“Our work with unmarried mothers was the real work of Saint Vincent. Hidden and quiet, this charity to rejected women and their babies overflowed into our own community life. We found Christ within the Roselia community, most certainly.”
Twelve large square and rectangular, cloth-covered and leather-bound ledger books rest within two wooden cupboards in the Office of the Secretary of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill. From March 14, 1892, until August 14, 1971, these blue-lined pages, some now loose and dog-eared, others neat and tight, list names and dates, revealing bare facts while hiding joys, sorrows, dreams, or disappointments. They are the records of thousands of babies born or brought to the Sisters of Charity at Roselia Foundling since its opening in July 1891.
These written records simply state the name of the child, the date of birth, and the name and address of the family by whom the family was adopted or temporarily placed.
“Marie Hanlon—March 14, 1892—placed—Mrs. Laura Wilson. Died.”
“Katherine—April 30, 1892—placed in Latrobe.”
“Gertrude (Foundling)—October 26, returned November 3, 1892.”
“Lottie Peech—December 6 or 7, 1893 Died.”
“Albert—September 1896—placed with Mrs. Elias Bronson.”
“Raphael—October 2, 1899 sent to Saint Paul’s Orphan Asylum, August, 1904.”
Beginning in 1912, the entries included the mother’s birthplace and the name of a clergyman or doctor who recommended a particular family for the placement of the child. In keeping with the times, very little data was collected and some may have been fictitious. A dearth of background material, however, never affected the abundance of loving care bestowed within the Vincentian-Setonian tradition of the Congregation staffing the institution.
In 1638 Saint Vincent de Paul confided to the Sisters of Charity the charge of infants abandoned in Paris, expanding through the Ladies of Charity care of the mothers outcast from society.
“These children belong to God in a very special way because they have been abandoned by the mothers and fathers . . . you cannot have too much affection for them,” Vincent insisted. His co-worker, Saint Louise de Marillac, created a new method of childcare, establishing for the first time a program of foster care based on a rigorous selection process and monitoring of the families in which the children were placed.
Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton had clearly included the care of the sick, the poor, orphans, and foundlings when she adopted Saint Vincent’s Rule for the American Sisters of Charity. “I can say nothing to you but keep well to what you believe to be the grace of the moment . . . only do you best and leave the rest to our dear God.”
Each congregation of the Sisters of Charity founded by Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton has recognized the need to respond to the grace of the moment and has fulfilled the directive in caring for unmarried mothers and their children, for foundlings and orphans.
Twenty years after their foundation in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, the Seton Hill Sisters of Charity, with diocesan approval, partnered with Mrs. Charles Donnelly, wife of a prominent businessman, to initiate such a project: a foundling home. On July 16, 1891, the Sisters of Charity took possession of a small house at 3935 Forbes Street. Within a month, eighteen infants arrived and the sisters realized more space was required. They procured, with the assistance of Mr. Donnelly, the old Ursuline Academy building at the corner of Cliff and Manilla Streets in the Hill District.
Named Roselia in memory of Mrs. (Roselia Rafferty) Donnelly, the institution soon opened a maternity ward for shelter and prenatal care. Mrs. Elizabeth Davis, a trained obstetrical nurse, joined the staff with physicians from Mercy Hospital in attendance. Dr. Charles Stillwagon became resident physician caring for the residents, including a growing number of married patients who came for their delivery.
The original building had to be remodeled and enlarged several times between 1900 and 1912; in 1919 an adjoining brick building on Cliff Street was purchased and fitted as a nurses’ home. A fully accredited school of practical nursing opened at Roselia in1910 to educate women in maternal and child care until its closure in 1953. From 1937 on, Roselia employed a trained social worker on staff for intake, medical records, placement, and adoption procedures.
The nursing staff, laboratory technician, cook, and instructors were Sisters of Charity and laywomen who gave direct care to the residents of Roselia and those who came to the weekly clinic. Without the tireless efforts of volunteers, especially the fund-raising activities of the Ladies of Charity and their regular visits, the work of Roselia would have suffered. Sister Electa Boyle’s Mother Seton’s Sisters of Charity in Western Pennsylvania describes in detail the struggle experienced by the sisters in trying to secure state appropriations.
Denied on the charge that Roselia was a sectarian institution and thereby ineligible for government funding, the sisters turned to the voluntary contributions of friends, to “tag days,” and to a variety of ways to secure material help.
