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The Fontbonne- Southern Hospitality

May 8th, 2019posted by Sarah L. Ater

Margaret McCabe with boys from the Boys’ Home, ca. 1896.

The Fontbonne was a residence for working women in downtown Cincinnati.  Miss Margaret McCabe, a pioneering social worker in Cincinnati, founded the Sacred Heart Home in 1882 in a 4 room cottage on Fifth Street. This was the fifth known Catholic residence for working women in the United States. Shortly after, it was located on Broadway between Fourth and Fifth Streets.  Margaret McCabe also founded the Working Boys Home shortly thereafter, which became the forerunner to the Fenwick Club.

In our files at the archives is a letter dated March 9, 1887, in which Margaret begs Archbishop William Elder to recruit an order of nuns which would take over the operations of the Sacred Heart Home. She was overwhelmed by her responsibilities with that and the Boys Home. Unfortunately, nothing was accomplished until a decade later.

Many residents were interested in joining an order of nuns. There was none in Cincinnati that had the charism of this work, and Archbishop Elder as well as Miss McCabe, were adverse to the idea of starting a new order. Providentially, Mother Albina Thollot of the order of St. Joseph de Bourg, passed through Cincinnati on her way back to New Orleans from France. She mentioned that her order had similar homes back in France. They begged Mother to consider their affiliating with her order. She promised to do all she could to assist them.

Fontbonne Lobby, 1926 building

Shortly after, in 1893, the order and the Archdiocese approved the transfer. Three sisters from the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph arrived from New Orleans to assume responsibility for the Sacred Heart Home. Immediately, nine residents joined the Order of St. Joseph de Bourg. This order eventually instituted a convent and, novitiate, and a boarding school in Mt. Washington. This was also used as a vacation spot for the residents of the Sacred Heart Home. St. Joseph Academy was the forerunner to McNicholas High School. Many of the sisters also taught in the local elementary schools on the east side of Cincinnati.

In 1925, handicapped by lack of funds and cramped quarters, with the approval of Archbishop Henry Moeller, the sisters began the construction of a new six story building on East Fifth Street between McAllister and Lawrence.  This building, designed by Edward Shulte, and the Chapel of the Holy Family, were dedicated on November 14, 1926 by Archbishop John T McNicholas, O.P.  He requested that the name be changed to “The Fontbonne” in honor of Mother St. Jeanne Fontbonne, who re-established the Sisters of St. Joseph in France after the French Revolution.

The 243 women who lived there paid a small amount for a single, double or a suite of rooms. There was also a large living room/ballroom, dining room, chapel, library, and small parlors on the first floor. For out of town visitors, there were a number of guest rooms as well. These women were teachers, lab techs, RN’s, secretaries, telephone operators, beauticians, bookkeepers, students, restaurant hostesses, and tailoresses. The cafeteria would bring in a large lunchtime crowd from the downtown workers, which added to the financial income of the Fontbonne.

Cafeteria of the 1926 building.

Predictably, there was a Catholic chaplain on hand, with daily mass, rosary, days of recollection, retreats, and devotions.

Activities were offered in gymnastics, fencing, volleyball, tennis, arts and crafts, music, dancing, bridge, and drama.  There were also lectures, movies, and classes in cooking, home management, modern languages, first aid, etc. The residents also provided entertainment for under-privileged children in the area. Area clubs used the Fontbonne for meetings, and Catholic Youth Programs were presented. During World War II, the Red Cross used the Fontbonne as a location for volunteer activities.

The purpose of the Fontbonne was to form ideal Catholic women – to provide spiritual guidance for women who are living away from their families. Non-Catholics were always welcome as well. The requirement for acceptance was that one be a single working woman – no age limit, and no income requirement.

Support came in the form of fundraisers, such as festivals in the community for the upkeep, as well as ongoing support from the Daughters of Isabella (a female auxiliary of the Knights of Columbus), the Mission Apostolate of the Sacred Heart, and the Fontbonne Welfare Association. The home also sold embroidery and lace made by the sisters in France.

In 1962, Western and Southern Life approached the administration of the Fontbonne offering to purchase the facilities to expand their headquarters.  The sisters accepted and built a new, larger seven story building across the street – on the northeast side of Fifth and Broadway, with space for 300 residents, sisters, and guests. It had similar facilities to the prior building with a cafeteria open to the public and a swimming pool. In 1966, this building won a prestigious award for its design.

Just 11 years later in 1977, the decision was made to close the Fontbonne as of May 31 that year.  Financial support was not adequate to staff the building and the administration didn’t want to raise the rent substantially. There was also a marked change in the needs of the target community – they wanted the security and convenience of living at the Fontbonne, but they were not interested in the spiritual formation offered. Many objected to the curfews and restrictions. In addition, many applicants for admission were in dire need of social services for work skills, emotional healthcare, and drug rehabilitation which the sisters were not trained to offer. About 200 residents and 10 sisters were displaced. Some residents had lived there for 40 years. The sisters felt that they were running a hotel, not a center for Catholic Culture. Procter & Gamble ultimately purchased the building and developed it as part of their headquarters. The proceeds of the sale went to help residents find housing, or to the needs of the poor in the city.

An aerial shot of the Fenwick Club and Fontbonne in the late 1970s, before demolition.

Laboring on the Mission is a blog of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati Archives. The title is taken from a letter written by Bishop Edward Fenwick, OP, describing his mission work in Ohio. Whether in the wilds of the 19th century or the baby boom of the 1950s, the Catholic Church continues the mission entrusted to her by Jesus Christ. Here we tell that story.