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Gill House, Fraternity House

Gill House, Fraternity House
Jul 05, 2017 (Edited Jul 05, 2017)

Thomas Gill (1819-1875) emigrated from the Aran Islands, County Galway, and settled at Gorham’s Corner before 1849. In 1850, he was residing at 1 Pleasant Street with his wife Margaret and one-year old son Joseph, who later died at fourteen months old. By the early 1860s he was operating a grocery and provisions store at 211 Fore Street. When the Great Fire of July 4, 1866 struck Portland, Gill lost his store and $800 worth of property. He then moved his store to what was then 8 Center Street.

In August 1869, Tom Gill again lost his store due to fire. In the early morning hours of August 13th, a fire began in the stable of William Baldwin on Pleasant Street, near the corner of Fore and Center Streets. The fire quickly spread to the rear of his house and a widow barely escaped with her life. The flames spread to several wooden dwellings near Cobb’s Court and “communicated with two, owned by Mr. Thomas Gill, and occupied by families named Sullivan, Connelly, Lee, Mrs. Kilmartin, Michael Cloonan, Michael Kyne, and Paul Kervan” (14 Aug 1869, Portland Daily Press). Like Gill, Michael Clonan (Cloonan) and his wife Catherine Sullivan were natives of the Aran Islands. These Irish families saved little of their household goods. “The building occupied by Mr. Gill himself, which fronted on Centre Street, was also destroyed. Mr. Gill lost most of his furniture and saved but little of the stock in his store.” His insurance was $800 on his store stock, while he had $1500 on both his home and the houses in the rear that were consumed. An incendiary was believed responsible for the fire.

Gill rebuilt his house and store at 8 Center Street, which later became 52 Center. A Greater Portland Landmarks sign on the building recognizes it as the Thomas Gill House, with an 1869 construction date. In 1870, Tom, remarried with five children, had a personal estate valued at $1500 and real estate valued at $3500. His wife Johanna died October 9, 1875, and he died a month later. Joseph H. Gill, who had been a clerk in his father’s store, ran the store until his own death in 1878 at the age of twenty-seven.

Irish emigrant James Gorham took over the grocery store in 1878-1879 and operated it for another ten years before Tom Gill’s son Peter took over. In 1880, the families of James Gorham, Patrick Lyden, Owen Kelly, James Finnerty, Murty Flaherty, and Michael Barrett resided at 52 Center Street.

Peter J. Gill (1854-1894) opened a grocery at 84 Center Street in 1887 and moved the operations to his father’s old place two years later. In 1891, a book entitled “Portland: Its Representative Business Men and its Points of Interest” declared that Peter’s store was 500 feet in size and “is well fitted up and contains a choice stock of groceries and provisions and a specialty is made of canned goods. A competent assistant is employed and all customers are given prompt and polite services and orders are filled and delivered at short notice. The proprietor gives personal attention to all details of the business, he is very popular with the public and his success seems to be already established.” Unfortunately, Peter died in 1894, but his widow Elizabeth continued the store until 1899. Throughout this entire time, many Irish families resided in the building.

In 1870, the constitution and by-laws of the Portland Fraternity were drawn up. In 1876, the society was incorporated and “became one of the established philanthropies of Portland.” The fraternity was “composed mainly of people of liberal religious views. Aim, to provide moral and intellectual amusements and instruction to all seekers” (1877 Portland Directory). The constitution of the society ran, in part, “To offer people of Portland and vicinity, especially the young people, a place of pleasant resort where they may be surrounded by wholesome and elevating influences, to provide them with means of self-improvement and healthy recreation at little or no expense.” It became the first social settlement in Maine. Although its directors, workers, volunteers, and teachers were at first all Protestants, many local Irish Catholics joined the society. This especially became important when they opened a building on Center Street, in the heart of the Irish community.

