Crossing the threshold: Lindsay’s House of Refuge

By Ian McKechnie

During my high school years, I had the opportunity to accumulate my requisite volunteer hours at Victoria Manor, Lindsay’s oldest nursing home. It’s a bright and airy place, complete with a large atrium, a fine chapel, activity rooms and four wings — Elford, MacMillan, Vaga and Victoria — in which residents live and enjoy each other’s company.

Known locally as The Manor, it opened about 30 years ago and replaced a much older facility a short distance to the south. Lurking behind stands of tall trees on the former Curtin farm, the “House of Refuge” has been gone for a number of years now, but its long and sometimes tragic history inspires reflection on how much has changed in the field of geriatric care. Constructed in response to provincial legislation passed in 1903, which required county councils to build such institutions to shelter the aged and infirm, the House of Refuge was a far cry from today’s nursing homes.

Put yourself in the shoes of a citizen visiting an elderly relative at the House of Refuge in the first decade of the 20th century. Reaching the end of the long lane linking the grounds with the outside world, you are confronted by a large, Edwardian-looking building patterned after a similar “poorhouse” in Lambton County. Three stories in height, it is built of red brick. To a casual observer, it could be a school or a hospital — and in fact, that’s exactly what you first think it is, as the front door opens and an elderly man emerges, looking very frail indeed. Curious, you cross the lawn, and wander around to the southeast of the building. Stretching out before you are several acres’ worth of crops, all being tended by elderly citizens under the watchful eye of Robert G. Robertson, the first groundskeeper.

You wander back around to the front of the building, not wishing to be late for your visit — visiting hours are fairly limited, after all. You hasten up the steps and cross the threshold of a large door. The place is replete with sounds and smells. To the left is a spacious dining room, the smell of luncheon wafting into the corridor. Beyond this, the sounds of conversation can be heard from a lounging room and the sounds of hammers echo from a neighbouring workshop. From the adjacent smoking room the smell of tobacco permeates the main floor.

Carefully inching your way along the hall, you peek into a small chapel where some young people from a local church are brightening the day of some more seniors with song. Their singing carries through the building, commingling with the heat provided by a 50-horsepower boiler to warm the souls and bodies of the seventy or so “inmates” who call this building home. Sound like a jail? You might think so as you read a list of rules and regulations spelled out in a little book on a nearby desk: “Any inmate able to earn a day’s work out of the Home shall be allowed to do so, her or his earnings to be divided between herself or himself and the home.”

You make your way up to the second storey, where your relative lives. A tea trolley creaks along the floor, making its way from room to room. Many of the folks living here are over 75 years in age, but others are far younger, committed to this House of Refuge because they are incapable of looking after themselves. The youngest of these inmates is a 29-year-old woman. Described as “feeble-minded,” she has a sad face that looks out into the corridor as Mrs. Robertson, the matron, makes her rounds of the building — seeing to it “that order and neatness reign throughout.”

Thunder rumbles overhead as you descend the staircase following your visit. Sobs echo from a room separated from the world by strong-looking doors of iron bars. These are the cells — a grim reminder of the building’s role in restraining people who might be a danger to themselves or others.

Trembling, you leave the House of Refuge behind. You turn around and look up at its stately façade, cognizant that behind its beautiful symmetry are people who are sick, broken, and lonely.

“None of us may wish to come to spend our last days here,” said the Rev. James Wallace on the occasion of its opening on Oct. 25, 1905, “but we know not what may be before us, and it is a blessing and a comfort to know that any who may need to turn their steps thitherward can find such comfortable quarters to spend the last few years while the sun is setting and the sands of life are running out.”

An empty plot of land immediately to the north of the Lindsay Adult and Alternate Education Centre marks the spot where the House of Refuge stood from 1905 into the first part of the current century. Gone are the smells of tobacco, the sounds of the creaking tea trolley, the sobs and laughter and conversation which once echoed through its halls. What must never fade into history, though, is our collective responsibility to care for those who are at the end of their life’s journey.


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