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Orphans and Orphanages

The death of one or both parents makes the child of the very poor a ward of the community.

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Orphans and Orphanages. —The death of one or both parents makes the child of the very poor a ward of the community. The obligation of support is imposed upon parents or grandparents by nearly every system of laws; but there is no such obligation upon any other relative. Natural sympathy, however, and willingness to bear a distributed burden for the common good, rather than to enforce an individual one, contribute to the acceptance of the care of orphans as a public duty. In Biblical times the fatherless, the stranger, and the widow shared the excess fruits of the harvest (Deut., xxiv, 21). The people were told God “is the father of orphans” (Ps. lxvii, 6) and His bounty was to be shared with them. Luxury and paganism introduced more selfish considerations. Neglect of the destitute orphan is only to be expected in a world where the unwelcome infant is exposed to any fate. The Romans apparently did not provide for widows and orphans. The Athenians viewed the duty as economic and patriotic, and ordained that children of citizens killed in war were to be educated up to eighteen years of age by the State. Plato (Laws, 927) says:—”Orphans should be placed under the care of public guardians. Men should have a fear of the loneliness of orphans and of the souls of their departed parents. A man should love the unfortunate orphan of whom he is guardian as if he were his own child. He should be as careful and as diligent in the management of the orphan’s property as of his own or even more careful still.”

When Christianity began to affect Roman life, the best fruit of the new order was charity, and special solicitude was manifested towards the orphan. Antoninus Pius had established relief agencies for children. The Christians founded hospitals, and children’s asylums were established in the East. St. Ephraem, St. Basil, and St. John Chrysostom built a great number of hospitals. Those for the sick were, known as nosocomia, those for poor children were known as euphotrophia, and those for orphans, orphanotrophia. Justinian released from other civic duties those who undertook the care of orphans. In the Apostolic Constitutions, “Orphans as well as widows are always commended to Christian love. The bishop is to have them brought up at the expense of the Church and to take care that the girls be given, when of marriageable age, to Christian husbands, and that the boys should learn some art or handicraft and then be provided with tools and placed in a condition to earn their own living, so that they may be no longer than necessary a burden to the Church” (Apost. Const., IV, ii, tr. Uhlhorn, p. 185). St. Augustine says: “The bishop protects the orphans that they may not be oppressed by strangers after the death of the parents.” Also epistles 252-255: “Your piety knows what care the Church and the bishops should take for the protection of all men but especially of orphan children.” The rise of monastic institutions following upon this period was accelerated by the fruit of charitable work for the poor, chief amongst which was the care of children. During the Middle Ages the monasteries preserved to modern times the notion of the duty of the Church to care for its orphans. They were the shelters where the orphans were taught learning and trade avocations. The laity also were exhorted to perform their share of this charge.

No one figure stands out so prominently in the history of the care of orphans as that of St. Vincent de Paul (1576-1660). To this work he attracted the gentlemen of the court, noble ladies, and simple peasants. In his distracted country he found the orphan the most appealing victim, and he met the situation with the skill of a general. No distinction was observed between foundlings and orphans in the beginning of his work with the Association of Charity; nor was there any distinction as to the condition of the children that were aided, other than that they were orphans, or abandoned, or the children of the poor. Seventeen years or more after that he established amongst noble women the “Ladies of Charity”. When the war between France and Austria had made orphans the most acute sufferers, St. Vincent de Paul secured as many as possible from the provinces, and had them cared for in Paris by Mlle le Gras and the Sisters of Charity then fully established. Three towns alone furnished no less than 1000 orphans under the age of seven years. The Sisters of Charity spread over the world, and ever since have been looked to for the protection of the orphan, or have been the inspiration for other orders seeking to perform the same work.

When the Revolution broke out in France there were 426 houses of benevolence conducted in that country by the Sisters of Charity, and of these a large majority cared for orphans. They were suppressed, but many were reopened by Napoleon.

In more modern times a similar enlistment of women to serve the orphan has been observed all over Europe. In England, Ireland, and Scotland fifty-one houses of Sisters of Charity had been established between 1855 and 1898; and in all, except in a few hospitals, the work of an orphanage is conducted to a greater or less extent. On the American Continent, however, the first orphan asylum antedated St. Vincent de Paul’s influence by a century, and was due not to French but to Spanish inspiration. This was an orphanage for girls, which was established in 1548 in Mexico by a Spanish order and was called La Caridad (Steelman, “Charities for Children in Mexico“). The first orphanage in the territory now comprised in the United States was that of the Ursulines, founded in New Orleans in 1727 under the auspices of Louis XV.

