On March 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln picked up a pen and did what every American president spends a lot of his time doing: He signed a document.
I had gone to Sister Mary Bader’s office in Hyattsville to see that piece of paper. Sister Mary got up and went into a walk-in safe to retrieve it. “An Act,” the document began, “to incorporate St. Ann’s Infant Asylum, in the District of Columbia.”
St. Ann’s had actually been founded in 1860, and the presidential signature was a bit of a formality. Congress had authorized, and Lincoln had approved, the incorporation of an institution “for the maintenance and support of foundlings and infant orphan and half orphan children.” The asylum would also provide for “deserving indigent and unprotected females during their confinement in childbirth.”
So many of those words have an antique ring about them now. An “infant asylum”? “Foundlings”? And what is a “half orphan” or an “unprotected female,” anyway? Even so, 150 years later, St. Ann’s is still doing pretty much what it did back then.
“We provide them with what we would like to see every child with: care and love,” said Sister Mary, head of what is now called St. Ann’s Infant & Maternity Home.
Originally in the District, St. Ann’s moved to Eastern Avenue just over the border in 1962. And the nuns who, with dozens of lay staffers, run the place — members of the nearly 400-year-old order known as the Daughters of Charity — no longer wear the distinctive starched, tetrahedral headgear that’s so prominent in old photos. (And the inspiration for the signature plot device in the old Sally Field sitcom, “The Flying Nun.”)
Sister Mary showed me around. Eight apartments — known as Faith House — are home for mothers between the ages of 18 and 25 who might otherwise be on the streets. There’s a teen mother program, too, where girls 13 to 21 can live for up to three years, attending what may be the smallest high school in our area. Nine girls are enrolled at St. Ann’s High School. Their children — and children from the neighborhood — attend the day care St. Ann’s runs.
Then there’s the children’s residential program, what was once called an “orphanage,” which is itself only a slight improvement over “asylum.”
There was a time when children might have stayed at St. Ann’s for years. Sister Mary regularly hears from 60- and 70-year-olds reconnecting with their past, kids who quite literally grew up there. Now St. Ann’s is a transitional place for children rescued from dire situations who are awaiting foster placement.
“We want to see kids in homes,” Sister Mary said.
Fifty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for 100 children to live there. One hundred little white baby shoes were polished each night, their laces run through the washing machine. The day I visited, there were 15 in residential care. It was nap time, and the youngsters were snoozing atop cots and under blankets. There is nothing as soothing as the sight of a sleeping child, which is why I apologized when my cellphone went off just as we entered.
We continued upstairs. “This was Mary Gloria’s room,” Sister Mary said as we visited the library. Post columnist Mary McGrory (or “Mary Gloria,” as she was known around these halls) was a longtime patron of St. Ann’s. McGrory thought few things were as important as knowing all your nursery rhymes. She made sure St. Ann’s had the books that would make that possible. She also enlisted the support of the powerful she wrote about. She’d regularly ferry kids over to Hickory Hill, the Kennedy family mansion in McLean, to go swimming.
Sister Mary said one of her challenges is to de-institutionalize the look of St. Ann’s. There was a time when running tile halfway up every wall seemed like a good idea. But renovations are underway to make the place look more inviting, to eliminate the harsh echoes reminiscent of a hospital corridor.
Would Lincoln be surprised there’s still a need for St. Ann’s? Sadly, probably not.
Fresh from my band’s defeat at Journopalooza, I agreed to participate in Commedia del Media, a sort of “Last Comic Standing” charity event by the ink-stained wretch set, taking place April 1 (really!) at the National Press Club. Then I remembered I don’t know any jokes.
So why not crowd-source it? If you have some good jokes (ribald ones are fine), send them my way.