call it an old ladies’ home!’: Catholic home for senior women is re-discovered

By  Agnieszka Krawczynski, Canadian Catholic News
  • October 1, 2018

VANCOUVER – Hostelling International boasts some interesting locations for their nightly accommodations. World travellers booking with HI can spend a night in a cell at the Carleton County jail in Ottawa, in old army barracks on Jericho Beach, or inside the former Olympic Village in Whistler.

But in Vancouver’s West End, most travellers are unaware of the history of the stained-glass windows and small rooms of the HI on Burnaby Street. 

The pair of buildings from the 1960s was once a Catholic-owned home for single, independent and spunky senior women.

“When we first found out about this, we thought it was for sick old ladies,” cared for by Franciscan nuns, said hostel manager Maicke Andresen.

Those misconceptions evaporated this summer, when it was discovered that for 20 years its residents were independent women who wore Halloween costumes, hosted musical performances and had garden parties with the archbishop.

Vancouver resident Mary-Rose De Atley made the discovery.

She was touring Granville Island, gazing across False Creek toward Vancouver’s West End, when De Atley was struck with a sense of familiarity. She realized her late grandmother once lived on the now-busy and bustling West End.

De Atley walked down Burnaby Street, looking for the home in which her grandmother once lived. She was surprised to discover the building still standing and filled with busy backpackers. “So many things have been torn down and neighbourhoods are changing,” but not this one.

Holy Rosary Residence for Elderly Ladies, De Atley soon discovered, was opened as the archdiocese’s first residence for female seniors in 1962 in a former Sisters of Charity of the Holy Rosary convent at 1100 Burnaby St.

Four years later, a new residence was built next door and housed 48 women. For $100 a month, these ladies had a home, meals, recreation and daily Mass with then-retired Archbishop William Duke in an on-site chapel.

One of the spunky residents was De Atley’s grandmother, Sarah Chouse.

“She had several interesting lives,” said De Atley. Chouse grew up in England and from ages 8 to 14 worked in a textile factory to help support her parents and eight siblings.

“She told me she would go to the washroom to have a quick break and look out at the cows outside, and envy the cows because they were free,” said De Atley.

Her family eventually earned enough to move the 11-member family to Canada and buy a farm in Winnipeg. There, Chouse met and married a farmer. They lived on a homestead and had a few children, including De Atley’s mother, before eventually moving to North Vancouver.

Chouse’s husband became seriously ill and doctors said he had one year to live. He beat their predictions by 11 years before passing away.

“She had a lot of adversity in life, and somehow climbed out of it and overcame it,” said De Atley.

While living with a family member, Chouse saw an advertisement in The B.C. Catholic from a 63-year-old miner living in Wells, B.C., looking for a pen pal. She wrote back. Not long after, Chouse announced she was moving to Wells to marry him. She was 76 years old.

They were happily wed for a few years. When her husband died of lung cancer, Chouse, now in her 80s, moved in with some family in Kamloops. Soon after, she found out about and moved into the Holy Rosary Residence.

“She was very devout, so having the Eucharist there, and the archbishop, would have given her a lot of comfort,” said De Atley. Various religious sisters also served there over the years.

The residence was also a place of joy and silliness.

“I was surprised and pleased that they had so many events. The Halloween one was just hilarious,” said De Atley. “Here was my grandmother — someone must have dressed her up — with curlers in her hair and a nightcap on, in her dressing gown. She looked like she was having such fun! I was quite happy that she had such a good experience.”

De Atley only managed to visit her grandmother at the residence twice before she suddenly died in her 80s. “My impression was that it was a quiet, solitary place. My eyes were opened that it actually wasn’t!”

A quick search of The B.C. Catholic archives mentioning the residence reveals photos of cheerful elderly ladies, articles calling for donated furniture and an opinion piece by writer Joe Cunningham, describing the atmosphere.

“I always thought of old ladies’ homes as dreary places of seed cake, shawls and creaking rocking chairs,” he wrote in 1966. “Last Monday, I changed my mind. … You don’t call it an old ladies’ home. Mother Elizabeth, who is in charge, prefers to call it a residence for elderly ladies. There is a difference. They have happy people there.”

Archbishop Duke celebrated his 91st birthday at the residence. He died in 1971, the same year the Holy Rosary Residence was renamed to Duke Residence for Senior Ladies. 

The residence was closed in the mid-1980s due to new city bylaws that changed the number of square feet required per bed; the rooms at Duke Residence were found to be too small.

Times have changed in Vancouver. Now, those exact rooms house two to four hostel guests each. “The irony of this is that it originally closed down because of the size of the rooms, and now we fit more people than before,” said Andresen.

She suggested the difference might be the fact that hostels are for short-term stays, not long-term housing.

Some HI hostels have display cases revealing the histories of its buildings. The Burnaby Street location doesn’t have one, but thanks to De Atley’s discovery, that is about to change. Andresen has been looking through the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s archives and is putting together a history wall.

De Atley is thrilled that the little-known piece of Catholic history is still standing. “My first preference would be that it would have stayed a home and maybe me and my friends could stay there some day,” she said.

“Nowadays with the way things are going with euthanasia and all that, I would love to have more Catholic homes like that where you could feel safe and that you still have a function and you’re still worthwhile.”

That said, a hostel “would be my second choice” for the building, she said. “Budget travellers can enjoy Vancouver right in the heart of the city.”

(The B.C. Catholic)

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