By Emily Drooby and Allyson Escobar
MANHATTAN — The Foundling — one of New York City’s largest and oldest child welfare and social services organizations — is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
It all began with one baby.
In 1869, Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbon, S.C., found an orphaned baby on the steps of St. Peter’s Church in lower Manhattan. Moved with compassion, Sister Mary Irene took the child into the care of her community. She then felt compelled to help as many of New York’s children abandoned on the streets as she could. With the help of her fellow Sisters of Charity, Mary Irene rented a brownstone on East 12th Street, which became the first headquarters of The New York Foundling.
“She put a cradle at the entrance of the building, with a sign: ‘Let it be known, do not abandon your children. Bring your children to me,” Sister Carol Barnes, a current board member of The New York Foundling, told The Tablet. “And that very first night, on October 11, 1869, they heard a cry at the door … and pinned to the baby’s blanket was a note. Her name is Sarah, take good care of her. And thousands of babies followed.”
By the end of 1869, more than 100 babies were left at the center, which was called New York Foundling Asylum of the Sisters of Charity.
The New York Foundling has since expanded its mission to assisting people with developmental disabilities and mental health issues, and to helping young people in the juvenile system. Its main focus, though, is child welfare.
“We touch the lives of more than 30,000 people every year,” said Kirkley Strand, vice president of development and communications. “We started as an organization that was meeting the needs of the community when nobody else was. So that is what has driven us and what drove the Sisters of Charity … the idea that we have to be responsive to the needs of our community, working to help our neighbors and do so in the best way possible.”
Sister Carol Barnes, a former president of the Sisters of Charity, said the organization “has responded to unmet needs throughout our history, and continues to respond until the need no longer exists.”
The Foundling has several locations in New York City, including two in Brooklyn. It also has a location in Puerto Rico. At its headquarters in Manhattan, it has a “crisis nursery,” a temporary home for toddlers who are homeless or at-risk.
The nonprofit has a staff of more than 2,000 and is supported financially by the Sisters of Charity, corporate backers and community partners.
In the 19th century, it was known for helping “orphan trains,” a process of transporting homeless, abandoned, abused and orphaned children and placing them in Catholic parishes and families throughout the country.
Sister Mary Irene and her community also established St. Anne’s Maternity Pavilion/Hospital, and later St. Mary’s Residence, to serve single, pregnant mothers in need, as well as a nursing tech program for young women to help care for children in the maternity ward.
In 1977, the New York Foundling merged with St. Agatha’s Home for Children to provide a more comfortable home for more orphans.
On Oct. 2, the New York Foundling will celebrate its 150th Anniversary Gala at The Plaza hotel, culminating its yearlong celebrations for the milestone anniversary. It will honor Gregory B. Braca, a longtime Foundling supporter, who is now president and CEO of TD Bank.
The Foundling is part of New York City’s history.
“I think when we do things that are risk-taking and you take a deep breath and do it, you can have such a successful result,” Sister Carol said. “I can’t imagine this city without The Foundling. It continues to be important as long as the need exists … and I pray for that day The Foundling is no longer needed.”