Arrangements at Roselia reflected the thinking of the times that the women would be promised anonymity and that a child born “out of wedlock” would be better placed for adoption in a stable, two-parent household. A woman, therefore, remained at Roselia for most of her confinement to be offered a holistic program of care and guidance. This practice soon led to the necessity of providing larger quarters.
Planning and financing began in 1951; in 1954 the Philip Murray Memorial Foundation granted a substantial gift supplemented by the continuing support from the Variety Clubs. This group had established the Catherine Variety Sheridan Fund in honor of a foundling taken to Roselia from the Sheridan Square Theatre, East Liberty. A new four-story Roselia building, located at 1635 Bedford Avenue, was dedicated on September 9, 1956.
The ministry to unmarried women and their children flourished over the next decade, but a changing medical scene and shifting societal values began to affect the program and the census.
By 1970 fewer pregnant, unmarried women sought the protection and privacy of Roselia, and most who came to deliver their babies decided to keep them.
No longer was a large institution required and the Sisters of Charity conducted a study to determine how best to utilize the building and how to accommodate the women who still desired this service. As a result of this study, the sisters partnered with Catholic Charities of the Pittsburgh Diocese to move the program to a large private home on Clyde Street, Oakland, naming the spot Roselia Manor. Sister Rosemary Fleming was a pioneer in that new venture. The work now continues to prosper under the direction Catholic Charities in the building now known as Roselia Center.
Sister Helen Hart who served twenty years at Roselia, first as a social worker and then administrator, has many memories of her years there: “Our work with unmarried mothers was the real work of Saint Vincent. Hidden and quiet, this charity to rejected women and their babies overflowed into our own community life. We found Christ within the Roselia community, most certainly.”
Sister Helen Louise Connelly succeeded Sister James Regis Stewart in the administration of Roselia. She echoes sentiments of many of the sisters who served at Roselia: “Those years were among the happiest of my life . . . all staff members treated the girls so well—with loving respect. I believe such treatment brought out the best in everyone who found her way to the Foundling.”
From 1891 to 1971 the Sisters of Charity and their partners at Roselia Foundling welcomed women in need, transforming the social stigma into a restored image and new life. They loved and guided these women through the bodily and spiritual needs of the prenatal stage, assisted in deliveries, gave natal and postnatal care—preparing formula, feeding, holding, walking the nursery floor, counseling the mother, teaching her skills otherwise neglected, praying with her as she made one of the most difficult decisions of her life, crying, too, as the babies remained, investigating prospective adopting families.
Above all, the staff of Roselia offered hope, encouragement, and made a home during a time of stress and pain. Roselia became a family to many, many women.
Yes, ledgers in DePaul Center, buildings gone or converted to other uses, old photos, medical charts, Community Chest audits, letters, and orders—all sketch a wonderful story but only in barest outline. In eternity, the good done at Roselia will be completely rewarded and our founders and patrons will congratulate their partners in charity, helpers of the homeless, champions of infants and children, leading all to never ending peace.
Sister Helen Hart cooperated with the decision to close Roselia Foundling at the Bedford Avenue location in 1971 and move to the Clyde Street facility.
From 1971-1973, the Board of Education of the City of Pittsburgh leased part of the building at Bedford Avenue for classroom space in which to conduct classes for students who were pregnant and unmarried.
One floor of the building was used for infirm Sisters of Mercy following a 1972 fire at St. Xavier Academy in Latrobe.
The decision of the board not to renew the lease of the Board of Education in the fall of 1973 prompted the Council of the Sisters of Charity to search for other uses and leases for the property.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society saw the availability of the building as an answer to a prayer, since St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality at Tannehill Street badly needed repair.
The Sisters of Charity signed a lease with the St. Vincent de Paul Society for one dollar a year for 25 years to move the residence of poor, homeless men to the former Roselia Foundling at Bedford Avenue and to rename the building St. Joseph House of Hospitality.
Sister Sara Louise Reilly, General Councilor of the Sisters of Charity, managed the transfer and oversaw the initiation of the ministry of the Sisters of Charity to the low-income men between the ages of 50-80.
Today, St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality is operated under the jurisdiction of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Sister Harriet Seton Newton is the Manager of St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality.