WEST HARTFORD – For over 100 years, every pregnant girl standing at the door of St. Agnes Home has already taken the first and most important step on a long road. She’s made the critical life decision to have her baby. And most, in recent years, have decided to keep, care for and make a family with the baby.
For a girl under 18, usually alone, and often troubled, the odds are against her. For thousands of such girls, the refuge offered by St. Agnes Home throughout its 100-year history has changed the odds, with immediate help, long-term hope and love in abundance.
Marking this milestone at the home’s centennial celebration last October, Archbishop Leonard Blair said, “Circumstances and times change but human need remains, and our response of compassion and faithful witness to the gift of life and motherhood endures, thanks to Saint Agnes Home and its many supporters past and present.”
A colleague agency of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Hartford, St. Agnes Home and Family Center is the only licensed maternity home in Connecticut. St. Agnes also offers a transitional living support program, providing a young woman the opportunity to achieve independence, step back into the community and continue to be a family with her child.
Located on Mayflower Street in the former convent for St. Bridget School, St. Agnes Home accommodates up to 14 young mothers and infants. A wide range of services is offered beyond just the safe haven of a comfortable room and nutritious food. A comprehensive program offers pre- and postnatal care, on-site classes, vocation planning and counseling, and social and day care services.
At the sold-out centennial event at the Hartford Marriott, Archbishop Blair described the milestone as an opportunity not only to look forward to serving future generations, but to look back and reflect on God’s many blessings granted through the hard work, faith and perseverance of many, including the Sisters of Mercy and lay leadership, through the years.
The program has endured thanks to continuing efforts to sustain the vision and compassion of a turn-of-the-century bishop in what was then the Diocese of Hartford.
The legacy of that early bishop, John A. Nilan, was honored at the event with the announcement of the establishment of an award in his name. Two inaugural Bishop Nilan Awards were presented for 2014, to Sister of Mercy Mary Healy, former St. Agnes director, and Patricia Conran, president of St. Agnes Guild.
Sister Mary, along with Sister Dolores Liptak and Sister Margaret Ann Mathis, both also Sisters of Mercy, appear in a video discussing the history of St. Agnes Home that was produced by executive director Lorna Little for the historical archives of St. Agnes and recently shared with the Transcript.
Mrs. Little, who has headed St. Agnes for over 10 years, said when she reached out to the Sisters of Mercy for historical perspective on St. Agnes, she received a warm welcome and valuable insight.
Bishop Nilan, according to Sister Dolores, a historian and author of Hartford’s Catholic Legacy: Leadership (1999), recognized the urgent need for baby and mother care. “When orphanages of the time [in Hartford and New Haven] were bulging with children, he was the first bishop to say I’m going to do something about it,” she said. He was beset at the time, pondering the prospects of infants being left in large numbers on the doorsteps of ill-equipped parish priests unable to care for them.
Bishop Nilan turned to the Sisters of Mercy to run the home and, in 1912, to those who formed the nucleus of what is still the St. Agnes Guild, for the purpose of fund-raising. This small group of dedicated women was inspired by the sisters and worked very closely with them through the years.
St. Agnes’s original location was just around the corner from its current site, on Steele Road, in a facility in which the girls “who went away,” as they were often described, lived during their pregnancies, delivered their babies and, in most cases, immediately after giving birth, surrendered the infants to adoptive or foster parents.
Through the decades, according to the sisters, a combination of the dramatic decline in the number of pregnancies resulting in adoptions and the similar increase in the number of young women determined to find a way to keep their babies imposed many changes at St. Agnes.
In 1972, the Steele Road building was closed and two former convents were called into service as homes for the mothers and babies. The former Corpus Christi convent in Wethersfield housed the mothers with babies; the former St. Bridget’s convent in West Hartford the expectant mothers. Babies were delivered at St. Francis Hospital. With significant help from the Sisters of Mercy and the guild, the West Hartford location was later expanded to accommodate all the mothers and all the babies. Now known as the St. Agnes Home and Family Center, its designation befits a long history of transition from orphanage into a nurturing environment from which young mothers and their babies can emerge as a family.
Critical to the transitional planning in the ’70s and later, according to the Sisters of Mercy, was the realization that the home needed to offer a plan for the mothers and babies.
Such a plan is now in place at St. Agnes Home and Family Center. Moreover, according to Mrs. Little, in her 10 years as director, only four adoptions have taken place. “They [the young women] don’t see it is an option. They feel like it would be a disgrace to do that. No matter what, you don’t give up on family.”
In the program book for the centennial event, Mrs. Little stated, “I have seen young women come in with broken hearts, broken spirits, and thrive as they receive the education, counseling, parenting skills, nutritious meals, health care, workforce training, love, discipline and guidance they deserve.
“These women, forever changed, leave with a healthy child and all of the skills necessary to care for their new family in a positive, safe and sustaining manner. We are investing our resources in mothers in a nonjudgmental, planned, and supportive way that changes the life trajectory for the mother and her child for generations to follow.”
Mrs. Little said that in addition to their professional abilities, staff members have to have patience and a big heart for babies. This sentiment was echoed by Mrs. Conran.
She told the Transcript, “There’s nothing like a newborn baby to renew your spirit – and to buttress your resolve to make the world a better place.” Bishop Nilan would likely agree.