Wednesday, June 9, 2010

For the Kids

St. Mary’s Gate, 2010

Remember when there were orphanages, like in Cider House Rules or Boys Town? I suppose I might be of the last generation when this was the case. With foster care, adoption and the growing number of grandparents raising grandchildren, I get the impression that you’d be hard pressed to find an institution in the U.S. today dedicated exclusively to children who have no parents.

I once did a study, by the way, of grandparents raising grandchildren. There are millions of them doing it these days. Some are raising grandchildren whose parents were sidelined by substance abuse, crime, economic hardship or just the inability to cope with children. One elderly widow living in Chicago on a fixed income described to me how she’d offered to watch her grandson briefly while her daughter, a single parent, moved to Atlanta and got settled into a new job. Only the boy’s mother never came back for him and the grandmother was still looking after him more than fourteen years later.

The orphanage in our area when I was growing up was the Barry Robinson School, located on what was then a farm on the outskirts of Norfolk, Virginia. Barry Robinson was a boy’s home. I suppose there must have been a place for girls, too, though I never knew where it was. All I was ever told was that the boys at Barry Robinson had no parents and were being watched over and educated through the kindness of Catholics.

When you’re young, that’s probably all you need to know. And maybe that’s all the parentless boys who ended up at St. Mary’s Home for Children in Philadelphia needed to know, too. St. Mary’s started out in the city, but moved during the 1930s to Lindenwold, the former country estate of a Gilded Age tycoon who’d made his fortune in asbestos manufacturing. Lindenwold started out as a rambling 40-room Victorian mansion, but by the time St. Mary’s acquired Lindenwold it had been clad in brick and stone and recast as a reproduction of Britain’s Windsor Castle.

As the number of orphans declined over the years, the mission of places like St. Mary’s and Barry Robinson shifted to focus more on the growing number of children suffering from behavioral problems, parental neglect and abuse.

I stumbled upon St. Mary’s Home for Children one evening while looking for a place to get dinner near Ambler, Pennsylvania. The gate was what caught my eye. It was just before sunset. The sun was at my back and setting quickly. Later on, I decided that the color in the photos wasn’t important enough to keep and was, in any event, distracting.

The evening I was there, the gate was chained shut. I couldn't see the Lindenwold Castle or much of the campus from the road. But I did wonder whether any of the kids living at St. Mary's through the years had ever stared out at the road from the inside of the gate and yearned to go home.

St. Mary’s Gate detail 14, 2010

St. Mary’s Gate detail 20, 2010


  1. Poignant. Hit home for me because it made me think of "my" Joe,-- who lived in an orphanage as a tiny kid, and had parents--when his mom had TB and was separated from the family. He still talks about feeling sad thinking about his dad coming to visit and leaving when it was still daylight--I imagine he clung to gates like these for a long time watching him leave...

    Even if they are well treated, it's still hard to know others have a different situation. And they know it...

  2. A lot of abuse took place at St Marys by the hands of the Sisters themselves. The worst of all was Sister Virginia, who would touch young boys private parts.

    1. How about Sister Chrisanne? She punched me so hard once I flew across the laundry room, hit the wall and passed out. Hours later I woke up and everyone acted like nothing happened.

    2. I was there at the time a lot of this abuse was going on by both Sister Virginia and Tony Decembrino. I still have nightmares from it!

  3. I was there from 3rd grade to the beginning of 8th grade. 65-66-67-68....
    There was NO abuse. The nuns were awesome. The nuns who lived in the "Boys House" had their own little apartment, quite separate from the boys. The nuns that lived their also taught school...! no getting away with NOT doing homework. I was one of the older boys and my little brother was with me there. I remember Sister Jean and I think Sister Bernadette.

  4. When I lived there, the Nuns only oversaw the small children. Sister Ludwina was really nice, but died. Sister Bernadette was nice, too. Sister Rita seemed stern.