NEW HAVEN – When St. Francis Home for Children closed its doors for good last month, countless childhood memories disappeared with it.
After 160 years of serving thousands of children in need, the place many people know as Highland Heights ceased operation on Sept. 15.
"It’s a very sad day in my life," said Jimmy Miller of Oxford, 85, who grew up there when it was an orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy and who has supported it financially for all of his adult life.
In announcing the closure, David R. Cameron, chairman of the board of trustees, said that the loss of state funding was the reason for the "exceptionally difficult" decision to close the home.
Over the past decade, with grants from the Court Support Services Division of the state’s judicial branch, St. Francis Home in recent years has provided short-term residential care and family support services at 651 Prospect St. and at its Jimmy Miller Center on Congress Avenue.
A colleague agency of the Archdiocese of Hartford, it also received $25,000 annually from the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal, said Paula Moody, the most recent executive director at St. Francis, and from other donors
Rose Alma Senatore, director of charities for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Hartford, said St. Francis Home should be remembered for its legacy of helping thousands of children who needed assistance.
"Even though the services changed or the funding sources changed over the years, St. Francis was always there for children and then families who were in need. It was a real asset to the New Haven community," she said.
The home, located at the corner of Highland and Prospect Streets, opened on June 2, 1864, with four Sisters of Mercy and 44 orphan girls. By 1896, there were 194 boys and 100 girls living there.
A Web site, highlandheightsorphanage.com, "dedicated to the thousands of children who have passed through the doors of Highland Heights …," chronicles facts and memories contributed by people who lived there.
Over its history, St. Francis evolved from a large orphanage to a long-term residential treatment home for children to a short-term residential facility for children with support services for their families.
Despite the changes, its mission stayed fundamentally the same, though.
"St. Francis was always a place that was warm and welcoming to abandoned [children] and/or children and families in need," Ms. Senatore said.
"For many, many, many years, it offered help to children who had no families, or who needed support because their families couldn’t take care of them or because their family dynamics were such that the kids could not live at home."
Mr. Miller, who went on to become a successful entrepreneur in businesses ranging from beauty salons to nightclubs in New York City, is part of St. Francis Home’s history. He had remained dedicated to St. Francis Home since he returned to New Haven after serving in the Pacific Theater in the Navy during World War II. His generosity to St. Francis began with a Christmas Eve tradition of visiting the home with a donation. He also drew Frank Sinatra’s name into the home’s history.
Some years ago, he organized dinners with his friends in early December that were aimed at raising funds to improve the lives of children. By about 2000, the events were pulling in about $25,000.
"Then, nine or 10 years ago, I went kind of public with this," creating a nonprofit foundation called the Friends of Jimmy Miller Inc.
Proceeds from the dinners were divided among St. Francis Home, the Clifford Beers Clinic in New Haven and Mount St. John in Deep River, all serving children.
The guest lists for the dinners grew steadily. Mr. Miller said last December’s dinner raised $198,000, of which about $45,000 was given to St. Francis Home.
Ms. Senatore said the archdiocese recently gave $120,000 to the Friends of Jimmy Miller organization.
Ms. Moody said that in recent years, the small, short-term residential program St. Francis offered was geared toward "transitioning those kids quickly back into the community and linking them with the community-based services."
Over the past few years, St. Francis Home offered daytime family support programs at the Jimmy Miller Center on Congress Avenue, where it also ran two small and short-term residential programs for children who struggled behaviorally or academically, had mental health challenges or lacked a supportive family, Ms. Moody said.
The facility acquired the name Highland Heights in the 1960s, when the home’s mission changed from an orphanage to a long-term residential treatment center for young people, she said.
"When we transitioned from an orphanage to a residential program, the kids used the location and said they wanted to be dropped off by the school bus at Highland Heights because they didn’t want the stigma of living in a residential [facility]," Ms. Moody said. "The kids started calling it Highland Heights, and, before you know it, other people were calling it Highland Heights."
A name also figures into how Mr. Sinatra fits into the home’s history.
At one point when Mr. Miller was helping the school as an adult, the mother superior enlisted his help in raising money to open a school there.
His best friend at the time was another nightclub owner, Jilly Rizzo, who also was a friend of the star. Mr. Miller asked Jilly to tell Mr. Sinatra that the school would be named in Mr. Sinatra’s honor.
Although it used to be a well-guarded secret until recent years, an anonymous donation resulted, with the condition that the amount not be disclosed.
A plaque memorializing the donor and his gift is at the home.
A few days after the home’s closure, Ms. Moody was in her office to finish up paperwork and to oversee distribution of furniture and office equipment, which were given to Catholic Charities in New Haven and Waterbury and to other institutions within the archdiocese.
About 60 staff members lost their jobs with the closing of the home, she said.