Nov 13, 2021
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski Residents of the former Catholic Child Care Center, Mary Kay Pfahler and brothers Tom Eckard (left) and Jim Eckard share good memories about their early years spent there. The buildings were recently razed to make room for the Garvey Manor expansion project.
HOLLIDAYSBURG — Mary Kay Pfahler of Altoona hadn’t walked these halls for 50 years, and they looked much different now, half-demolished as workers prepared to take down the building for new construction.
But as she and Tom and Jim Eckard, also of Altoona, stepped carefully through the rubble of the place they all once called home, Pfahler pointed with confidence toward a room in one of the wings.
“Fifty years later and I still know where my bedroom was,” she said. “It was on the right-hand side there, the middle one.”
Few people probably know that the site Pfahler and the Eckard brothers recently visited had served as an orphanage in Hollidaysburg. The buildings are better known as being part of the former headquarters of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown on South Logan Boulevard.
In a cost-cutting measure, the diocese moved its offices to Altoona and sold the land and buildings to Garvey Manor Nursing Home about four years ago.
Those buildings are now being torn down as the home prepares to expand. But, before the buildings were demolished, a few former residents got permission to revisit their childhood.
“The hall seems so much shorter now,” Pfahler said as she contemplated her surroundings.
Tom said that he, too, would be able to locate his bedroom, which was in another building across the parking lot.
“I know exactly where mine was too, over there,” he said, waving his hand toward the second dormitory, off limits because the building was unstable.
Built for the children
Little is known today about the former orphanage apart from what can be gleaned from newspaper files. Garvey Manor had no connection to the orphanage except for the land purchase from the diocese, said Holly Keller, who is director of development for the nursing home.
The diocese and Catholic Charities, which co-sponsored it, had little data either because neither organization employed a historian or archivist to maintain good records, spokesman Tony DeGol said.
DeGol was able to provide articles from the Catholic Register about the opening of the center.
The diocese and Catholic Charities, known then as Catholic Social Services, oversaw the facility from 1964-79, according to the Catholic Register and articles in the Mirror.
What Pfahler and the Eckard brothers recall as an orphanage was named the Catholic Child Care Center. It closed due to “spiraling inflation and the diocese’s efforts to meet the needs of the center,” according to a Mirror article.
From the early 1900s, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary had cared for hundreds of children of all ages at diocesan-run orphanages in the region. But as time passed, those numbers started to dwindle, according to reports.
Society started to view community child care facilities differently and planners for the new Hollidaysburg center adapted.
A Catholic Register article from June 1964, when the Hollidaysburg center opened, said the center was an attempt at “avoiding all the institutional aspects of an orphanage program.” Organizers aimed at “providing the children with the advantages of a home atmosphere.” The sisters would still handle the daily operations at the center, but they would be joined by house parents, a professional medical care staff in the nursery for the babies and toddlers, housekeepers, a laundress and cooks in the kitchens.
Original plans provided for 40 elementary-school-age children, 20 boys and 20 girls, to live at the center on a temporary basis, until they were either returned home, adopted or placed in foster care, the article read. The nursery was to hold eight infants.
Children would attend nearby St. John’s the Evangelist Catholic School. However, by the time the Eckard children and Pfahler arrived, the children went to whatever school they already attended, they recalled.
A good place to live
As workers for contractor Leonard S. Fiore Inc. of Altoona, the firm that also built the center years ago, took apart the buildings that had once housed babies, toddlers and teens, they paused for a while so that Pfahler and the Eckards could look inside the rooms a final time.
The former residents smiled a little at times, recalling some positive moments they’d spent in the orphanage.
Tom Eckard remembered riding bikes in the parking lot and watching TV with the other kids in a common recreation area. Tom, now 63, and his brothers of varying ages arrived at the orphanage when Tom was in fifth grade or about 11 years old. He had two other older siblings. His brother, Jim, now 57, preferred not to be interviewed although he was on site to see the buildings one last time.
The boys came to the orphanage when their mother and father could no longer care for them and they had no other immediate family who could take them, Tom said.
Once they got there and adjusted to the routine, the boys got along well at the facility, he said.
“It was a good experience,” he said. “We had no other place to live.”
Pfahler, who is 62, said as her children grew into adulthood they have asked her about her time in the orphanage, thinking they’d hear terrible stories of abuse and neglect.
Orphanages tend to carry a stigma in the minds of many people. Some may associate the term with the image of the hungry child begging for food in Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” which although fictional, was based on real-life workhouses in 19th century England.
“But I’d tell them it was not a bad experience actually,” she said. “It was really very good. There were a lot of physical activities for us to do.”
The boys and girls lived in separate buildings, with the girls housed in what were later used as administrative offices by the diocese and the boys lived in the building that would eventually be home to the diocese’s education offices. A nun oversaw the boys and house parents lived in the girls’ building, according to reports and the trio’s recollections.
Pfahler, who like Tom came to the center when she was in fifth grade, said the house parents were kind people who treated the girls like family. She especially enjoyed hanging out in the building’s library, curled up in a corner reading books.
Pfahler and her younger brother, who was a toddler when they arrived at the center, had to leave home when their mother became sick and no family member or friend could take them in.
When the center closed, she was able to return home because her mother’s health had improved, she said.
Tom said the nuns treated the boys with tough love. They were strict but fair, he said. He remembered the nun in charge of the boys’ building had a particular phrase and gesture she’d employ to get their attention.
“She’d grab you by the ears so you’d look her in the face,” he said. “Her favorite phrase was, ‘How dare you!”’
But Tom said he felt cared for and supported when he lived at the center, the same feelings he felt only magnified when he later went to live with a foster care family after the center closed. He and his brothers ended up living for several years with the Strayer family in the East Freedom area. His foster mother, Edith Strayer, even bought him a suit for his high school graduation when she found out he wasn’t going to attend because he didn’t have one.
Strayer proved to be a local pioneer in the foster care arena. According to her family, she is estimated to have fostered more than 120 children during her lifetime, said her granddaughter, Sandra Devers of Roaring Spring.
An expanding mission
Where once children played, soon older people will live, some in their own homes and others in a second apartment building on the growing Garvey Manor site. The nursing home plans to build something different for the home, a series of more than three dozen cottages for seniors, Keller said. The multi-phase project, known as Marian Heights, will also contain an apartment building, similar to one already on the premises for older people who need more assisted care.
Garvey Manor, a Catholic-based nursing home, is operated by the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and the Infirmed, who along with the diocese co-sponsor the nursing home, according to a Mirror article about the project.
A final phase of the 10-year project that began last year calls for construction of a convent for the Carmelite sisters and a community center. Because of COVID-19, the plan that was estimated to cost between $8 million to $10 million got a late start. Costs are expected to be covered by a capital campaign and bank loans.
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Nov 13, 2021