For the past 18 years, Sister Mary Bader has been at home, literally, at St. Ann’s Center for Children, Youth and Families in Hyattsville, Maryland.
In addition to serving as the CEO of St. Ann’s, the Daughter of Charity also lives there with seven other members of her religious order at the sisters’ residence. The Catholic agency was founded by the Daughters of Charity in 1860 and chartered by President Lincoln in 1863. From the Civil War era to the digital age, St. Ann’s has served the changing needs of women and children in the Washington, D.C., area.
“Not everyone would like to live and work in the same place, especially in a building where you have women, children and staff, and being here 24/7,” Sister Mary said, noting the occasional fire alarm and plumbing problems in off hours, but also how living and working there gives her the chance to be a part of that community and witness how St. Ann’s brings help and hope to the women and children at St. Ann’s and transforms their lives. “For me, that (living here) has only added to the joy,” she said.
On Sept. 27, St. Ann’s Center announced that Sister Mary Bader will be concluding her leadership there and in late 2023, she will transition to a new leadership role, serving as a member of the Daughter of Charity’s Provincial Council in St. Louis. St. Ann’s Board of Directors has formed a search committee for a new CEO to continue, adapt and grow the agency’s mission. Daughters of Charity will continue to live and volunteer at St. Ann’s.
In a statement, Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory praised the impact that Sister Mary Bader has had in leading St. Ann’s.
“Our Archdiocese and the entire metro Washington, D.C. community are tremendously grateful for the caring and effective leadership of Sister Mary Bader over her past 18 years of service at St. Ann’s Center as Chief Executive Officer,” Cardinal Gregory said. “Sister Mary has enabled countless families in our region to heal, thrive and grow toward bright new futures. Sister Mary, thank you for all you have done for the mothers and their children who have called and continue to call St. Ann’s Center home. You will be greatly missed and fondly remembered for your kindness, generosity, and commitment to the mission of St. Ann’s Center for Children, Youth, and Families.”
A press release from the agency announcing the leadership change summarized the outreach there: “St. Ann’s Center helps mothers and children overcome crisis and achieve lasting independence and stability by providing a safe and supportive home, child care, education and employment assistance, and clinical social work services within a Catholic community that welcomes all.”
During Sister Mary’s tenure at St. Ann’s, the agency transitioned a long-time residential program for young foster children into supportive, transitional housing for mothers and their children experiencing homelessness. St. Ann’s kept its doors open for families during the COVID-19 pandemic, continuing to operate its residential programs and support services for women and children.
Also during her leadership there, the early Head Start program at St. Ann’s Child Care Center began helping low-income residents and local families to access comprehensive child development and family support services. The St. Ann’s Community Outreach Program was established to improve access to baby formula, baby food, clothing and other critical staples for resident mothers and families. Another program established during that time, the St. Ann’s Education & Employment Program, helps resident mothers set and reach their academic and professional goals.
In a Sept. 26 interview at St. Ann’s, Sister Mary Bader reflected on her reaction to leaving there and the impact that ministry has had on her, and the women and children.
“It’s been a great joy and privilege,” she said, noting the gratitude she felt for having the opportunity to stay in one mission for that long. “I always wanted to serve children and people in need for as long as I can remember.”
A native of the Washington area, she experienced the work of women religious throughout her years in Catholic schools, attending the first through fourth grades at the Ursuline Academy in Bethesda (now the Woods Academy), then the fifth through eighth grades at Little Flower School in Bethesda staffed by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, then high school at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington sponsored by the Visitation Sisters.
After earning a degree in child study from Tufts University in the Boston area, she worked at Our Lady Queen of Peace School in Washington and St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home in Hyattsville staffed by the Daughters of Charity. She became a member of that religious community in 1991.
Asked about St. Ann’s legacy, Sister Mary pulled out a special artifact, an 1863 draft of a congressional bill establishing the agency that includes editing marks and Abraham Lincoln’s signature.
“The sisters have served here the entire time from the start until now. I think that speaks to the spirit and the values as well as the sustainability of the mission that is clearly driven by God,” Sister Mary said.
She noted that the institution was originally incorporated as St. Ann’s Infant Asylum in the District of Columbia, when the word “asylum” was understood to mean a place of refuge, and as the Civil War was raging, St. Ann’s offered a haven for orphans and for pregnant women and mothers who had no other place to go.
“Since then, St. Ann’s has constantly evolved and adapted its services to meet the needs of women and children,” Sister Mary said. “…The legacy of St. Ann’s will always be that it adapts its services to the changing times and needs of the women and children and families as they are constantly changing.”
Over the years, St. Ann’s name changed to St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home. During World War II, St. Ann’s began offering child care services for mothers who were working during the day in government and industry jobs supporting the war effort, while fathers were fighting overseas. Since the 1970s, St. Ann’s has operated a licensed child care center that now serves children from the community, and also children residing at St. Ann’s while their mothers are working or attending school.
