Sanctified Sisters of Colesville: The Hidden History of Commonwealth Farm

"A Sanctified Sisterhood," The Washington Times, April 6, 1902, section three, pp. 1, 4.
“A Sanctified Sisterhood,” The Washington Times, April 6, 1902, section three, pp. 1, 4.

Watch the video: “Sanctifed Sisters of Colesville: The Hidden History of Commonwealth Farm” (YouTube)

Commonwealth Farm was a 119-acre property in Colesville that was owned by a women’s commune formed in the 1870s in Belton, Texas. They were called the Sanctified Sisters or Sanctificationists at first, but eventually became known as the Woman’s Commonwealth. Their beliefs were based on divine revelations received by their leader which espoused sanctification, non-sectarianism, and celibacy. They were economically self-sustaining, pooling their financial resources and living communally. In 1898, the commune moved from Texas to Washington, D.C. In 1903, they purchased the Colesville farm, where they raised dairy cattle, chickens, and pigs, and grew vegetables, fruit trees, corn, and wheat. For over four decades, the commune ran the Commonwealth Farm Inn and restaurant on the property, which became a popular spot for members of high-society and influential Washingtonians.
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Commonwealth Farm, Colesville, Maryland

Stone retaining wall visible from New Hampshire Avenue. (J. Mangin, January 24, 2021)
Stone retaining wall visible from New Hampshire Avenue. (J. Mangin, January 24, 2021)
Watch: “Sanctifed Sisters of Colesville: The Hidden History of Commonwealth Farm” (YouTube)

Introduction

Late last year, stuck at home, my activities hampered by the pandemic, I found myself intrigued by a posting in a Facebook group.  Someone asked if anyone knew the history behind a stone retaining wall he’d seen on the east side New Hampshire Avenue, while heading north toward Good Hope Road. I didn’t know, but having nothing better to do, I set about to find the answer. I knew I had the research skills; for the past few years, I have scoured photograph archives, land records, digital newspapers, and maps to write the history of the Aspin Hill Pet Cemetery. Even so, when it comes to historical research there are times when, no matter how hard one looks, there’s nothing to go on. But this time, I was in luck. Continue reading Commonwealth Farm, Colesville, Maryland

The Reluctant Genealogist – Severance Magazine

An article I’ve written, a micro-memoir, appears in Severance Magazine, which features stories and essays about people who are on a similar journey as mine.   The story I tell is of my family history journey, which includes the history of mental illness in my family. It is also about finding out that my grandfather wasn’t Mom’s biological father, finding out who was, and pondering whether Mom knew. Severance Magazine is the perfect place for my story. I hope you will read the article I wrote and then explore the other content.

https://severancemag.com/the-reluctant-genealogist/

Cousin Jackpot!

Rita and me, on the day we met, February 28, 2013

Genealogists sometimes come across cousins they didn’t know they had.  The person maybe helpful and friendly or maybe they won’t.  In my case, by finding my cousin, Rita Hoadley, I hit the cousin jackpot.  She had photographs, stories, and even knew some of the family secrets.  And to top it off, she was a delightful person, beloved by her entire family. Here’s the story of how we met and what she meant to me. Continue reading Cousin Jackpot!

Researching the County Home

Postcard, ca 1935, New London County Temporary Home, Norwich Connecticut
Postcard, ca 1935, New London County Temporary Home, Norwich Connecticut

In 1935, at the age of ten, Mom was sent to live the New London County Temporary Home. Grandma had been committed to Norwich State Hospital and Grandpa was not considered suitable for raising Mom on her own. When writing my family story, I couldn’t find much about this institution which she always referred to as “the county home.”

Fortunately, there is now a resource for genealogists who want to know more about their ancestors who were residents of the New London County Temporary Home. Cheryl and Chris Klemmer have compiled their research about the county home in the form of a reference book available at the Connecticut State Library in Hartford and the Otis Library in Norwich. New London County Temporary Home: History, Residents and References contains a history of home and the names of residents that were found in records. While they are not selling their book, Cheryl and Chris are willing to provide guidance about searching for former county home residents if you contact them at CTCountyHomes@gmail.com.

Family Myth Busting – Virtual Talk

Genealogical Tree, published by Daughaday & Becker, Philadelphia, ca. 1859. From the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-01537.
Genealogical Tree, published by Daughaday & Becker, Philadelphia, ca. 1859. From the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-01537.

