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The Benevolent Irish Society (BIS), one of the oldest charitable and social organizations in Newfoundland, was established on 5 February 1816 in St. John's to assist the poor and distressed in the town. It was founded by prominent Irish residents to aid orphans, neglected children, the sick, the old and disabled on a nondenominational basis, although membership in the society was restricted to those of Irish descent. Officially nondenominational (its first three presidents were Irish Protestants), in practice the BIS became essentially an agency of Roman Catholic charity and education. The BIS also served as a catalyst for the St. John's Irish community. Funds were raised through donations and membership fees. The BIS seal featured a figure of St. Patrick and the motto "He who gives to the poor lends to the Lord."
The BIS took a special interest in the many orphaned children in St. John's, and, in 1827, established the Orphan Asylum School (OAS) which, despite its name, actually functioned for the education of poor children generally. Although intended to be nondenominational, the OAS was attended only by Roman Catholics. When the Presentation Sisters arrived in St. John's from Ireland in 1833, girls were moved to their school and the OAS devoted its efforts to educating boys. In 1847 the OAS was taken over by the Order of St. Francis and, in 1876, by the Irish Christian Brothers.
In 1826/7 the BIS constructed a small two-storey building located on what is now Queens Road overlooking St. John's Harbour. The OAS was housed on the ground floor and a banquet and meeting hall on the second floor. This building was enlarged in the 1840s to meet increasing school enrollment and to accommodate BIS social functions, as well as to provide space for the distribution of charity. In the late 1870s, the BIS constructed St. Patrick's Hall on the same site; it was considerably larger than its predecessor and made of stone masonry in the Second Empire Style. The BIS building was opened in August 1880 but destroyed in the Great Fire of 1892.
St. Patrick's Hall was rebuilt and reopened in 1893-94. By this time the cost of the school absorbed all the society's charity efforts, but members also used the hall regularly for social purposes. The BIS building housed reading and games rooms, and a theatre for live performances. A new wing, the O'Donel Memorial Hall, was added in 1905-6, extending space for the three main activities of the BIS: the school, the theatre, and social functions. In 1906-7 the theatre of the BIS was renovated and became a moving picture venue, the Nickel Theatre (1907-60).
The OAS accommodated students until 1985. By 1944 the boys were relocated to St. Patrick's Hall School and the space was used to house an overflow of girls from Presentation School. Until recently, the BIS also sponsored regular bingo games to raise funds for charity and education.
Faced with a declining membership and soaring cost of maintenance, the BIS was compelled to sell St. Patrick's Hall recently and the building was converted into residential condominiums. The BIS relocated to a modern building on Harvey Road. The society supports education by awarding scholarships, functions as a social club, and maintains Irish culture and traditions.
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