For thirty years the fraternity conducted a free evening school and other services at various locations in Portland, including Free Street. From 1895-1908, they occupied a building at the corner of Oak and Spring Streets. By 1905, Mrs. Margaret Fitzgerald and Miss Brenda Sinkinson conducted a Hebrew sewing school. Mrs. Fitzgerald, a native of Scotland, and married to merchant James H. Fitzgerald, an Irish native, was one of the first to interest the Hebrews and “have them allied to the Fraternity House.” The others were Miss Emily Baxter and Miss Florence McMullan, whose father James H. was a prosperous mill agent and the son of Irish emigrants. (10 Dec 1905, Portland Sunday Telegram). A Miss Geraldine Fitzgerald was in charge of the “Small Boys Club.” Miss Mary Gorham was in charge of the “Christian Sewing School.” Attorney William H. Looney, the son of Irish emigrants, was on the Board of Directors at the time.

In 1908, the Fraternity House moved to 52 Center Street. A newspaper in 1917 wrote that “The original property now owned by the Fraternity House was owned by a man named Gill, and the house itself was at one time a combination of store and tenement house. Several old houses near the present Fraternity House were bought and torn down, and a small lot of land was contributed, the whole making the present Fraternity House lot” (2 Dec 1917, Portland Sunday Telegram). Judge Charles L. Donahue was on the Executive Committee and Advisory Board in 1917.

The house’s first salaried worker was Miss Ellen Barker of New York, who was succeeded by Miss Emily Baxter and then Miss Elsie Clark Nutt. The latter was director of the house from 1905 until 1923. Her assistants included Irish-Americans Miss Marion G. Murphy and Miss Mary Loftus, as well as Miss Sally M. Turner.

In 1924, Miss Hazel A. Tapley, who studied music and did volunteer settlement work in Boston, became the director of the Fraternity House. She was in charge of the house until the early 1960s. During her tenure, many improvements and changes were enacted. In 1935, the house could boast over a thousand visitors a week. It employed 34 teachers and volunteer workers. The house had within its walls an art studio, a Girl Scouts room, a dance hall, library, music school (taught by Miss Ruth M. Burke), the Wilson Athletic Room, the Shirley Temple Room (home of two dramatic clubs), and a games and recreation room.

Members of the local Catholic Guild formed several clubs under their direction, including a sewing club, typewriting club, and a cooking and domestic science class, (under Miss Ursula Tierney). The Fraternity also had a large playground for the children.

Also in 1935, the Ann Naughton Room was home of the Eddicot Club, a dramatic society of fifteen girls, all under twelve, with Miss Ann Naughton as coach and director. Ann was fifteen at the time and a sophomore at Portland High School. She had been “a constant attendant” at the house since “babyhood” and was also leader of two gym classes for girls. Ann Justina “Naughty” Naughton participated in basketball, field hockey, track, baseball, and the art, debating, and dramatic clubs of PHS. She married Alfred Cereste in 1946.

The Board of Directors in the 1930s included local Irish-Americans Francis Kilroy, Edward M. Cady, Judge Charles L. Donahue, and Father Samuel M. Donovan, pastor of St. Christopher’s Catholic Church, Peaks Island. It also included local Yankees such as Miss Julia E. Noyes and Mrs. Guy P. Gannett.

An article in the Portland Sunday Telegram of March 24, 1935, described the history and activities of the Fraternity House, as well as printing photos of Miss Tapley, the Girl Scouts of Fraternity Troop, and young lads in the Game Room. The scouts included Anne Foley, Mary Frates, Anne Manchester, Barbara Griffin, Sarah Lacey, Barbara Coyne, Betty Kirvan, and Katie Ridge. The boys included Jackie Hyberts, Francis Coyne, Jackie Joyce, Francis Joyce, Robert Griffin, and Robert Burke. In looking at these names, one can see that the Irish still were most represented at the house and many of them lived in the neighborhood.

Hazel Tapley continued as director until her death in May 1963, after which the Fraternity House continued to decline. By 1967, 52 Center Street was vacant and the settlement house that served generations of children was no more. The building has since housed innumerable businesses. It is only one of three buildings directly on Center Street that has had such ties to the now vanished Irish community of the area.

RELATED SITES: Gorham's Corner, Center Street, Staples School

Author Matt Barker
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