“Just due north of Little Rock
Seven hundred twenty acres
Four strong walls, a mighty roof
To hold up all of heaven
“Echoes linger in these halls
The sounds of children growing
The firm and gentle sisters raise
The voices of St. Joseph”
Those opening lines to the song “The Voices of St Joseph” written by David Roth used in The Voices of St. Joseph original play, “Joey’s Journey” help to stir up emotions about the former orphanage that was more than just a place to house children in North Little Rock — it was refuge, a home throughout the years for Arkansas children, elderly and even soldiers.
“Our tagline is ‘Visiting the past to preserve the future,’” said Claire Haun, a self-proclaimed “enthusiastic Methodist” who is a founder, grant writer and chairman of the ecumenical group The Voices of St. Joseph. Started in 2013, it is dedicated to the preservation of the building and grounds.
Staying true to this mission, the group will present the inaugural outdoor play “Joey’s Journey” at 6 p.m., Saturday, April 18 with a family-style dinner for $75.50 per person, with all the funds going toward preservation.
“I walked into the building, and I tell everyone my heart was gently stirred,” said Haun, who is the play’s producer. The group has worked with historical commissions and many volunteers to uncover little-known facts about the orphanage’s history through newspaper clippings, interviews, books and even a college thesis.
“I love what the committee has done through Claire’s direction,” said Sandy DeCoursey, St. Joseph Center of Arkansas board chairwoman. “It’s really engaged the community … This is what Bishop (John B.) Morris had in mind when he built the orphanage.”
The orphanage was built by the Diocese of Little Rock in 1910 on the 720-acre property. Prominent Arkansas architect Charles L. Thompson built the home in the style of an Italian villa. Minus a few years when the property housed soldiers during World War I, the building served as an orphanage until 1978. It was overseen by the Benedictine sisters of St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith.
In 2010, the diocese entered into a five-year lease with St. Joseph Center of Arkansas Inc., a non-profit that is committed to preserving the structure and studying future uses for the building.
“It (the play) is not to paint a characterization of how it was to live in an orphanage; it’s to preserve and express the history and the community involvement and the love and caring that was provided there,” Haun said. “We want people to feel like when they leave what a vibrant part of the community this was and how the building needs to be preserved. Everybody had different experiences with the orphanage. We have focused on the involvement of the community and the individuals that dedicated their talents to making this a wonderful community resource.”
The Voices of St. Joseph is selling 200 tickets. Within the first 24 hours of ticket sales, 126 sold, including to North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith. The family-style meal will include chicken, beef, vegetables, mashed potatoes, rolls and cobbler for dessert, along with beer and wine.
“It’s a meal that would normally be served in the orphanage,” Haun said. “We’ll sit under the oaks with candlelight and mason jars in front of the building.”
Set in the 1920s, the play follows the story of an orphan named Joey who lived at what was then called St. Joseph Home. Joey, played by Zachary Probus (as young Joey) and Warren McCullough (adult Joey/narrator), befriends a lonely drifter named Mr. Parker, played by Duane Jackson, who provides guidance to the young man.
“The characters in the play are actually (based on) real people. We have Bishop John, Charles L. Thompson, Corn Flakes and Goat, who were actual orphans,” Haun said. “Joey, the lead character, was actually left on the doorsteps on Christmas Eve.”
In the event of rain the performance will be held the next day, Sunday, April 19. Tickets can be bought at http://thevoicesofstjosephjoeysjourney.eventbrite.com or by calling Haun at (504) 957-9282.
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