Whenever in Europe, following the religious changes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the care of orphans was not committed to ecclesiastical oversight, it was considered to be a public duty. Under the English poor law it was the duty of the parish to support the indigent so that none should die. It is pro able that destitute orphans were cared for under this principle, but apprenticing and indenturing were the only solutions of the difficulties arising from the presence of orphans or dependent children. In later years, if children were too young or too numerous for this they were kept in the workhouse, one of the provisions being as follows: “Children under seven are placed in such of the wards appropriated to female paupers as may be deemed expedient.” The so-called orphanage movement began in England in 1758 by the establishment of the Orphan Working Home. In the next century the exposures, principally by Charles Dickens, of the evils bred by the workhouse and the indenturing system led to many reforms. Numerous private asylums were founded in the reign of Queen Victoria under royal patronage, and with considerable official oversight and solicitude. In Colonial America the influence of the English poor law was felt, with the same absence of distinction as to child and adult, and as to care of the child. All paupers were the charges of the towns or counties. Almshouses were established, and later, in most States of the Union, orphan children were cared for in these. Indenturing was practiced as often as possible. In New York State children were removed from almshouses following the passage of a law directing this in 1875. It provided that all children over three years of age, not defective in mind or body, be removed from poorhouses and be placed in families or orphan asylums. It has since been amended by reducing the age to two years and not excepting the defectives. The first orphan asylum in New York City, a Protestant institution, now located at Hastings-on-Hudson, N. Y., was established in 1806 largely through the efforts of Mrs. Alexander Hamilton. The first Catholic orphan asylum in New York City was founded in 1817 by the Sisters of Charity in Prince Street, and is now maintained in two large buildings at Kingsbridge, N. Y.

Of the seventy-seven charities for children, mostly orphanages, established in America before the middle of the nineteenth century as listed by Folks, twenty-one were Catholic and all of these were orphanages. One of the most interesting of the others is Girard College, founded by the merchant prince of Phila-delphia, Stephen Girard, with an endowment of $6,000,000 which has since increased nearly fivefold. By the terms of Girard’s will no minister of the Gospel is permitted to cross the threshold. Neither the educational results nor the philanthropy to orphan boys seem to be adequate to the fortune involved. An interesting asylum in New York City is the Leake and Watts Asylum founded in 1831 to provide “a free home for well-behaved full orphans of respectable parentage in destitute circumstances, physically and mentally sound, between the ages of three and twelve years, who are entrusted to the care of the trustees until fifteen years of age. Disorderly and ungovernable children are not admitted.” The Hebrew orphan asylums of New York City are large and well managed, caring for about 3000 children. In the Catholic institutions of the Archdiocese of New York the orphans and half-orphans number about 8000. In the Diocese of Brooklyn they number close to 3600. In all the large cities of America, Catholic orphanages are found. It is probable that they would number close to 300 and the orphan inmates close to 50,000.

The upkeep and management of these large institutions call for the solution of many complex problems of varying components. They must provide plenty without wastefulness, clothe adequately without cheapness or painful uniformity, educate in letters and handicraft without overwork, and provide amusement without laxity, as well as discipline without repression. Buildings must be safe and have adequate sanitary details conducive to health. A thorough medical oversight of inmates, individually and collectively, completes a program of requirements which bear very heavily and continuously on the management. Always and everywhere it has been considered an honor to take part in such works and in the oversight of them. Naturally the feature about orphan asylums most often remarked by visitors not accustomed to the situation is the radical difference from domestic life in the surroundings of the children. This has led some to propose changes in the institutional scheme, by which buildings of reduced size but adequate number shall be substituted for one or two large ones; that a matron or house-mother be employed to supervise each, and that each also shall have its own outfit and details for domestic management. Some would recommend that such charges be put in the joint care of a man and his wife, that the home-like protection of the children may be provided for. These and similar features comprise what is known as the “Cottage System”. It fails in many points to present the hoped-for advantages. The fixed charges and salary list are so extensively increased that the burden would be in most cases unbearable. Some few institutions have made efforts in this direction, resulting in sudden and heavy increases in expenditures. Adopted on a modest scale, the “Cottage System” offers some advantages to Catholic religious communities operating orphanages, and its success would seem to be a question of wisely planned management and skillful architecture, controlled by conservative authority over the proposed, new, and regularly recurrent expenditures. Perhaps the real difficulty is that it does not improve the situation of the child in the matter of accustoming it to the natural life of the outside world.

