History takes many shapes in the city of Kingston, from historic homes and famous meetings, to the people who have walked the streets of our fair community. Here in Kingston at 115 Ordnance Street, surround by the prayers and worship of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Vincent de Paul, a printing shop existed, being initiated and run for decades by the nuns who lived within these walls.
There was a great need to produce congregational material, such as obituary notices, periodicals, and small books on a cheap scale. Fundraising began, and the purchase of a press brought the first publication in 1899, a selection of ‘Monthly Meditations.’ With the dawn of the 20th Century, the nuns continued their work in their little print shop, creating a variety of materials as the days turned to weeks, then months, years, and finally decades. One of the regular publications was The Guardian. The children’s magazine was devoted to the orphan children that were being raised at St. Mary’s of the Lake. From school activities to written works about musicians, The Guardian was part educational and part current events.
By 1989 with the dawn of the 21st Century on the horizon line, the print shop was closed due to a lack of need. Computer technology was advancing, and there was little need to be working at the massive printing presses. For the next 10 years the home of The Guardian collected dust and became a storage area.
Computer advancements brought the demise of the print shop, but the history that this room held was too important to forget. In 1999, the Printing Room Museum opened for visitors. Now, over 110 years since the first publication came fresh out of this room, the doors to the museum are closing for good.
For many of my ‘Here in Kingston’ articles, I have had to research through old newspapers and publications, cross referencing my searches with published accounts in order to build a story that tells about the historic moment in Kingston history that I was writing about. Here in Kingston at 115 Ordnance Street, I got to walk the floor of the Printing Room Museum with dozens of other curious visitors and listen to the story of the location from the nuns of Providence Manor.
An open house was held on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019 for the public to have one last look at the history this room held. Walking into the space, one could see the metallic steel printing presses still occupying their spaces, waiting to be started, with typesets laid out on the different tables that filled the room. On the walls were pictures of nuns in their full habits running the presses. I was amazed at how neat and orderly they looked working in the printing room. After inquiring with one of the nuns sitting in the room waiting to answer questions, I was informed that the pictures with the nuns operating the press in their full habits were staged, and that the nuns running the press machines would have had a work outfit they would wear. No wonder their sleeves were immaculately clean, free from the ink that was no doubt spilled on many occasions in the messy business of printing up periodicals.
Throughout my time as I walked around taking notes and listening as to how the nuns would have used the press machines to create their work, I could still find the remnants of daily life in the printing room hanging on the wall. From the Letterpress Guide to Preventing Press Problems to the Lubrication Chart for the V-50 Vertical Press, history surrounds you in this museum. As pictures of the founding nuns looked on from the walls, the typeset of the regular stationary that they would print in this room were still sitting on the tables, waiting to be put into the machine.
The press has stopped and the days of periodicals coming out of the room are over. As I finished my visit, I couldn’t help but think that this was the last open house for anyone to come and see the Printing Room Museum at Providence Manor. This small room beneath the chapel would close its doors at the end of September, empty, with only memories filling the space.
All the artifacts that were on display in the museum are being sent to Carleton University. No doubt, the school of journalism and mass communication will have these historic artifacts on display as their students continue to dive further into online journalism. I asked one of the nuns before I left why they were closing the museum. She was very blunt and said that, one day, the nuns wouldn’t be here anymore, and it was time to find the items a new home. Here in Kingston at 115 Ordnance Street, the presses were busy as the nuns published periodicals for the diocese. Soon, it will be an empty room in the vast stone fortress that is Providence Manor.
Bill Gowsell was born and raised in Kingston. With an interest in history, food, wine, and all things Disney, Bill has been writing for the last eight years on a variety of topics. During the summers he can be found at the family cottage north of Kingston, or at the bottom of Lake Ontario… scuba diving.