The New York Foundling Hospital

NYFH First Building
NYFH First Building

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 tiny waif deposited on the doorstep.

NYFH Second Building

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.On October 8, 1869 the New York Foundling Asylum of the Sisters of Charity, in the City of New York was incorporated. Three days later on October 11th, the Feast of the Maternity of Our Lady, Sister Irene and her two companions, Sister Teresa Vincent and Sister Ann Aloysia, moved into a small house at 17 East 12th Street. Although they expected to spend three months in preparing for the opening of the institutions, an infant was laid on the door -step that very first night. Before January 1, 1870, the proposed opening date, they had received 123 babies.Within a year, a larger house at 3 Washington Square was secured. Soon this also proved to be inadequate. In 1870, the State Legislature authorized the City to grant a site for a new building, and appropriated $100,000 toward its erection on condition that a similar amount be raised for the same purpose by private contributions.Sister Irene at once set to work to take advantage of this help and organized a committee amongst some of the leading financiers and business men of the time. The construction of the buildings on the property bounded by 68th and 69th Streets and by Lexington and Third Avenues was begun in 1872. In November 1873, the main building was completed and occupied. Through the years other buildings were added until the Foundling Hospital was completed.While the building was in progress the services of the institution were expanding. 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. Although originally planned only for mother’s care by the Sisters, St. Anne’s was opened in 1915 to outside physicians who wished to send private patients for confinement. In 1946, St. Anne’s Maternity Pavilion was closed to private cases in order to expand and improve services to the unmarried mothers who were the original objects of Sister Irene’s concern.In 1881 St. John’s Hospital for Children, and Pediatric Service of the New York Foundling Hospital was erected. In 1944, the Hospital service of St. John’s was discontinued in order to expand and improve services to well children in need of care away from their own homes and thus meet an urgent need in this community.

In 1910, St. Joseph By The Sea, at Huguenot, Staten Island, was opened as an annex to the New York foundling Hospital.

In 1930, a Social Service Department was established in order to provide casework services for unmarried mothers cared for in the Shelter. It was about the same time that professionally trained workers were added to the staff of the Boarding and Adoption Departments.

The Foundling Hospital also has a training school for the training of young ladies as Infant Care Technicians, a Pediatric Clinic for foster children, a Prenatal Clinic, a Development clinic for children being considered for adoptive placement, and –its newest service—a Child Guidance Clinic.

In 1958 in order to carry on the work of the New York foundling Hospital and to give adequate coverage to the number of dependent and neglected children in need of care away from their own homes, the buildings on 68th Street were replaced by the modern fire-proof building equipped with all the facilities necessary to carry out a program according to the highest standards of child care.

As the New York Foundling Hospital enters its 100th year of service, it may be described as a mult-ifunctional social agency providing the following services:

  • Nursery care on an emergency basis to abandoned and neglected children regardless of creed or color;
  • Casework services to families requesting placement of children;
  • Placement and supervision of Catholic children in boarding and adoption homes;
  • After-Care supervision of children discharged from foster care;
  • Shelter care and casework services to unmarried mothers.

The unwavering faith, hope, and Christ-like charity with which Sister Irene opened the first Foundling on East 12th Street have characterized the unique dedication of the Sisters of Charity, staff and volunteers who have carried on her work to the present day. It is our prayer that -that unique spirit—the spirit of Christ—will continue to guide those who have dedicated themselves to the work of the New York Foundling Hospital in the years to come.

The Program 
Priests in towns along the railroad routes were notified that the Foundling had children in need of homes. The priest would make an announcement to his congregation and ask for volunteers to take the children. At that point, adults could sign up for a child, specifying hair color and the color of eyes they preferred. Of course, specifying a boy or girl was respected.The Priest would notify the Foundling that they could take a specific number of children with blond hair and blue eyes; brown hair and brown eyes; black hair and blue eyes; or a certain darkness of skin. One such request was for a boy with red hair because the farmer had 5 red haired daughters and no sons. He was not only delivered the requested red haired boy, but the boy later inherited the family farm.The Foundling selected the requested children believing if a family got a child that “fit in” everyone would be better served.An “Indenture” form was used to place the children. It was a legal document that gave the Foundling legal recourse without going to court, should the placement not be satisfactory and the child had to be removed.Often called an early form of adoption, it was not adoption as we know it today, because with adoption a child is legally a parent’s natural child. Indentured children that were not legally adopted were ineligible to inherit unless the adults left a will specifying the indentured child was to be given an inheritance.
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