The Transformation of Catholic Orphanages: Cleveland, 1851-1996

By Morton, Marian J. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2002 | Go to article overview

The Transformation of Catholic Orphanages: Cleveland, 1851-1996


Morton, Marian J., The Catholic Historical Review


In 1886 the formidable three-storied brick structure of St. Vincent's Orphanage in Cleveland-already more than three decades old-- housed about 200 boys, the children of impoverished Catholics. Many were German or Irish, and almost without exception they were white. The orphanage was staffed by thirty Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine and funded by diocesan collections and orphans' fairs. A century later, St. Vincent's had merged with other Catholic orphanages and evolved into Parmadale System of Family Services. On its site lived a very few children with serious emotional and behavioral problems; its professional staff provided a wide range of off-site psychiatric and social services; its funding was almost completely public; its clients were children and families of all creeds and races. Responding to national developments, the needs of the local community, and their own institutional imperatives, Cleveland's Catholic orphanages had transformed themselves and Catholic social services.

Catholic orphanages were possibly the most used and are certainly the least studied of American child-care institutions.1 Although most sectarian orphanages experienced similar changes in services, staff, and clientele from the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries, the Catholic experience has been differentiated and-to some extent-- shaped by the presence of the National Conference of Catholic Charities (NCCC), founded in 1910. The conference's challenging mission was to modernize Catholic charities-to bring them into the American social welfare mainstream-and at the same time to maintain their Catholic identity. The annual proceedings of the NCCC and its journals, Catholic Charities Review and its successor, Catholic Charities USA, provide the national context within which the changes in Catholic orphanages, "the hallmark of Catholic social provision," can be understood and assessed.2

Preserving the Faith, 1851-1900

Orphanages were the creation of the nineteenth century, when Americans believed that institutions solved many social problems, including crime, mental and physical illness, and dependence. In an age of minimal government, the vast majority of social welfare institutions were sponsored by religious organizations and were fervently sectarian, intended by their Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic founders to shelter the bodies and preserve the faith of their co-religionists.

Catholic dioceses founded scores of care-taking institutions, including schools, hospitals, and homes for the aged, infants and unwed mothers, and working women. This prolific institution-building was prompted not only by the common belief in the value of institutions but by the pressing spiritual and material needs of impoverished Catholics, by the welt-founded fear that they would fall victim to Protestant proselytizing, and by rivalries between dioceses.

Perhaps most important, dioceses built institutions because there were men and especially women religious to staff them. European orders such as the Ursuline Sisters and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd were joined by indigenous orders such as the Sisters of Charity of Emmitsburg. By 1900 more than 40,000 nuns, most of them American-- born, served Catholic schools, hospitals, and charitable institutions.3 Because women religious received less compensation than men, their institutions became efficient, relatively inexpensive ways of providing charity.4

During the nineteenth century, orphanages became the most characteristic venue for Catholic charity. According to the secretary of the NCCC, Monsignor John O'Grady, "the care of children away from their own homes ... occupied a larger place in Catholic welfare in the United States than any other type of work"5 Catholics led the way in founding orphanages, establishing sixteen institutions for dependent and neglected children before 1840 and 175 by 1890.6 These orphanages maintained the ethnic traditions of German, Irish, Polish, Bohemian, and Italian immigrants. …

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