Boston's Wayward Children: Social Services for Homeless Children, 1830-1930

By Peter C. Holloran | Go to book overview

2
Boston Catholic Charity for Children

Boston is a dreadful place for making Protestants of people, and you must be careful, especially of the children, or they will get them from you.

--Irish priest's warning to an immigrant, 1854

In contrast to the Protestant child-saving societies in nineteenth-century Boston, which attempted to rescue children from the dangerous classes by teaching them middle-class values, Roman Catholic charities for children reflected a vital and distinctive working-class subculture which had a powerful impact on the community. The aspirations and activities of these Catholic child-savers differed fundamentally from those of Protestant and secular charities.1

The greater attention historians give to elite reformers subverts the fact that American working-class immigrants had a robust and expanding culture of their own. With deep roots in ethnic, class, and Catholic tradition; the Boston Irish, for example, resisted (often successfully) the values and controls of middle- and upper-class Yankees. The rise of the American Catholic child welfare system--precipitated by European traditions and proselytizing evangelical child-savers like Charles Loring Brace in New York and the Children's Mission and the New England Home for Little Wanderers in Boston--demonstrates the power and creativity of Irish Catholic immigrants. They refused to be manipulated by patronizing or prejudiced Yankee Protestants. From this child welfare conflict emerged a broad and permanent Catholic system of institutions and agencies in Boston, as in most other large cities, which made unique contributions to American child welfare services.2

Yankee-Irish conflict in charities was part of a wider conflict, rooted in recent Irish history. When the potato blight caused devastating famine in Ireland from 1845 to 1849, the British government took full responsibility for dealing with the disaster. The humane and wise men in Whitehall then failed totally to deal with the problems. Seized by that "most horrible, and perhaps the most universal, of human maladies: the belief that principles and doctrines are more important than lives," the British imagined that

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