From 1909 to 1970, the Briscoe Memorial School in Kent, Washington, operated as a Catholic orphanage and boarding school for boys around the Puget Sound region. The school became a regional landmark and a focus of charitable giving, as well as an award-winning dairy. The school closed in 1970 due to a cultural shift away from housing vulnerable children in group homes, and the school's buildings razed. In the early 2000s reports came to light of rampant verbal, physical, and sexual abuse of boys in the care of the school dating back to the 1940s. Survivors of this abuse pursued legal reparations and were part of a broader movement in the 2000s to identify and prosecute sexual abusers and pedophiles within Catholic institutions around the world.
Founded on Charity
The Briscoe Memorial School began as an act of charity. Elizabeth Briscoe, a resident of the White River Valley, gave a large sum of money to the local Diocese of Nisqually in memory of her son Edwin Briscoe, who had passed away at the age of 29. Along with a river-side land donation from the Hayes family and a handful of other monetary donations, the diocese was able to move forward with the building of the Briscoe Memorial School, opening it for operations October 24, 1909. When completed, a life-sized statue of St. Joseph, patron saint of families and fathers, would stand at the top of the building and watch over the school grounds.
The school was located on 150 acres between the Green River and West Valley Highway, close to Angle Lake in a deeply rural, wooded agricultural area of south King County. News reports from the early twentieth century trying to describe the school's location alternately described it as being somewhere between Kent, Orillia, and Renton. The school quickly became a rural landmark itself -- for the next several decades people would refer to farms and other locations as "one mile south of Briscoe School" or "across the river from Briscoe School."
For the first five years of its operation, the school was managed by Dominican Sisters from the Congregation of St. Thomas Aquinas in Tacoma. The Sisters were experienced in running schools and raised money for the operating of the school, even travelling into Seattle to beg for food and clothing for their charges. Bishop O'Dea, the bishop of Seattle and future namesake of O'Dea High School, wanted a different religious order to be in charge of the school, a desire that became reality in 1914 when management of the Briscoe School was handed over to a Roman Catholic monastic order, the Congregation of Christian Brothers, also known as the Irish Christian Brothers. The Diocese of Seattle (later the Archdiocese of Seattle) continued to be the owners of the school and provided some staffing and financial support to the school.
Running the School
Christian Brothers communities centered around the institutions they ran, and Briscoe was no exception. The Christian Brothers lived and worked at the school. Correspondence from the early years of Briscoe's operation under the Christian Brothers show some of the ways the school was changed into both a working monastery and a working school, such as an addition of a designated chapel where the Brothers could hear mass and take communion daily.
Many of the Brothers who worked at the school were from Ireland, and Irish culture was clearly important in the school during its first two decades of operation. In 1917, boys from the school performed Irish folk dances at a benefit performance at the Moore Theater in Seattle. When Ireland achieved independence in 1922, students put on special Irish folk music performances.
Students who were sent to Briscoe in its early years came for a variety of reasons. Some children lost their family and had nowhere else to go. Some were assigned to the school by a court. Other boys came from single-parent households in which the parent was unable to keep the child at home because they needed to work away from the home, often as domestic workers or loggers who could not have children stay with them on their jobsites. Some parents even left the state looking for work, leaving their children to be boarded hundreds of miles away. World War I caused this last group of boys to expand dramatically as women entered the workforce to support their families when their husbands were drafted.
Letters written to Briscoe School administrators in the 1910s and 1920s illustrate the hardships many parents and children experienced. Some children had their parents repeatedly write to the school, anxious about the welfare of their children and apologizing for not being able to be with them during holidays and birthdays. Not every child was so lucky. Some letters, such as those from churches or organizations that placed children in the Briscoe School, were cold and business-like. There is no way of knowing exactly how many children went without any inquiries after their health or needs during their stay at the Briscoe Memorial School.
