Cornwall's House of Refuge Cemetery
Appeared in the Ontario Historical Society Newsletter, December 2013.
The building housing Cornwall's Heartwood Nursing Home served as the town’s House of Industry and Refuge from 1913 until 1952. At that time the facility housed the chronically ill and the homeless. I drop by Heartwood on a regular basis because it has been my mother’s workplace for 23 years—my entire life. Thinking back, I can't help but smile at how fascinated I was by the big old establishment – even from an early age. Little did I know this property would steal my heart away and leave me wanting to know more about it's history.
In the summer of 2012 I worked for Heritage Cornwall, which has a mandate to preserve the integrity of the city's architectural history. Along with the specific research tasks I was assigned, I would also assist members of the public who visited the Heritage archives. During my lunch break, I would often browse random books from the archive shelves. It was here that I found a photocopy of the original register of Cornwall's House of Refuge. I was immediately drawn to the register, and the people listed there, because of my lifelong connection to the building.
I spent many hours browsing the register. There are 906 names and some of the inscriptions share more details about the inmates then others. I was saddened when an inmate's record had the word "died" written beside their name along with a date.
Curious to know more about the building, aside from those who once called the House of Refuge "home", I pulled out Heritage Cornwall's file on the property. When I read, "the grounds were used to bury inmates." I was devastated. Having visited the property often, I knew there were no plaques or memorials dedicated to any of these people. This, I decided, is where my journey would begin.
I soon learned that when the building was expanded in the late 1990s, graves were moved from the property to local cemeteries but, to date, I have found little information on these re-interments. In October 2012, I started researching the inmates one-by-one. I copied out every name by hand, adding additional information as I found it. Of the 906 inmates, I have researched 163 names of which 44 were reported as buried on-site.
One of my favourite quotes by T.S. Elliot is, “We don’t actually fear death, we fear that no one will notice our absence, that we will disappear without a trace.” My overall objective is to ensure that the inmates of Cornwall’s House of Refuge will not slip off the pages of history, that they will not "disappear without a trace." Once I have finished researching, I would like to have a plaque placed on the property listing the names of all those who were buried on site.