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06/28/2007

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The historic Holy Childhood School in Harbor Springs will be razed at the end of the summer in the face of mounting utility costs and the millions needed to bring it up to code. Holy Childhood was at one time the largest Indian mission school in the U.S.

'A thousand whispers'

Historic Holy Childhood School to be razed

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An old postcard shows Holy Childhood School from a bluff overlooking Harbor Springs.

HARBOR SPRINGS — It has been decades since any boarding students lived in the Holy Childhood of Jesus School in Harbor Springs, but the halls still echo with the sounds and stories of those who came and went so long ago.

There's the block of wood where children spent countless hours peeling potatoes, the 19th century barber chair where nuns cut the hair of new Native American boarders, the row of low sinks that line the wall of the small boys' dormitory and the letters to family members long hidden away in closets.

"There's a thousand whispers in every room,” said Jane Cardinal, an artist who is working to preserve some of the building's history. "You just feel it.”

But at the end of this summer, the building will be torn down in the face of mounting utility payments and millions of dollars needed to bring it up to code.

"It's like a burial,” said Richard Perreault, longtime caregiver of the aging building. "Once you bury a dear one, life moves on. It's the same thing we've got to do with the school.”

Still, tearing down the school is far more significant than merely saying goodbye to a building.

"It's been part of the landscape in Harbor Springs for so long, along with the church, that it's part of living history,” said Joyce Shagonaby, curator and executive director of the Andrew J. Blackbird Museum.

While Harbor Springs was not incorporated as a village until 1881, the original Holy Childhood of Jesus School first opened on Aug. 23, 1829. The small Indian school serving 25 boarders and 13 day students was built by Native Americans.

In 1885, the school was expanded into a three-story frame building which had housed two former hotels. Three School Sisters of Notre Dame oversaw its operation.

After a new brick structure was built in 1913, followed by an addition in 1928, Holy Childhood then became the largest Indian Mission school in the United States, serving first through eighth grade students. The boarding school closed in 1983, continuing to function as a day school, daycare center and thrift shop. The thrift shop was relocated to W. Conway Road last March and daycare has reopened in a new spot at Fairview Square.

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A historic photo from Holy Childhood's archives.

In total, nearly 3,600 children lived at the school as boarders, with even more enrolled as day students. And while it has been decades since Holy Childhood was a school, many still have vivid memories.

Don Portman first came to Holy Childhood in 1943 when he was only 7 years old. His father brought him from Cheboygan and left without ever explaining why he was there. For the next two-and-a-half years, no one returned for him. Portman even stayed in the dormitory during the summers when everyone else went home.

"The nuns took me in, and they gave me a bed to sleep on, food, clothes, education and most of all they gave me religion,” Portman said.

For Portman, it was comfort during a difficult time.

"There was some hard time dealing with the fact that nobody came back for me when everybody went home, so a lot of faith, a lot of prayer,” Portman said. "But the nuns always took care of me well.”

For others, separation from their families and the strict rule of the nuns proved difficult to handle.

"I don't really recall the ride up there, but I do remember, like it was yesterday, pulling up in front of the school, and it was just this big brick building, and what struck me as really odd and kind of intimidating or scary at the same time was there were no children outside,” said Sharon Hinmon, who attended the school from 1967-1970 with three of her siblings. "So we all got out at the same time and went up to the door and rang the doorbell.”

Although she does have some fond memories, Hinmon said that it is still difficult to go back.

"I've been up there several times through the years, and I always think, 'This time I'm not going to cry,' and that hasn't been the case yet,” Hinmon said.

Still, the thought of tearing the school down is hard for many to grasp. Hinmon, along with her husband, Ben, and sister, Donna DeLap, all voiced the same sentiment.

"There were three generations just from my family who attended the school, and to me I think they need to do something that serves as a reminder for people who visit that site in the future,” Ben Hinmon said. "There should be something left behind to remind people what it was.”

For them, the school is far more than a brick structure needing repairs.

"It's not just a building,” DeLap said, "but it's a place that represents people's lives.”

After it's gone, a new parish hall will be erected with space for a daycare facility, library and room for gatherings and receptions. Those interested in seeing the building before it is razed are invited to attend a closing ceremony on Saturday at 8 a.m. The day will begin with a ceremony and continue throughout the morning with tours.

On July 20 and 21 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., a yard sale will be held and artifacts from the school will be sold.

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