Kathleen Deery Schrader returned Tuesday to the orphanage she knew as St. Vincent’s Manor, and the 67-year-old widow and grandmother found that the grand old four-story building has been through as many transformations as she has.
Built in 1898, the facility at 1140 Ellicott St. originally was an orphanage and convent started by three nuns with the Sisters of Charity. It was during that period in the building’s life cycle that the little girl given up by her mother developed a special relationship with one of the nuns.
Later, in the early 1950s, the facility opened as Bishop O’Hern School.
From about 1970 until 1981, the Erie Community College City Campus was housed there.
Since last year, the building has been home to the Health Sciences Charter School, and, Tuesday, students and faculty celebrated the building’s rich history with “St. Vincent’s Day.”
Schrader – a former “St. Vincent’s girl” now living in Las Vegas – shared her experiences during student assemblies, telling the pupils what life was like at the orphanage.
She doesn’t remember her birth mother. She was 3 or 4 years old when her mother dropped her off at St. Vincent’s Female Orphan Asylum, knowing “she couldn’t take care of me like the sisters could,” Schrader said.
The time was the 1940s, and Schrader remembered sharing sleeping quarters in a large room with 25 to 30 other girls younger than 12.
As a little girl, Schrader developed a special bond with Sister Clementine, the nun assigned to Schrader’s group, who slept in the same dorm as the girls.
“Sister Clementine had a private cubicle made of metal. It had a bed and small dresser,” Schrader said during Tuesday’s presentation. “She was my role model. She was like a mother to me.”
Schrader also shared how she was adopted by the Deery family.
Plagued by allergies and asthma, she recalled being in Sisters Hospital for tests and people coming by and looking at her. But a stately looking couple named Deery caught her attention. And, apparently, she caught theirs.
“I stood up and said to the man, ‘Will you be my daddy?’ ” Schrader said.
The husband and wife, who owned a North Buffalo pharmacy, did not adopt Schrader right away. But they became her benefactors.
“They brought me new outfits. The brought me new toys. They brought me candy,” Schrader said.
When the orphanage was closing in 1950s, the nuns informed the couple they had to either adopt the little girl or let her go into foster care. The Deerys became her legal guardians and sent her to Stella Niagara for three years; they adopted her when she was 14, right before she started high school at Mount St. Mary’s Academy.
These days, the former orphanage – near Riley Street, just a few blocks north of the downtown medical corridor – houses the Health Sciences Charter School, with about 330 students in ninth through 11th grades. A 12th-grade class will begin next year, bringing enrollment to 480, said Principal Hank Stopinski. The school’s partners include Blue- Cross BlueShield of Western New York, Catholic Health, Communications Workers of America, Community Health Center of Buffalo, Erie Community College, Erie County Medical Center, Independent Health, Kaleida Health Systems and Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
The school’s mission is to provide an academically challenging learning environment that provides the skills necessary for careers in the health care industry, said Cynthia Schwartz, secretary on the school’s board of trustees and author of “The Miracle on Ellicott Street,” a book about the transformation of the long-vacant building into the new school.
“This was an orphanage for over 100 years, and was one of the last people to be taken in and cared for here,” Schwartz said.
In 1990, Schrader started her search for her biological mother, but the woman had died by the time Schrader located her. Still, her search uncovered eight siblings, with whom she has been in contact. And she had the opportunity to meet up again with Sister Clementine before the elderly nun, who was living in a Maryland nursing home, died at age 93 in the early 1990s.
Schrader tried to describe the touching moment.
“I cannot express the joy in my heart,” she said.