In 1926, the Monte Vista Syndicate, a group of Redlands businessmen, purchased the Burrage estate from former boxer Leach Cross, who had acquired it the year before. Arthur Gregory, the group’s president, then bought it from the organization in 1931. Finding that as sole owner its upkeep extremely expensive, he decided to sell. By chance the Society of Mission Catechist of Our Blessed Lady of Victory, who were his tenants, were looking for larger quarters. Gregory proposed they stay at the Burrage rent as free caretakers until it was sold.
Also known as the Victory Noll Sisters, founded in Chicago in 1922 and dedicated to missionary work in the west, moved into the Burrage Mansion in 1937. Three years later Bishop John Noll purchased and gave it to them as a Christmas gift. Converting it into a convent, complete with a chapel, confessional and altar, they renamed the mansion “The Queen of the Missions.”
While its outward appearance gave the outward impression of wealth the inward reality was another matter. Vandals had destroyed electrical fixtures so that candles had to be used. And because thieves had stolen the copper plumbing, the water in two huge tanks and cisterns couldn’t be accessed. A pipe was then laid from Crescent Avenue up more than 100 steps to the house then hand carried by a “bucket brigade.”
While neither of the two furnaces worked, the fireplaces did. Unable to afford firewood that first winter they had to use the rare Mexican mahogany shelves from the library. In 1963, the Redlands Daily Facts described the Burrage Mansion being “now the Spartan home of the Missionary Sisters.”
In contrast the Redlands Area Historical Society credited the nuns with preserving the estate by “devoted care and their hard work.” Sixteen nuns worked on almost three decades of neglected grounds with the help of only one outside worker. The grounds had more than 500 fruit trees including navel and Valencia orange trees, which the sisters picked and sold to a local packinghouse. For years Redlanders would also go up to the mission to buy oranges.
The sisters hosted retreats for members of their order, held Girl Scouts troops and youth conferences all while carrying out missionary work. They delivered food to the poor and after working all day on the grounds and house, they provided religious instruction to Catholic public school students in their neighborhoods and homes after school. At one time they served more than 50 parishes in Redlands and Riverside. Sadly, despite all their frugality it became necessary to sell sections of the property to pay costs. The first sale took place in 1954 when their property on Crown Street was divided into eight parcels, later three more lots on Crescent Avenue were sold.
By the early 1970s their order had diminished so only six nuns remained to maintain the 18-acre property. Those remained until “The Queen of the Missions” was sold in 1974 to a Dr. Cyril Blaine who owned the property until 1987. Today the last of the nuns reside in the Victory Noll retirement home in Huntington, Indiana.
Tom Fontanes of Redlands is an artist and historian who served in the U.S. Marines during the Vietnam War.