As the decades passed, St. Ann’s transitioned from being an orphanage to providing foster care for children. Sister Mary pointed out how during the 1980s, St. Ann’s was asked to care for babies whose mothers were addicted to crack cocaine, and also babies born with HIV during the AIDS epidemic. St. Ann’s also began serving young mothers facing homelessness, and also immigrant and refugee mothers and their children, and women escaping abusive situations.
“When all of these various social challenges emerged, we have been there to respond,” Sister Mary said.
St. Ann’s operates three supportive housing programs for mothers and children facing crisis situations. Grace House offers residential care for pregnant adolescents and young mothers and their babies. Hope House and Faith House offer transitional and supportive housing programs for pregnant and parenting women experiencing homelessness and instability.
St. Ann’s also offers wraparound supports including an education and employment program, clinical and social work services, and its child care center.
In fiscal year 2023, 35 families were served across St. Ann’s three programs, including 35 mothers and 42 children, and 83 children were served at its Child Care Center.
During Sister Mary’s years of leadership there, the agency’s name changed again, to St. Ann’s Center for Children, Youth and Families.
“Our name was changed to reflect our mission more accurately and in contemporary language,” she said, noting that the term “maternity home” had become an archaic phrase. “…While ‘home’ was certainly accurate while we were providing a home to the women and children, ‘center’ takes it a step further in terms of all the services that we provide, and for the community as well.”
She added, “The mission of serving women, children and families who are facing many challenges, related generally to poverty and more, continues… We are constantly attentive to the changing needs of the community as it relates to those who are poor and vulnerable.”
The Daughters of Charity were founded in 1633 by St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac in France. In 1809, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton founded the Sister of Charity, the first religious order started in the United States, and those sisters later joined with the Daughters of Charity in France. Today the Daughters of Charity include more than 13,000 women religious serving in nearly 100 countries around the world in education, health care and social service ministries.
Sister Mary noted that St. Vincent de Paul “instructed the sisters occasionally on how they should serve the poor in Paris. He said, ‘Be creative to infinity.’ For me, that means be creative and adapt your service to the needs of those who you are serving, and do so with love, and be innovative, being attentive to the changing needs.”
From its founding, St. Ann’s has been faithful to Catholic social teaching and to the charism of the Daughters of Charity and their focus on serving the poor, she said.
In Washington, the Daughters of Charity also operated the now-closed Providence Hospital, and the order continues to sponsor Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, Maryland, for young women.
The St. Ann’s CEO expressed gratitude for the agency’s supporters, and praised its staff, noting that the workers there bring their talents and gifts and represent many different faiths, cultures and races, like the women and children they serve.
“I’ll take so many wonderful memories of the children, mothers, families and supporters of St. Ann’s… I’ve learned so much from every person who I’ve encountered in my role here,” said Sister Mary. “I’ve learned about patience and hope and faith, and about collegiality and the importance of hospitality.”
The Daughter of Charity said she’s also learned a lot about the root causes of poverty and the challenges that people face, and the importance of accompanying them in their time of need.
The work, she said, is all about listening, opening doors and providing opportunities, and seeing the good and human dignity in each of the women they serve and helping them find their personal strengths so someday they will leave St. Ann’s with hope and the skills to build a good future for themselves and their children.
“St. Vincent said when you’re serving another person, you’re serving God. You see God in everybody around St. Ann’s,” Sister Mary said.
Recently she received a phone call from a teen who as a little boy had lived at St. Ann’s with his mother. Sister Mary said both the boy and his mom blossomed from the services at St. Ann’s. The little boy had thrived in the child care program and idolized the maintenance crew so much, that he was given his own small tool box and got to ride along with them on the snow plow. The teen called to say that he and his mom are doing well now. She is working, and he is attending a local Catholic high school. “He wants to come and visit and volunteer here through his high school,” Sister Mary said.
Just as St. Ann’s has changed the lives of so many women and children, it has also changed Sister Mary’s life.
“I’ve been so blessed by the people of St. Ann’s, everyone who helps with the mission, and being with the families, that big net of people who’ve taught me. I’ve learned so much from everybody else,” said Sister Mary, who described her experiences there as “on the job training, for sure!”
She will bring those experiences to her new role on the Daughters of Charity’s Provincial Council in St. Louis, representing the religious order’s Province of St. Louise, which brings together its West Central, East Central, Southeast and Northeast Provinces of the United States.
“Admittedly, it’s going to be a change, because it’s not direct service, which has been the focus of my ministry,” Sister Mary said.
One of the highlights of that new work, she said, will be visiting the Daughters of Charity and their ministries throughout that region, including in upstate New York, Baltimore and New Orleans, and also being part of the order’s new ministries and visiting retired sisters.
“I won’t be behind a desk all day,” Sister Mary said, then laughed as she added, “I just won’t have kids running around 24/7, which I don’t mind!”