What started as an infant asylum 162 years ago has gone through many transformations to meet the needs of vulnerable women and children.
Jasmine Rolon, a 25-year-old single mother, desperately wanted a space with some quiet for herself and her 1-year-old son, Josiah. After years of struggling with homelessness, she lived in a bad renting situation and endured traumatic verbal abuse while pregnant. In her search for options last year, she came across a virtual tour of St. Ann’s Center for Children Youth and Families run by the Daughters of Charity. “Something in that video was vibrant,” she recalled. “It was illuminating. It had this energy coming off of the video, and I just started crying.”
She called their number and recalled that the woman on the phone “was really kind to me.” Rolon moved into St. Ann’s housing in Hyattsville, Maryland, soon after and described what followed as “a tremendous outpouring of help.”
Rolon had dropped out of high school at 16, but within a couple of months after moving to St. Ann’s was able to obtain her high-school diploma. After living at the center for a year, she has moved out to her own apartment with a full-time job in childcare and is enrolled in virtual college classes for accounting. She said St. Ann’s gave her “the privacy and the mental space” she needed, knowing that she and her son were in a safe environment.
Rolon is not Catholic but has always had faith in God. She told the Register that the presence of the sisters made the center feel like more than “just a company,” and she could see their kindness as they worked in the daycare and made sure she was getting medical care, adding that, among the women living there, “everyone respects the sisters.”
A Long History
St. Ann’s Center has adapted over its long history to help women like Rolon. Sister Mary Bader, CEO of the center, showed the Register a framed copy hanging on their wall of an act, signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, to “incorporate St. Ann’s Infant Asylum” in the District of Columbia.
At that point in time, the sisters took in abandoned and orphaned children as the Civil War caused upheaval in the nation’s capital. Other pictures on the walls of the center mark its different locations and different forms of service. Sister Mary talked about how the center provided a daycare for the children of women who went to work as their husbands went overseas to fight during World War II and how former first lady Nancy Reagan helped found a foster-grandparent program there.
Over the past decades they underwent some major changes, from orphanage to daycare and transitional-housing programs for the mothers, as “they saw fewer true orphans” but more children “who generally had a family member, but the family member was unable to take care of them.”
Early on in the history of St. Ann’s, mothers “would place their children for adoption,” Sister Mary said, but around the ’70s, as “societal norms seemed to change in terms of how pregnancy outside of marriage was viewed,” that number decreased. The children’s programs at St. Ann’s became a program housing 50 children who were placed with them because “the foster-care system was very overwhelmed.” That program closed in 2013, as the need for it decreased.
The sisters kept their program for pregnant mothers, mostly teens, some of whom were in foster care, but they also opened up an apartment building with eight apartments because “many of the mothers who were moving, who were in our teen-mother program, were aging out of the foster-care system and had nowhere to go.” There, they opened a daycare because “our kids needed childcare, and the mothers who are here need childcare for their families.” The daycare serves children in the surrounding community due to a great need there, as well.
Many of these changes are noteworthy in the center, with rooms that have been repurposed over the years from housing infants and young children to forming a neighborhood of women living in community with private rooms alongside kitchens, lounges and playrooms. The building is full of the sounds of young children in daycare playing with the staff and sisters as their mothers work or go to school.
In the upstairs Grace House community, teen expectant and new mothers still in the foster-care system get help with their high-school homework. The center ensures that these girls have childcare or, if they’re pregnant, are taken to their appointments. They also aid them in seeing their families and meeting their day-to-day needs as well as long-term goals.
A Support System
When a mother or expectant mother comes to the center, Sister Mary said, the initial goal is to “relieve some of the stressors in their life.” She said the sisters and staff “try and solve the childcare problem, then the employment problem.” With an employment counselor working with each mother, they try “to identify what their interests are and what might they need to get a job that they really would be content” doing. She said many of the women who come to the Faith and Hope House programs have gone on to finish high school and begin college, and some have even finished college and earned additional certifications.
In the past two years, despite the COVID pandemic, Sister Mary says the center has had about 15 families move out of the center and into their own places.
