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Massachusetts' first Catholic charitable institution

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Immediately after their arrival, the sisters began taking in poor orphaned girls, setting up a day school for poor girls, and teaching Sunday school, all without a proper building or administration to support them.

Thomas
Lester

March 23, 2018, marks the 175th anniversary of the incorporation of St. Vincent's Orphan Asylum, the first Catholic charitable institution in Massachusetts.

The idea for an orphan asylum originated with Bishop Benedict Fenwick, even before he arrived in Boston in late 1825 as Bishop Cheverus' successor. The plan to found an orphan asylum proved difficult, and so in early 1832 he sought assistance from the Sisters of Charity of Emmitsburg, Maryland. The sisters were founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, and are the first religious order to be founded in the U.S. Bishop Fenwick hoped that with the sisters present in the city and available to staff the orphan asylum, it would help spur support for the project. On May 2 help arrived in the form of Sister Blandina Davaux, Sisters Loyola Ritchie, and Sister Ann Alexis Shorb.

Immediately after their arrival, the sisters began taking in poor orphaned girls, setting up a day school for poor girls, and teaching Sunday school, all without a proper building or administration to support them. In addition to these responsibilities, they were able to organize several Sisters' Fairs over the ensuing decade to help raise money for the proposed orphan asylum.

Finally, in March 1843, Bishop Fenwick announced that a petition had been sent to the General Court of the State of Massachusetts to formally incorporate St. Vincent's Orphan Asylum, which was granted on March 23. His letter announcing its opening reveals that the orphan asylum, then located on the corner of Pearl and High Streets, was to be managed by five directors elected annually. The institution would accept any poor orphaned girl between the ages of 3 and 10, whether she was Catholic or not.

For all but a few months of the next 40 years, Sister Ann Alexis, who had been one of the first Sisters of Charity to arrive in Boston, took charge of the institution whose enduring success is credited to her skillful management. By 1845 enough funding had been secured for a proper building to be constructed for the asylum, this time at the corner of Camden Street and Shawmut Avenue. It opened in April 1858, and could house up to 600 orphaned girls. The asylum continued in its mission for over 100 years, until it finally closed in 1949.

Starting on March 23, there will be a new display in the Pastoral Center lobby to commemorate the anniversary of the incorporation of Massachusetts' first Catholic charitable institution. Documents include Bishop Fenwick's public letter announcing its opening in 1843, a print of the 1848 building, and, for those who would like to learn more, a free booklet will be available next to the display which visitors are welcome to take home with them.

Thomas Lester is the archivist of the Archdiocese of Boston.

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