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Three Years Researching Cornwall's House of Refuge: A Reflection

Written on September 28th 2015

On September 14th, 2015, I made my way to Cornwall's Counties Office after my shift at work. I only had an hour and a half until the office closed, but I wanted to use that time to start researching through old Counties Council Minutes. Since that Monday afternoon, I have gone back to research a handful of times. Every time I leave the Counties Office, I find myself reminiscing about my research on the way home. October 25th, 2015, will mark three years that I have been researching Cornwall's House of Refuge, and all of the inmates that called the facility home. What a journey this project has been so far.

If I had to describe everything I've learned in one sentence, I actually could. I've learned one major life lesson from the people who suffered within the walls of Cornwall's House of Refuge. I've learned to appreciate.

2015 was a very rough year for me for several different reasons. On May 20th, I was completely down in the dumps, I didn't know what to do with myself. In the end, I decided to go for a walk. I walked out my front door, and found myself at the entrance of Woodlawn Cemetery, in tears. To be extremely honest, my first twenty minutes in the cemetery were a little pathetic, but they were therapeutic and needed. I quickly walked through the cemetery gates, and the second my shoes touched the path, I began sprinting. I ran to the right hand side of the cemetery, which I affectionately deem "the poor section" (in this section, many people could not afford extravagant burials, ceremonies, or tombstones. Because of this, it is my favourite section to visit) and the second I saw the small grey tombstone belonging to a House of Refuge inmate in the distance, tears poured down my face like a small emotional child. Clarissa would hear all of my problems that evening, like she had so many times before.

Every time I visit House of Refuge inmates, whether it be at Woodlawn Cemetery, St. Columban's Cemetery, or at St. Lawrence Valley Cemetery, I leave with a more positive outlook. I stand in front of hundreds of unmarked graves, wishing I could go back in time to care for them. I compare my life to theirs, and feel guilty for thinking my life is bad. How can my life be bad, in comparison to everything they went through? After everything they suffered within the walls of Cornwall's House of Refuge?

These are the people that needed TWO by-laws to be passed by council in order to get decent undergarments, these are the people who needed permission from the Superintendents to be able to speak with inmates of the opposite gender, these are the people who were thrown in cells in the basement for "acting out" when in reality, they most likely suffered from mental illnesses. These are the people who were misunderstood, and shunned by society. These are the people who didn't have a voice, and that statement defines my biggest goal: giving Cornwall's House of Refuge inmates a voice.

While I research, I write. In my spare time, I am constantly researching the lives of the people who lived at this facility. I want to share their stories to ensure that they will never be forgotten about again. When all of my research is done, I will release my first book so their memory can live on.

My dream for June 2016 is to have enough money raised to finally purchase a monument for the twenty-nine House of Refuge inmates that were unburied from the House of Refuge property in 1985, and moved to St. Lawrence Valley Cemetery. For the second time, these people were buried in an unmarked grave. Although I will never be able to tell you specifically who those remains belonged to, I want to erect a tombstone in all of their memory because they always deserved to have something. After I unveil the monument, I want to hold a small ceremony for these people. When inmates passed away at the House of Refuge, the only person present at their grave was the person burying them. There was no funeral, no service, or anything to commemorate their lives. I intend to give them the ceremony they always deserved to have.

When all of my research is done, I will be erecting a second monument. This one will be placed on the current Heartwood property. This monument will list the names of every inmate that was buried on the House of Refuge site. This will again, correct the fact that they were buried without a tombstone or a grave marker.