“Some of it was helped by the child tax credit that they were receiving,” she said, “but much of it had to do with how they made so much progress here: They lifted themselves up by taking advantage of all the programming that’s offered.” She praised policies like the child tax credits given during the pandemic and the ban on evictions as helping families like the ones she serves. Childcare vouchers and affordable housing are other steps she sees as empowering families with the “means to live” and break vicious cycles of poverty.
Women “need a means of being able to care for their child and seek assistance and not just the guidance away from abortion,” Sister Mary said. “There are groups out there that are doing that; it’s wonderful to see.” The center sends some of their donations to surrounding groups like The Gabriel Project and also offers material resources directly to mothers in the surrounding community.
Sister Mary emphasized that the center is meant to feel like a community and underscored that the women are treated with love and respect. She has been inspired by moments when the women have supported one another. One such moment occurred when two women went into labor one evening. One of the women had a young son, Joey, with special needs. Several of the women at the center came to Sister Mary, one brought Joey’s favorite stuffed animal and another told her his favorite foods, while another was able to assist in watching him and calming him.
“It was a matter of just a few minutes when the child was organized and cared for in a way that I think we all felt that we could be at ease,” she said, “and it stayed that way for a day or two until somebody on our staff was able to reach a sibling of the mother. I saw the depth with which they cared for each other and the depth with which they knew each other.”
Rolon said the center’s atmosphere is comprised of a good mix of independence and community. “I’m friends with pretty much every resident here,” she said. “My son just turned 2 in February, so I had a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese, and most of the moms came and supported us.”
Service to the Poor
Sister Mary Jean Doyle lives at St. Ann’s with seven other Daughters of Charity, but works with Catholic Charities to aid victims of labor and sex trafficking. In Sister Mary Jean’s work with Catholic Charities, she has referred trafficking victims to St. Ann’s. She said that Catholic Charities aids trafficking victims with a network of government and charitable resources. “Many of these folks have never had something like that,” she said, “they find that here in the United States people actually care what happens to them.” She predominantly works with minors who have been trafficked from different countries in Latin America.
She worked at the center years ago when they housed up to 50 children and said that many of those children “had lost everything.” One evening during her time there, Child Protective Services asked them to take young children from a group of families in which the fathers shot and killed the mothers in front of the children under the influence of drugs. The children arrived that evening in shock with their mothers’ blood on their clothing. She said with situations like that one, “counseling was a big piece of” helping the children.
She recalled that as the sisters saw the needs of the community shift, they “talked about renting apartments out in the community for these young mothers after they left aftercare to go out and be independent,” but she was pleased to see that they were able to build the Faith House apartments where Rolon lived last year to meet that need.
“Our fourth vow is service of the poor, and we commit our lives as sisters to go and do what the community asks for the needs of the poor, wherever it is,” Sister Mary Jean said. “I was asked to go into social work. I’m also trained as a dietitian, and I’m trained as a nursing-home administrator. I had some religious education training in there, too.”
Sister Mary Jean said she knew she had a vocation 54 years ago after growing up witnessing religious sisters aid the poor in her southern Virginia community. She said it was pivotal for her to witness “the goodness of the sisters to these people, but not just professional goodness, it was the personal interaction.” The example of her parents in their faith and service to the poor was also a factor, as she watched her mother who was a retired nurse do nursing work when the sisters asked. Sister Mary said that during her time as a layperson and teacher, she was able to work at St. Ann’s, and her work there “sparked a quiet thought of vocation” that eventually led to her decision to join the order in 1990.
Safe and Sound
The women inspire her and teach her about “about resilience,” Sister Mary said. “They love their children, and they’re here because of their children first and foremost.” The women who come to St. Ann’s are sometimes referred there by crisis-pregnancy centers. She said they’re “committed to having their babies” and “want the baby to arrive in a safe place; and they want the baby to have a future, but they know they need support.”
She said that many of these women come from traumatic backgrounds, and the knowledge that they are safe is “so important for them to heal.” She said “the women are the miracle workers, not the program,” because “we provide the environment and the supports, but they do the work.” She referenced the words of St. Vincent de Paul, co-founder of the Daughters of Charity, that “love is inventive to infinity,” saying that, for the sisters, it’s a directive to “adapt and meet the needs of the times.”
Rolon is thankful for their comfort and care, recalling that during her time at St. Ann’s with the sisters living on the third floor, she felt as though they were “praying over us all the time.”
Originally published by National Catholic Reporter.