By Karen Bil Ratzlaff, Staff Writer
Philanthropists Myles and Amanda O’Connor are perhaps best known for starting a sanitarium in San Jose for “the sick, a home for the aged, an asylum for orphans and a school for children.” Today that sanitarium is still going strong as O’Connor Hospital. But with compassionate hearts and a vast fortune made during the Gold Rush era, the O’Connors undertook many other projects.
In 1893 they felt that their luxurious home was too big for just the two of them and decided it should be turned into an orphanage for Catholic girls. The O’Connors approached the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who accepted the gift of their mansion and in 1894 opened the orphanage as Notre Dame Institute.
But the O’Connors’ were not done giving. As noted in Sr. Helen Cecilia Miller’s thesis on the O’Connors, “The generous donors took a special interest in the Institute, its Sisters and its children. Gifts of money, valuable additions to the property, and frequent visitations bearing presents increased the comfort and well-being of the little ones and their Instructresses.” The childless O’Connors enjoyed spending time at the orphanage and it wasn’t unusual to see Mr. O’Connor joining the children for their evening meal.
Looking to provide a thorough education for the girls, the Sisters not only taught them academic subjects, but social graces and homemaking skills as well. The San Francisco Monitor (Dec. 24, 1894) reported:
Each girl was assigned a daily task suitable to her age and strength. Duties were changed periodically so that each student became thoroughly instructed in every type of work. For these duties, they were paid fair wages, and with this money they bought their clothes and knick-knacks with the permission and under the guidance of those in charge. The girls were taught lessons of economy and encouraged to save their earnings. When the time came for a girl to leave the Institute she was given all the money which she had deposited and so received help in making the sometimes difficult adjustment to a new way of life.
Thanks to the generosity of Myles and Amanda O’Connor, hundreds of girls who were orphans and half orphans, found a good home, were loved, educated, and learned valuable life skills.
Without a doubt the O’Connors left many wonderful legacies in California.
Postscript: In 1923 the Sisters moved the orphans to a new building at Notre Dame Villa in Saratoga and the former O’Connor mansion was used as a community dwelling for the Sisters. By 1935 the number of orphans at the Institute had dwindled and they were sent to nearby Notre Dame boarding academies and the Institute closed.