On May 9th, I gave a virtual talk for the Enoch Pratt Free Library called, “Family Myth Busting.”  In it, I traced the steps I took to resolve the discrepancies in the stories my mother had always told me about her family. I share my strategies, in which I used maps, newspapers, and patient records from Norwich State Hospital to stitch together a narrative of my family story which was more connected than the one my mother told.  I also share my thoughts on the benefits of knowing one’s family history and how it has the potential to empower and to heal old wounds.

A recording of the talk is available through the Crowdcast platform at  https://www.crowdcast.io/e/virtual-genealogy-circle, or on Facebook at  https://www.facebook.com/theprattlibrary/videos/286558142501891.

Norwich State Hospital and My Family, Part 7: Family Secrets

Grandma Beatrice, ca. 1944
Grandma Beatrice, ca. 1944

[This is Part 7, the last of a series on Norwich State Hospital and its effect on my family. To start at the beginning, go to Part 1.]

In 1931, the delicatessen failed. Mom always said that it had failed due to the Great Depression, but Beatrice’s patient record from Norwich State Hospital told a different story.

Beatrice told the hospital social workers that while she was living with her aunt’s family,  her uncle by marriage forced her into a sexual relationship. She claimed, “He said it was nothing as we were relations and I felt it was the only way out.” Continue reading Norwich State Hospital and My Family, Part 7: Family Secrets

Norwich State Hospital and My Family, Part 6: Beatrice’s Story

Azilda Davignon Bonneau was my great-great-grandmother. In this studio portrait taken circa 1911, she is accompanied by two of her grandchildren. On the left is my grandmother Beatrice; on the right is her younger sister, Dinorah.
Azilda Bonneau, ca. 1911. On the left is my grandmother Beatrice; on the right is her younger sister, Dinorah.

[This is Part 6 of a series on Norwich State Hospital and its effect on my family. To start at the beginning, go to Part 1.]

Until I pieced together the family history through genealogy and patient records from Norwich State Hospital, I never knew how unsettled my grandmother Beatrice’s childhood had been. She spent her early years in poverty, with a mentally ill mother. She was seven years old when Graziella, was committed to Norwich State Hospital. Her father, Philippe, vanished after her mother died at the hospital in December of 1910. Beatrice was then raised by her grandparents, Azilda and Pierre Bonneau. But the losses kept coming.

Continue reading Norwich State Hospital and My Family, Part 6: Beatrice’s Story

Norwich State Hospital and My Family, Part 5: Graziella’s Demise

Postcard detail, Norwich State Hospital, ca. 1909.
Postcard detail, Norwich State Hospital, ca. 1909.

[This is Part 5 of a series on Norwich State Hospital and its effect on my family. To start at the beginning, go to Part 1.]

After the incident in which she threw her dentures down the toilet, Graziella’s condition steadily declined. The notations in her record appeared less frequently after that, sometimes months apart. It seemed that the hospital staff had given up on her. In March of 1910, she was transferred to a ward for disturbed patients, in a building called North D which was later renamed Dix.

North D, Norwich State Hospital. Image from the 1931 appraisal of Norwich State Hospital. Courtesy of Preston Historical Society
North D, Norwich State Hospital. Image from the 1931 appraisal of Norwich State Hospital. Courtesy of Preston Historical Society

Continue reading Norwich State Hospital and My Family, Part 5: Graziella’s Demise

Norwich State Hospital and My Family, Part 4: Graziella’s Teeth

North B, Norwich State Hospital. Image from the 1931 appraisal of Norwich State Hospital. Courtesy of Preston Historical Society
North B, Norwich State Hospital. Image from the 1931 appraisal of Norwich State Hospital. Courtesy of Preston Historical Society

[This is Part 4 of a series on Norwich State Hospital and its effect on my family. To start at the beginning, go to Part 1.]

After her admission to Norwich State Hospital, my great-grandmother, Graziella, was sent to North B. The patient population around the time she was admitted was 434, which may not seem like much now, but the existing buildings were only designed to hold 400. Over the years, although more wards were built, Norwich State Hospital was always said to be overcrowded. They just couldn’t keep up with the growing number of mentally ill patients. Continue reading Norwich State Hospital and My Family, Part 4: Graziella’s Teeth