Belief in Duluth children stands strong

By Chaas Toborg Just off Allendale Avenue, the Woodland car line ended. In the cars, children from broken homes waited for the end, an end that meant a new beginning. At the end of the Woodland trolley line sat a pot of gold for those children—St. James Orphanage.

James McGolrick was the first Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Duluth. He is remembered for holding the highest importance on providing for dependent children. In a memorial written for him in 1918, the main headline reads, “Provides for Children.” Sadly, circumstances that facilitated his desire to help were all too prevalent.

At the turn of the century, less medical technology was available. This was one reason for a higher mortality rate. Too often, one parent would pass away, leaving the other to care for up to five or six children sometimes. As this lead to children being uncared for, McGolrick found his chance to put his hope into action.

St. James Orphanage opened on a plot of 40 acres in 1909. It would join with two other Catholic orphanages in Duluth, located downtown and at the West end of Duluth.

By 1910, the memorial reads, the orphanage was up and running, taking in children from broken homes. Where the Duluth Transit Authority now runs, the Woodland car line brought these children to their new home.

McGolrick believed that every child could be successful. He coined the name “first citizen of Duluth" and he put his life’s effort into those who were unfortunate, hoping to make the world a better place.

In 1910, Venerable Sister James, superintendent of Duluth’s orphanages for 20 years, described their objective in the orphanage’s newsletter as “homelike training and care of orphan children, fitting them to take their place in the world.”

They taught academic classes along with instrumental music. All of the girls were taught sewing and cooking and the boys had the option of observing practical farming.

St. James kept a herd of Holstein cows, the world’s highest producer of dairy, on their plot of land. The Holstein herd provided work for the older boys.

St. James paid the boys for their summer work and encouraged the boys to buy themselves clothes and to save the rest in bank accounts they would open.

McGolrick’s children wasted no time making him proud. In September of 1928, the Duluth News Tribune reported that the boys maintained one of the best farms in the state.

The St. James Guild yearbook for 1915 recorded 100 children at the start of the year as residents of St. James and that 94 fresh faces entered throughout the year.

From infants to 14 year olds, the demand for their service was apparent in the slight raise in occupancy each year. All this meant for Monsignor Michael Boland, superintendent of St. James, was another opportunity. In an interview with the Duluth News Tribune in September 1941, Boland said of St. James, “Character building and social responsibility are the objectives in the whole routine.”

In 1952, 170 children occupied St. James. The 1960s brought change to St. James, as it did across the country. In October 1964, the Duluth Herald published, “St. James Home Undergoes Changes.” They adopted a new name, St. James Children’s Home in Woodland. The Catholic Diocese ended their involvement and children of other faiths were admitted into the home.

St. James Children’s home became fully incorporated into Woodland Hills in 1971.

This organization placed focus on serious behavior problems. The new structure brought focus to at-risk boys ages nine to 17, and allowed for residents to stay past eighth grade, a privilege not allowed prior due to space and money restraints.

As the millennium approached, the continually evolving goal of success for Duluth’s unfortunate youth added another twinkle in Bishop McGolrick’s eye. In the mid 1990s, Woodland Hills got a plot of land to build on.

The plot was described as one to utilize full potential to help, in the February 1994 edition of “The Duluthian.” The article was called “Youth Challenge”, and outlines Woodland Hills’ efforts with Duluth’s youth.

The focus of Woodland Hills became creating a peer culture. They organized children to work together and to help each other in order to create a positive experience.

Organized by size, age, and ability to function in a social setting, they engaged in long-term activities involving work, school, and recreation.

Woodland Hills rented an old community school building from the Duluth school district to educate their students. In 1997, Woodland Hills bought an old neighborhood school, Cobb School, and moved their educational program there – their first school.

In 2004, Woodland Hills got an outdoor area for grilling and holding social gatherings, their first ever such area. Three years later, they were granted permission to build another bedroom for two more clients.

Just this year, Woodland Hills has seen two improvements to their home. They built a new dorm for the girls, and are remodeling the boys’ wing. A shelter for their transport vans was built in the last couple months.

St. James orphanage may not have its original name, superintendent, diocese, or focus, but the energy for a successful youth culture remains.

Today, Woodland Hills’ website proudly pipes their mission as a private, non-profit agency of “helping youth realize their potential by providing a safe, healthy therapeutic environment.” This mission rings true for Lesa Radtke, a 15-year employee of the center who works in Customer Liaison Agency Relations.

“The commitment to kids is unwavering,” Radtke said, talking about the current methods to setting up youth for success, “we always seek better answers.”

The legacy of this organization has undergone immense change, but some things stay the same.

Duluth’s first Bishop James McGolrick started patching the broken lives of children just off Allendale, where the car line ended. With each car Woodland Hills sends out today, his wish that the institution continue to respond to the needs of humanity comes true again.

A ride with St. James, an interactive map CommunityWalk Map - A Ride With St. James Take a look at some pictures and maps from the history of St. James Orphanage.

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