A 75th anniversary banner hangs from Ottawa’s Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Church. Photo courtesy Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Parish

Welcoming strangers for 75 years and beyond

  • July 9, 2022

Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Church in Ottawa is celebrating 75 years as a parish this year, but its legacy as a welcoming place goes back a lot further.

Holy Rosary’s first Mass was celebrated on the Feast of Pentecost in 1947. But before that it had already been a renowned place that welcomed the other. It was a Catholic receiving house for British home children from 1898-1932 and during the Second World War, it was used as a barracks for the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAACS).

Since it was established, the church has been a sponsor and support to refugee families and parishioners are building that outreach to be able to house those fleeing oppression in foreign lands. They are in the process of renovating the rectory house as part of a partnership with non-profit Matthew House that provides shelter to refugees.

Given the church’s history and future potential through its various initiatives, Susan Munn, chair of the pastoral parish council, says the parish has much to commemorate this year.

“I feel we’re celebrating the past, the present and the future,” said Munn. “That’s where we want to go as a church in the true sense of helping others like Christ intended us to do. The history, for instance, has been all about welcoming people: Welcoming newcomers, welcoming these British home children, welcoming the Southeast Asian family that we sponsored, and welcoming refugee families that we’ve sponsored… It’s about living out the Synod, living out Christ’s values, and what Pope Francis has been talking about — going outside the church walls and being really connected to the community.”

Located in the heart of the city, Holy Rosary is one of the smallest parishes in the Archdiocese of Ottawa-Cornwall and is staffed entirely by volunteers. Very active in the downtown region, it has a reputation for going beyond the church walls to impact the community.

The church started an initiative called Circle of Friends, which includes people both inside the parish and outside to help welcome newcomers and provide them with the very important yet often neglected element of social connection. Monthly luncheons and free clothing distributions are helping to ease people into their new lives in Canada.

Munn says this legacy of receiving and supporting others is deeply engrained into the fabric of the church community.

“I think it’s in the DNA,” said Munn. “We welcomed a lot of returning veterans from World War II. We also welcomed displaced individuals who moved to Ottawa and other refugees that came during the war and subsequent upheavals in the world. We always had that as part of our DNA. It’s like we were absorbing the waves from other places. I think the Holy Spirit has guided us in that whole journey.”

Welcoming the British home children is a prime example. Beginning in 1869, British charitable societies removed children from slums and orphanages in congested industrial cities and brought them to Canada to serve as cheap farm and domestic labour. Long before it became a church, Holy Rosary was the New Orphington Lodge which acted as a receiving and distributing home for Roman Catholic children coming from the United Kingdom.

In 1905, the building was expanded to better receive greater numbers of children. The facility was also taken over by the Sisters of Charity of St. Paul who were brought in from the U.K. and the building was renamed St. George’s Home. The children would be adopted by local families or work as indentured servants providing farm labourer and domestic help.

Roughly 10,000 children came through the house, and many were adopted by local families. At the time many of these children might not have been familiar with working on farms because they might have been coming from cities. The sisters created a home environment for the children and as best they could trained them for farm work and domestic care to prepare them for their placements. 

There have been many notable St. George’s Home children, including public servant Ken Donovan. In 1964, on an urgent request from Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, Donovan worked with a team of designers to create prototypes of the Canadian flag design samples and arranged for his daughter, Joan O’Malley, to sew the very first flag. Others made their mark in the business world or as wives and husbands.

Little is known of a few years of its existence in the prewar years, other than it was owned by a couple of British dioceses. The Department of National Defence took over from 1940 to 1945 and housed the WAACS. What is now the church and the parking lot was used by the Royal Canadian Navy for research. In 1946 the U.K. dioceses sold the property to the Archdiocese of Ottawa and in 1947, Holy Rosary opened.

With the tradition for providing a home for many people ranging from impoverished children to soldiers and servicewomen, and soon to be refugees, parishioner Marie Nigro hopes that tradition will remain for generations to come. Nigro, who is originally from Buffalo, New York, and grew up in St. Catharines, has been living in Ottawa for the past 10 years and says like many others throughout history, the community she encountered through the church has become her family in Ottawa.

“In Scripture it says, ‘When I was a stranger, you welcomed
me,’ ” said Nigro, who is also a member of the Circle of Friends. “Through my parish I feel like I’m living out Scripture. I’m doing what Jesus asked of His followers. And you know what? When I was a stranger, the parish and the archdiocese welcomed me.”

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