For children who still had family capable of financially supporting them, the school asked for a $10 monthly fee for room and board -- but these fees where only a drop in the bucket compared to the full costs of caring for the students, the Brothers, and their buildings and grounds. The school solicited donations and earned income in a variety of unique ways to support the rest of their students, including putting on plays, performing costumed dance and musical numbers, running a dairy, and becoming a preferred charity for Seattle residents through the Seattle Community Fund.
The Briscoe School dairy was a particularly profitable venture for the school. The dairy not only provided food to the school directly, but provided enough surplus product to be sold at a profit. The dairy herd won awards for butterfat production from the National Dairy Association, broke county milk production records, and the Briscoe Dairy was regularly a stop on statewide dairy tours for agricultural students.
In 1935, the school was approved as a home for dependent boys by the State Department of Public Assistance, enabling the school to receive state funds in exchange for housing children in government custody. This resulted in more students coming to the school who were not from Catholic backgrounds. By 1949, the school identified itself as a "non-denominational residence school [maintained] by the Christian Brothers of Ireland."
The School Expands
In 1922, Briscoe School was able to add on a new wing thanks to a $10,000 bequest. The new building was primarily a gymnasium, which gave the boys a place to gather and practice the athletics they would soon be known for. Dignitaries from around the state, including Washington's governor and Seattle's mayor, attended the building's dedication ceremony, an indicator of how well-known and well-regarded the school was barely a decade after opening its doors.
As the school expanded, so did its labor force: in 1922, Annie Finch was hired on as Housemother. She did the cooking and nursing at the school for 35 years. Her son graduated from Briscoe and went on to join the Christian Brothers along with at least eleven other graduates. Other non-religious staff would be hired as support in subsequent years, but the Brothers remained the administrators and educators at the school.
The rural settling of the school and its beautiful grounds made it a good retreat spot for community picnics and meetings of social workers and faith-based groups of all kinds. Accessible both by car and by the Interurban railroad ("Cochran is the Seattle-Tacoma interurban station for the campus" according to one event covered in The Seattle Times in 1928), the campus could host thousands of day visitors at a time. By 1929, the school was home to 155 boys, ages 7 to 14.
Boys at the school had the opportunity to spend a lot of time enjoying the outdoors. The school's 150-acre campus included extensive gardens, wooded areas for exploration, and playfields for sports. The school even had a private beach at Angle Lake where the boys could swim. Students, now regularly referred to as "Briscoe Boys," participated in organized sports through the Parochial School League, competing against other religious school students in baseball, soccer, basketball, and football.
Animal husbandry was an important part of school life for Briscoe Boys in the 1940s and 1950s. Aside from assisting with the dairy operation, students helped the Brother-teachers raise other animals, including rabbits, bees, pigeons, and tropical fish. Brother Patrick A. Quinn, teacher at Briscoe from 1931 to 1951, was the teacher responsible for the tropical fish program, which was first created as a pathway to help Briscoe students earn their Boy Scout merit badges. He also planted 12,000 flower bulbs on the school grounds and encouraged a love of gardening. When interviewed later, he said that "whatever he did during his teaching life ... it was with the intention of making children love school -- and thereby learn more."
Descriptions of the school's programs as "character building" lose their rosiness when contextualized with descriptions of the physical and sexual abuse some students suffered at the school from the 1940s on. Former students described being beaten severely with fists and leather straps, hit with wooden paddles while they showered, and forced into performing oral sex on teachers. Other former students who were not subjects of sexual abuse recalled regular discipline at the school as strict and brutal. As early as 1950, letters of reprimand were being sent between Christian Brothers administrators regarding the sexual abuse of children, including references to Brothers "giving alcoholic drinks to boys with the intent of making them accomplices in sin," though no public punishment was given.
In 1949 the school housed 134 students, the majority of whom were described as being orphans or from broken homes. During Thanksgiving that year, 20 students remained at school even throughout the holidays. None of the abuse accusations were known by the broader public at the time, however, and the school continued to be viewed as a high-quality charitable organization.
