"The greater the work the more
important it is to establish it on
a solid foundation. Thus it will
not only be more perfect; it
will also be more lasting.”

St. Louise de Marillac

St. Joseph Home – The Early Years

By S. Judith Metz

St. Joseph Maternity Hospital and Infant Asylum on Reading Road in Cincinnati, Ohio.

S. Anthony O’Connell, during her years at St. Joseph Orphan Asylum and St. John’s/Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, heard and saw many heart-rending stories of women and children in distress. In the post-Civil War years, with a larger facility available, she had resources to provide a refuge for unwed mothers and poor widows as a service of Good Samaritan Hospital. Realizing these women could be better served outside a hospital environment, she rented the Ewing Mansion adjacent to the hospital in 1867. Naming the new facility St. Ann’s Home for Destitute Widows and Females, it was soon occupied by 30 homeless and impoverished women of all ages and religions. According to The Catholic Telegraph, “Never was an institution of this description wanted more for this city.”

The need and desirability of relocating this ministry outside the city led S. Anthony to pursue purchase of the eight-acre Boyle Homestead on Reading Road when it became available. When she asked her friend and benefactor, Mr. Joseph C. Butler, to look over the deed, he generously responded, “Your purse is too slender and family of invalids too large to pay for it so I send you the deed,” stipulating that, like the Good Samaritan Hospital, it would serve all regardless of race, religion, or country. Three Sisters, under S. Anthony’s direction, opened the now renamed St. Joseph’s Infant Asylum in 1873. In the first year they welcomed 56 babies. The first such facility in Cincinnati, the Sisters were forced to confront prevailing attitudes toward illegitimacy, as the work only slowly gained sympathy. Relying solely on donations, making ends meet was a challenge. S. Agnes Regina Browne suggested washing the laces of the wealthy women of Clifton and Avondale, an endeavor that also provided employment for the residents of the asylum – “Four o’clock in the morning would find her directing her band of workers. Scheme followed scheme and activity followed activity, for S. Agnes Regina’s charity was boundless.”

In 1867 S. Anthony O’Connell leased a building adjoining Good Samaritan Hospital as a refuge for unwed mothers and their destitute women and children whom the hospital could not always shelter.

After operating as a branch of Good Samaritan for two years, St. Joseph’s became an independent institution under the supervision of S. Cecilia Griffin. During her 10-year tenure, financial struggles and the inconveniences of overcrowding in their small frame house continued. By the mid-1880s generous donations allowed for physical growth as well as St. Joseph’s ability to serve more women and children. In 1884 Reuben R. Springer’s legacy of $20,000, along with the generosity of other friends, allowed for the construction of a new three-story building, while Joseph C. Butler Jr. purchased property to enlarge the grounds. As important as these monetary contributions were, so was the consistent support of Archbishops John Purcell and William Elder, the later of whom established an annual collection in all the parishes of the Archdiocese for the benefit of St. Joseph’s. The asylum also benefitted from the direction of dedicated and generous doctors who gave unstintingly of their services. In particular, Dr. William E. DeCourcy, who directed the medical and surgical work for 37 years, was so dedicated that he had a private telephone installed between his home and the institution. He was succeeded by his son, Dr. Giles DeCourcy, who was equally dedicated to St. Joseph’s.  

From 1885 until her death in 1913, S. Agnes Regina was the guiding spirit and leading force that propelled St. Joseph’s through 28 years of untiring service to the most needy. She was described as “a heart capable of being touched by every appeal of mercy,” who “had the power of drawing others, interesting them in assisting.” The 1885 three-story maternity hospital wing was followed a decade later by a three-story children’s wing. Services offered in these facilities included care of unmarried women and their children, care of dependent children of preschool age, a maternity hospital for married mothers; and care of elderly poor women.

Most of the unmarried women who arrived in the early days of the asylum were bewildered and distressed, destitute and without resources. An interview with the director determined admission, and there was an atmosphere of secrecy to protect anonymity. Their lengths of stay varied as did their decision whether to keep their baby. The Sister-nurses who cared for these women seemed instinctively to respond to their psychological as well as physical needs. In a tribute to S. Agnes Regina one former patient wrote, “I am one out of many whom she and the good Sisters cared for when the whole world was against us.”

In 1867 S. Anthony O’Connell leased a building adjoining Good Samaritan Hospital as a refuge for unwed mothers and their destitute women and children whom the hospital could not always shelter.

Of the hundreds of children St. Joseph’s cared for, many were orphaned or simply abandoned. Babies were regularly left on the doorstep and in the hedge near the entrance of the institution. It was S. Agnes Regina’s custom to inspect the yard each night before retiring in search of abandoned infants. St. Joseph’s received every class and religion of children, including in many cases the diseased and the tubercular. Dr. Giles DeCourcy estimated that in its first 50 years St. Joseph’s cared for 15,000 women and babies.    

The children’s wing, with a capacity of 120, was divided into four nurseries with the children placed according to age. They learned good table manners and the importance of good nutrition, while age-appropriate educational and recreational activities, toys, and outings were part of their daily program. In 1906 a kindergarten was opened, initially staffed by volunteer teachers, but later a teacher and assistant were hired. The Infant Aid Society, founded in 1898, sponsored fundraising events and donated generously to the asylum. One description tells of a Christmas tree “laden with bon-bons and goodies for each and all … . Not one of the inmates of the house but received some little token to show that he [or she] had been thought of by Santa Claus.”

St. Joseph’s Infant Asylum was conducted as a private institution until 1916 when, by order of Archbishop Henry Moeller, all Catholic charitable institutions were required to operate under the Bureau of Catholic Charities. This change represented a new chapter in the history of the asylum. Going forward all admissions were made by a professional social worker through Catholic Charities, and were limited to Catholics who lived in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Far fewer expectant mothers, babies, and small children were cared for, but enhanced professional services were available to all who were admitted to St. Joseph’s.  

 From 1885 until her death in 1913 S. Agnes Regina Brown (right) was the guiding spirit and leading force that propelled St. Joseph’s through 28 years of untiring service to the most needy.

The children’s wing at St. Joseph’s Infant Asylum, with a capacity of 120, was divided into four nurseries with the children placed according to age.

At St. Joseph’s Infant Asylum, children learned good table manners and the importance of good nutrition.

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