Victoria Hall’s spirit finds a new home

Victoria Hall, the landmark Second Empire-styled mansion on Gottingen Street, celebrated its 150th anniversary as a home for senior women in 2010. Three years later, owners sold it and it became an apartment building. A genteel way of life that included birthday parties and singalongs for residents, homemade meals served in the dining room, and an annual, a summertime “Strawberry Social,” also open to the public, was gone.
Or was it? Where had the final 29 residents gone? And what about the actual trust, established in 1860, and now financially bolstered by the sale of Victoria Hall?
“Victoria Hall has not disappeared,” says Sheila Ross, chair of the board of directors for the now-renamed Victoria Hall Society (VHS). “The work continues.”
Syd Dumaresq, a long-time member of the board of directors, explains. “We didn’t want to be in the business [of owning a building] anymore,” he says. “So we became tenants of the Sisters of Charity, at Caritas Residence… [Victoria Hall] has gone from a money-losing venture with a very limited future, to a financially sustainable organization.”
High on the hill above Mount St. Vincent University, with a sweeping view of Bedford Basin, Caritas (Latin for “charity”) was built for the Sisters as a retirement residence in 2008. It now belongs to Shannex Incorporated. Through an arrangement with the Sisters, VHS has access to 16 rooms at Caritas, all currently full. At the time of the move, 14 residents came to Caritas, while the remaining 15 moved to various nursing homes around the city.
“If we had more money, we’d be delighted to take on a third pod of eight, which would encompass the whole floor,” says Dumaresq. Six floors at Caritas have residences for both assisted and independent living. A lower floor houses the Sisters of Charity offices. The main floor has the dining room, chapel, a library, a beauty salon, and other business offices.
A fourth-generation architect heading SP Dumaresq Architect in Halifax, Dumaresq is almost a hereditary board member. His family has served in this capacity on and off since the turn of the 19th century. But he’s seeing the organization through something new in its history. “We had to change our antiquated business structure,” says Dumaresq. This required the adoption of a special bill in the provincial legislature in 2014. The Board of Directors welcomes men and women to serve, either on the board, or on committees reporting to them.
“We also need volunteers to help with our social events, or with taking residents to doctors’ appointments, or even going shopping,” says chair Sheila Ross. “The things that family would do.” With an average age of 89, many of the women don’t have families now, she says. “We have 12 volunteers now and I would like to see one for each client here.”
The trust is finite, says Ross, and the need for subsidized housing for senior women remains high: “We would ask people to consider donating, to maintain the independence of women [in our care].”
Much has changed, but not the essential role of the organization. “Our mission, to provide homes to women of modest means, remains unchanged,” says Sally Mitchell, administrator at VHS. “As always, each resident receives a subsidy. And the food is still wonderful, with four options at each meal, plus a daily special.”
VHS has also maintained its traditions. “We organize pre-Christmas events, birthday celebrations and yes, even the Strawberry Social,” says Mitchell.
Victoria Hall was the idea of Halifax residents Isabella Cogswell, Charlotte Lawson, and Jane Liddell. The well-to-do women had seen the desperate need for affordable housing for elderly unmarried or widowed women. After an extraordinary fund-raising effort within their well-heeled circles, the women tasked an all-male “Board of Trustees” to set up a trust, which ultimately served to purchase and buy the first residence. An all-female “Committee of Management” ran the day-to-day operations. For the next century and a half, nearly 1,000 women lived at the Gottingen home. Each had subsidized rent.
One of the residents at Caritas is Pearl Stevens, age 99, who moved into Victoria Hall in 1999. Like some of the others from the original building, she was uncertain how the move to Caritas would feel.
“They showed me my room,” says Stevens, who grew up on Big Tancook Island. “With the two big windows, and all that light coming in, and I just loved it. The food is really good, too.” Stevens enjoys doing word puzzles and reading her Bible (“not that trashy novel stuff,” she smiles) and seeing her neighbours come and go by her room, where the door is always open.
From the perspective of the Sisters of Charity, the Victoria Hall women have been welcome co-residents of Caritas. “This is their home,” says congregation leader Joan O’Keefe. “They use the house the same way the Sisters do.”
The Sisters, who number approximately 50, don’t all live at Caritas. Nor are they necessarily retired. “But we all have the same values,” O’Keefe says. “Even if some of us are not religious, we all have a spiritual dimension. Both the Victoria Hall women and the Sisters are very caring with one another… It’s a natural thing, the way the friendships develop. We are all women living out our lives the best we can.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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