Over against this institutional method of caring for destitute children, resulting in what is called the orphanage, but not necessarily opposed to it, are those methods which seek to put the child earlier under the influences of family life. This is done by boarding-out and by placing-out. The former is a system in which the overseer of the poor or similar officer confides the child to some family, as a boarder, and pays regularly for its care up to the age of self-support. Success and prevention of wrong in this system can only be obtained at great expense and by rigorous watchfulness. It originated in the English poor law and was designed to provide a means by which children could be removed from the poorhouse; it is much in vogue still through-out the United States. The weakness seems to lie in the danger of profit-seeking amongst people who offer to care for children for money. More permanent good for the child is obtained by the second method placing-out in free homes. This is sometimes called indenturing in the cases of older children and sometimes adoption. The former has almost disappeared in the United States, except as a form observed by some overseers of the poor and some child-caring agencies. Real apprenticing or “binding-out” has passed away. Adoption is not a legal act unless confirmed by the proper procedure in a court of record. Advantage in placing-out appears to lie in the full absorption of the child into a vacancy in a household, where affection can be expected to develop, and where the conditions surrounding the child during all of its maturing years will be those entirely normal to any similar family group in the community. Nearly all the States which have laws bearing upon this practice have recognized religious rights, and have provided that where practicable such children must be placed in homes of their own religious faith. Placing-out can only be practiced where an ample number of excellent homes can be obtained. By specializing in the work it becomes possible to place even large numbers of orphans and to surround them with a strong and enlightened protection. The good results most often are mutual, the foster-parents gaining as much by their charity as the child.

When the New York Catholic Protectory was taken over in 1863 from the St. Vincent de Paul Society which had organized it, Archbishop Hughes impressed upon the managers how placing-out should be conducted: “Let one or two gentlemen be employed, the one to keep office during the absence of the other, but one or the other to go abroad through the interior of the country, with good letters to make the acquaintance of the bishop of a diocese and the priest of a parish as well as such Catholic mechanics and farmers as might be disposed to receive one or other of the children who will come under your charge, and in this way let the children be in their house of protection just as short as possible. Their lot is, and is to be in one sense, a sufficiently hard one under any circumstances, but the sooner they know what it is to be, the better they will be prepared for encountering its trials and difficulties” (Letter to B. Silliman Ives, June 19, 1863). The St. Vincent de Paul Society of New York City had for years assisted in performing such a work as this, and in 1898 established a special agency for it, known as the Catholic Home Bureau. It acts with the cooperation between the committing authorities and the institutions housing orphans and other destitute children. About two hundred and fifty children are placed by it each year in good Catholic families. Subsequent visitation of the children is practiced with great care. In 1909 a similar bureau was started in Washington and another in Baltimore. In many cities of the Union, Catholic agents are employed by the local children’s aid societies to perform this work for the protection of Catholic children.

Placing-out was the practice in early Christian days. The widows and deaconesses of the early church took orphans into their homes as Fabiola did in Rome. Some believe that the terms widow and orphan are so often found joined in ancient Christian literature because of this custom. It was the general practice at the time of the first persecutions. Uhlhorn (Christian Charity in the Ancient Church, p. 185) says: “It would also often happen that individual members of the Church would receive orphans, especially those whose parents had perished in a persecution.” Thus was Origen adopted, after Leonidas, his father, had suffered martyrdom, by a pious woman in Alexandria (Eusebius, “Hist. Eccl.”, VI, ii). Again the child of the female martyr, Felicitas, found a mother; and Eusebius tells us of Severus, a Palestinian composer, who especially interested himself in the orphans and widows of those who had fallen. In the Apostolic Constitutions members of the Church are urgently exhorted to such acts. “If any Christian, whether boy or girl, be left an orphan, it is well if one of the brethren, who has no child, receives and keeps him in a child’s place. They who do so perform a good work by becoming fathers to the orphans and will be rewarded by God for this service”. The taking of an orphan to rear, and giving it a place in a new family circle has always been an honored custom amongst good people in all times. In simple communities it is the sole solution of a distressing problem. When in modern times a war or an extraordinary disaster created an embarrassment by reason of the number to be cared for, the organized asylum has been a blessing. The same must be said of the asylums caring for the army of orphans found in the large cities, particularly since they serve as shelters during the period of observation, and in the case of handicapped children during a longer period.


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