The Decline of the Group Home
Briscoe School continued to receive charitable financial support throughout the 1950s and '60s, along with support from the State Department of Public Assistance. The Seattle Times regularly featured them in holiday fund drives and lists of charities supporting needy children. Government funds earmarked for supporting and protecting children continued to help make ends meet, but with declining enrollment those funds also began to dwindle. Funds from the Times Christmas Fund for Needy Children in 1958 were spent on "necessary extras not provided in the institution's regular budget," including bedding, clothing, medical expenses, haircuts, and entertainment.
Financial assistance helped, but it was only enough to manage day-to-day operations, not invest in the more costly maintenance and improvements required of a large building complex. As the buildings deteriorated and enrollment fell, buildings were abandoned rather than repaired. An earthquake in 1946 caused the statue of St. Joseph on the peak of the building to topple and crash through a glass roof on the second story; quakes in 1949 and 1965 damaged the bell tower so extensively it had to be removed. A fire in 1963 caused the students to have to evacuate and spend the night at Fort Lawton, an army post that later became Discovery Park in Seattle. When interviewed by the newspaper about his night, one students said of his night in the barracks "I haven't slept so good in weeks" ("Fire Sends ..."). The burned portions of the building were condemned, but not rebuilt. A 1962 fire had already taken out their laundry facility, so it was old hat at this point to find new ways to live in a smaller space.
By 1966, enrollment was down to 90 students. Child care experts and society as a whole was beginning to pull away from the idea of housing vulnerable children in large, institutional group homes in favor of keeping them in their homes or placing them in family environments like foster homes. The Brothers acknowledged this reality, but still worked to create new and engaging programs for their charges even as their funding sources and building failed around them. A very successful 4-H program at the school gave students the chance for animal therapy and built on the school's agricultural past.
Despite these programs, the writing was on the wall: The building was too expensive to repair and the need for a large orphanage less clear. The now 240-acre property was sold by the Archdiocese to the Union Pacific Railroad in 1968 for $2.8 million.
The Briscoe Memorial School closed its doors in 1970. The last class of 22 students joined alumni in saying goodbye to the school before moving in to new homes and preparing for public school classes in the fall. Teachers were moved to other Christian Brothers schools, and as they retired or died were remembered in local newspapers. Brother John Lackie, later confirmed as an abuser at Briscoe by the Archdiocese of Seattle, was described as a "tough but fair" disciplinarian as late as 1992.
In its 61 years of existence, the school had seen approximately 7,500 boys walk through its doors. It may never be known how many of these students experienced trauma and abuse while in residence -- lawsuits have been filed regarding Briscoe specifically that allege abuse as far back as the 1940s, but whether or not abuse occurred before that time is a mystery almost entirely lost with a generation of Briscoe graduates that are no longer able to share their stories.
In June 2014, the Seattle Archdiocese paid more than $12 million in a settlement with 30 former students who were sexually and physically abused between the 1950s and 1980s at Briscoe Memorial School and O'Dea High School in Seattle. Former students described abuse by multiple staff members, including both visiting priests and resident Briscoe teachers G. A. Kealy and Edward Courtney. Their lawsuit described sexual abuse that was reported and ignored, as well as the hiring and moving around of teachers who were known pedophiles. Kealy was so well-known among the residents of the school as a predator that he had a nickname: "Feely Kealy." Courtney went on to teach in several more parochial and public schools after leaving Briscoe. He only stopped being given access to children after he was found guilty of indecent liberties with a minor in 1988.
The Christian Brothers in North America filed for bankruptcy in 2011 due to more than 50 sexual abuse lawsuits filed against them. Most of the cases in the United States came from Seattle-area victims, but similar lawsuits were filed against Christian Brothers schools around the world. In 2016 the Archdiocese of Seattle released a list of known child sex abusers -- a list that included 12 brothers and priests who taught at Briscoe between 1939 and 1969. All of the listed men were either deceased or their whereabouts unknown.
Today, the original school site is populated by warehouses, but a northern portion of the Briscoe grounds still exist as a 10-acre public park in Kent. In this new incarnation, it serves as a place for happy memories, full of picnic tables, shady trees, and long grassy stretches close to the Green River -- a place much closer to the original vision for the Briscoe School than the tragic reality of later years.