*The Foundling plays a part in The Gilded Hour.
There were dozens of orphanages (orphan asylums) in New York in the last quarter of the 19th century, and almost all of them were run by religious groups. The Roman Catholic church was especially vigilant in setting up and administering orphan asylums, but the Protestant churches and the Jewish community also founded orphanages for their own children in need.1
Despite the dozens of orphanages, when someone mentioned or wrote about “the Founding” the reference was to the Roman Catholic Foundling established by Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbon (May 12, 1823 – August 14, 1896). 2
Working with two other Sisters of Charity, she first opened the institution in a brownstone on East 12th Street in 1868.
They were soon known throughout the city, because their front door was unlocked and a white crib stood waiting in the hall. Any mother could leave her child in that cradle for the sisters to take in and raise, no questions asked. Mothers did often leave heartfelt notes declaring the intention to return and reclaim their children, something that rarely came to pass. Within a year they had to seek larger quarters, and shortly thereafter, already pressed for space, Archbishop McCloskey approached the city for help. Wikipedia summarizes the early history: 3
In 1870 the city was authorized by the Legislature to give the asylum the block bounded by Third and Lexington Avenues, Sixty-eighth and Sixty-ninth Streets, for the site of a new building, and $100,000 for the building fund, provided a similar amount was raised by private donation. Of the required sum, $71,500 was realized by a fair held in 1871, and $27,500 came from three private donations. The new building was opened in October, 1873. The name “The Foundling Asylum”, under which it was incorporated in 1869, was changed by legal enactment in 1891 to “The New York Foundling Hospital.”
By 1894, a report was given by social reformer Elbridge Gerry that child murder has been practically stamped out in the City of New York from the time that the New York Foundling Hospital commenced. 4
Forced to evolve her own methods of dealing with foundlings and unwed mothers, Sister Mary Irene initiated a program of placing children in foster homes whenever possible, with provision for legal adoption when desired. Needy unwed mothers were given shelter and encouraged to keep and care for their own babies. To further these programs she founded three allied institutions: St. Ann’s Maternity Hospital in 1880, the Hospital of St. John for Children in 1881, and Nazareth Hospital for convalescent children at Spuyten Duyvil in New York City in 1881. She also founded the Seton Hospital for tuberculosis patients in 1894, the cost of which ($350,000) she collected herself. The institution had been an innovative service-provider, and Sr. Irene is credited with using an open-air porch and windows on both sides to keep airflow on hospital units.
After the Civil War one of the most gripping of New York’s social problems was the abandonment of infants in the streets of the City. Poverty, immigration, inadequate housing, and a financial depression were the factors which made abandonment in ever present evil.
In 1869, it had no longer become an item of news, or even of interest, to find an abandoned infant on the doorsteps of a rich family, in the hallway of a tenement, or at the entrance to a convent. St. Peter’s Convent on Barclay Street was a favorite refuge of distraught mothers and very often the Sisters on opening their door in the morning, would find a baby deposited on the doorstep.
Sister Mary Irene of St. Peter’s Convent called the attention of Mother Mary Jerome, the Superior of the Sisters of Charity, to the need of rescuing these children. When the matter was as placed before Archbishop (afterwards Cardinal) McCloskey, he not only sanctioned the plan of providing an asylum for the care of abandoned children, but urged the Sisters to put this plan into execution. Accordingly Mother Mary Jerome directed Sister Irene to make a beginning. With only $5.00 as capital, but with undaunted courage and unlimited faith and confidence in God, Sister Irene undertook the work.
Shortly after its establishment, the Foundling became a refuge not only for abandoned babies but also for unmarried mothers.Another important development was the inauguration of the Boarding Department. Because of the lack of room in the late house on 12th Street, the Sisters asked their neighbors to care for some of the infants in their own homes. Thus was inaugurated, on November 15, 1869, the Boarding department of the Foundling.As soon as Sister Irene was settled in the new building on 68th Street, she established the Adoption Department to find suitable permanent homes for those children who were legally free for adoption. Every care was taken to ensure proper guardianship for each child. The date of the first recorded placement of a child in a free home, with a view to adoption, was May 1873.In 1880, one of Sister Irene’s dreams was realized when St. Anne’s Maternity Pavilion was erected, in order to shelter friendless, expectant mothers, whether married or unmarried, and to provide proper confinement care for them.
- See for example “A Refuge for Foundlings: Building a New Home Under Protestant Auspices. the Institution Planned by Miss Nivison, Where the Little Ones Will Be Brought up in Pure Surroundings.” New York Times January 4, 1884. ↩
- Gottlieb, Martin. 2001. The Foundling: The Story of the New York Foundling Hospital. Lantern Books. ↩
- “The New York Foundling Hospital.” ↩
- Michael Barga: The Sisters of Charity of New York. ↩