On Dec. 25, 1889, the Arizona Daily Star ran a story about happenings at St. Mary’s Hospital, then a little more than a mile west of Tucson. “The old building about 100 yards northeast of the hospital, formerly the novitiate, has just been remodeled and extensively repaired for an asylum for poor orphan children, to be called St. Joseph’s Orphan House,” the story said.
From 1890 to 1901, about 200 children passed through the institution. In 1901, a tornado destroyed this adobe building and others. With no money for repairs, the orphanage was temporarily closed.
On Nov. 11, 1903, Joseph P. Lonergan — acting on behalf of his sister Ellen Lonergan, who lived in San Francisco County., Calif. — conveyed 40 acres of land for “one dollar and other valuable considerations” to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Tucson.
The land at the time was about two miles south of Tucson, around what today is South 12th Avenue and West 37th Street, north of Julian Wash Archaeological Park.
The nuns traveled around Arizona raising money for construction, which would cost $40,000. The orphanage reopened in 1905 with fewer than 20 children. The sisters would make yearly trips around the state to solicit funds to keep it running.
In the mid-1920s, as the number of homeless children increased, a new building was needed, and Ellen Brophy donated $70,000 to build a new south wing.
In 1937, the orphanage became St. Joseph’s Opportunity School. The school was run by the sisters for girls who were failing in public school and needed more personal attention. By 1938 it was a coeducational boarding school for students ages 6 to 16 who needed extra help. The sisters also maintained a day school for boys and girls who studied at a more typical pace.
In 1958, after being rejected as a possible site for a county hospital and serving only as a residence for homeless sparrows, the brick-stucco walls of this once-proud building came down.
The original Orphanage Road was a dirt road that ran from Silverlake Road (West 29th Street), down to the orphanage at 37th Street. Later it extended farther south, past present-day Ajo Road. Now it’s part of 12th Avenue.
In 1955, the Pima County Board of Supervisors changed Orphanage Road to 12th Avenue, "in the interest of preserving numerical order of avenues in the area."