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© 2011 New-York Historical Society logo

Guide to the Records of the New York Foundling Hospital
1869-2009
 MS 347

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400


© 2011 New-York Historical Society

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Historical Note

The Early Years

The Foundling Asylum of the Sisters of Charity in the City of New York opened at 17 East 12th Street on October 11, 1869, as a Catholic haven for abandoned babies. Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbon (Sister Irene), formerly Superior at St. Peter’s on Barclay Street, founded the institution. The nuns placed a cradle outside the building to receive infants, and almost immediately the shelter was filled to capacity.

Sister Irene quickly instituted a Boarding-Out Department through which off-site married wet nurses took in one or two babies, and were provided an allowance. Alternatively, to encourage mothers to remain with their infants at the Foundling for at least three months, the sisters stopped leaving the crib outside the door, requiring the mother to ring the bell and deliver the child to the sister in attendance. When a mother could be persuaded to stay, she could nurse another infant besides her own, and might ideally choose to keep her baby upon leaving the Foundling.

The building was too small for the hundreds of children the Foundling received. The asylum moved to larger quarters at 3 Washington Square in 1870, and moved again in 1873. The state granted the Foundling an entire block, 68th-69th Streets, Lexington-Third Avenues, which the Foundling developed into a grand Victorian institutional complex. The main building at 175 East 68th Street was completed in 1873, followed by St. Ann’s Maternity Hospital on the corner of 69th and Lexington in 1880, St. John’s Children’s Hospital on the corner of 69th and Third in 1881, St. Irene’s residence (originally built as a quarantine for weaned babies returned from boarding with wet nurses) on the corner of 68th and Third in 1896, and the Hillyer Memorial Building, built ca. 1906-1907 on 68th and Lexington as a dormitory and kindergarten for young children.

The "Orphan Train"

The issue of how to care for children past infancy was pressing. In 1873 the Foundling began chartering trains (now known as “orphan trains”) to carry children to Catholic families in Maryland, and later to other states in the West and South. The Foundling's placing-out program was part of a larger movement, run by many organizations from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1920s. During this period, tens of thousands of children without families willing or able to care for them were transported out of the city to country homes, contributing to the country’s westward expansion. Most children from New York City were sent either by the Children’s Aid Society (beginning in 1853) or the Foundling (beginning 20 years later). Families receiving children from the Foundling signed a document agreeing to raise the child Catholic, and giving the institution legal right to remove the “indentured” child should the placement prove unsatisfactory. Before children went west, they lived and attended nursery school at the Foundling.

Evolution of the Foundling

In 1891 the Foundling Asylum changed its name to the New York Foundling Hospital, and amended its mission to formally include not only abandoned children and foundlings but also destitute and dependent children. Sister Irene died in 1896. Sister Teresa Vincent McCrystal, who had been with Sister Irene since the inception, took over as Director. She saw the institution through two crises.

The first was an incident in Arizona in 1904, in which a mob of non-Catholic Anglo families forcibly removed children from Catholic Mexican families with whom they had been placed by the Foundling. The Supreme Court of Arizona ruled against the Foundling, in New York Foundling Hospital v Gatti in 1905, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

The other crisis was a sensationalized investigation of the city’s private (particularly Catholic) child-caring institutions and of the State Board of Charities by John A. Kingsbury, New York City’s Commissioner of Charities, in 1916. Although the Foundling was not singled out for censure, the organization was required to submit to more city oversight and to change its foundational principle that a mother might surrender her child with no questions asked.

After Sister Teresa Vincent’s death in 1917, Sister Anna Michella Bowen, who had been in charge of the placing-out program, succeeded her. In 1926, Sister Xavier Maria Hurley became director, and ended the placing-out program in the west and south. She was followed by Sister Dominica Maria Rochford in 1931 who continued her predecessor’s work of professionalizing the Foundling’s social work programs.

A 60 acre annex, St. Joseph’s-by-the-Sea, donated by Charles Schwab of Bethlehem Steel, opened at Huguenot, Staten Island, in 1910 for overflow of mothers and babies. In 1927 the Foundling charter was amended to advocate that families be kept together whenever possible, and that adopted and foster families reside in the New York area so that more intensive supervision could be maintained. The policy of “indenture” was discontinued, and the maternity and pediatric hospitals became teaching hospitals. A School for Baby Nurses began training students that year. A Social Service Department for unwed mothers was initiated in 1930. In the 1930’s, the Foundling consisted of St. John’s Children’s Hospital, St. Ann’s Maternity Hospital, the Boarding Department, the Adoption Department, St. Mary’s Temporary Shelter for unmarried mothers, and the St. Joseph’s-by-the-Sea annex.

The two hospitals were closed in 1945 and 1946. After that, the Foundling focused less on medical services and emphasized foster and adoption services, nursery care for children and shelter for unwed mothers. In 1958, they left their Victorian complex on 68th Street, and moved across the street to new modern headquarters at 1175 Third Avenue.

From the 1960’s to the Present

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the organization decentralized into local community based residences, day care centers, family service programs and preventive service facilities, and opened an office in Puerto Rico, while continuing to provide institutional care, boarding home care, and adoption for children, and services to unmarried mothers. The Foundling merged with the St. Agatha Home for Children in 1977 and the latter became the St. Agatha Home of the New York Foundling Hospital. St. Agatha, also run by the Sisters of Charity, was founded in 1884 as a home for orphan girls, but had diversified to run group homes for developmentally disabled children, children with emotional problems, refugee children, and others.

A 1985 booklet by Sister Marian Healy described the NY Foundling Hospital as “a family-oriented agency administered under Catholic auspices and committed to the preservation of family life, especially those whose family life is disrupted through poverty, sickness, and neglect…All of the services of the Foundling, administered by the Sisters of Charity, are part of the ministry of the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of New York. It is our aim to foster the compassion of the Gospel by recognizing the absolute worth of every individual.”

The Foundling moved into a smaller building at 595 Avenue of the Americas in 1988. The Third Avenue building had been designed as an orphanage, but the new building was built with wide halls and large therapy rooms to reflect a new mission of helping handicapped and seriously ill children, as well as providing a maternity shelter for teens in their last trimester, a crisis nursery for abused or neglected children, and centers for emotionally disturbed pre-teens and teen girls. The Vincent J. Fontana Center, a separate building dedicated to child abuse prevention and treatment, opened on Christopher Street in 1999.

The St. Agatha property in Nanuet was sold in 2005. That same year, the Elizabeth Seton Pediatric Center became an independent entity in the 595 Avenue of the Americas building, separate from the Foundling. The Foundling no longer managed a hospital, and dropped the word "hospital" from its name. These changes allowed the Foundling to expand its core services of foster care and adoption, and to develop new community-based programs. In 2007 it embarked on a demonstration project to provide support and guidance to youth in the juvenile justice system and their families, to keep offenders in their homes and communities rather than detained in an institution. In 2008, the Foundling partnered with the Mott Haven Academy to create the first charter school in the nation specifically designed to serve children in foster care and the child welfare system.