This Month in History
Wilmington Mayor Don Betz issued a proclamation declaring that December 4-9, 1995 was “Catherine Kennedy Home Week.” The retirement home was a longstanding fixture in the community. It was initially created by and for women in the late 19th century. Through many ups and downs, the home served older people until July 2000. At that point, for a number of reasons—including regulatory and building challenges—the Catherine Kennedy Home shut its doors. It sold its buildings to First Presbyterian Church and became a charitable foundation which gives grants to organizations that help the elderly. As of 2018, the foundation had assets worth over four million dollars.
That four million dollars grew out of the work of a “noble band of women“ who formed the Ladies’ Benevolent Society before the Civil War. White women in the 1800s had limited opportunities. Women were not able to vote or run for office. Married women could not own property separately from their husbands, and working for wages was not considered ladylike. Still, over the course of the 19th century, elite women began to form charitable associations and organizations. The Ladies’ Benevolent Society seems to have been the first women’s philanthropic organization in Wilmington. According to the Society’s surviving records (the first of which are dated 1868), a group of white Christian women joined together to provide help to the deserving poor in 1845. These “Ladies of all denominations” organized to provide food, clothing, and wood to people in need; they also wanted to build a home for widows and orphans.
The group was officially incorporated through an act in the North Carolina General Assembly on December 17, 1852. The women needed to formally incorporate to fulfil their goal of owning property to turn into a Home. It took the organization more than 25 years to actually open their Home for women. The Society became inactive during the Civil War, and lost its savings as the Confederate banking system collapsed. The group reformed after the War in 1868. In 1879, it purchased a house. Located in what was later described as “a rather obscure portion of the town,” the Old Ladies’ Rest opened on North 7th Street, between Chestnut and Grace streets. It’s not clear when the first resident moved in; it was definitely in operation by 1882, perhaps earlier. The Old Ladies’ Rest provided a place for a small number of indigent older women to live.
After the home had been in operation for a handful of years, Mrs. Catherine G. DeRosset Kennedy, president of the Ladies’ Benevolent Society, died. Mrs. Kennedy was a founding member of the organization. She became president when the Society reorganized in 1868 and was still in charge when she died in December 1889. Born in 1800, Catherine was part of the rich slaveholding DeRosset family. She married the Reverend W. M. Kennedy when she was in her thirties, moved to South Carolina, and then was widowed in her forties. Mrs. Kennedy was a devout Christian, and her faith in God seems to have been a source of comfort and inspiration for her work with the Society. She led the organization through good and bad times. Immediately after her death, the women of the Ladies’ Benevolent Society voted to rename the Old Ladies’ Rest after their beloved president.
Around the time of Mrs. Kennedy’s death, despite having served the community for nearly fifty years, the Society faced increasing competition for charitable donations and women’s time from new organizations. In the 1890s, patriotic organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Daughters of the American Revolution formed, and women began to be involved in their work. New charitable organizations such as the International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons began to compete for people’s time and money. Local women also formed women’s clubs such as North Carolina Sorosis. By 1893, the Society narrowed its focus to the Catherine Kennedy Home. At the time, the Society’s 3rd postwar president, Mrs. Roger Moore, noted in her annual report, “While we regret very much to give up the work for which our Society was organized more than forty years ago, and which has been very dear to us, we realize the necessity of there being only one medium for the charitable work of the town to be done through. An organization called the Associated Charities having recently been formed for that purpose, we feel confident that only confusion and friction would ensue were we to attempt to keep on with this portion of our work.” Mrs. Moore also told the community that the Ladies’ Benevolent Society thought it was time to get a new building for the Catherine Kennedy Home. The Society used its connection and bought the Sprunt House, on 9th and Princess streets, which the family “…offered on advantageous terms.” The Home’s new location officially opened on May 3, 1895.
Throughout their long history, the Ladies’ Benevolent Society struggled financially. For most of the 19th century, the group’s work was funded by membership donations of $1 per woman. They were also the beneficiaries of a donation of a city lot, and in 1852, Mr. P. K. Dickinson gave the organization shares in Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. Over the years, this railroad stock provided a steady source of revenue for the group. Still, for decades successive presidents of the organization complained about how hard it was to raise funds to do the Society’s work. In the 20th century, additional gifts and a number of large bequests—from Samuel Bear, Marguerite Walker, and Sarah Graham Kenan, among others— helped keep the organization afloat.
Some of this largess helped pay for a new and expanded Home. After being located at 9th and Princess streets for more than fifty years, in the late 1940s, the organization began to raise money to move for the third time. On July 28, 1950, residents moved into the new Catherine Kennedy Home, located on South 3rd Street. In the 1950s, the Home began to charge its residents a monthly fee. In the 1960s, the Home was again enlarged. By the mid-1960s, there were some 80 residents in the Home. But occupancy began to fall. Financial and regulatory challenges continued to affect the Catherine Kennedy Home. Over the years, the Home responded to new circumstances in different ways. They began to accept affluent residents, residents who lived outside the county, and even men.
Still, by the time Mayor Betz proclaimed a “Catherine Kennedy Home week” in 1995, the residence was actually nearing the end of its life as a retirement home. Five years later, in July 2000, it closed.