History of NY Catholic orphanages also tells moving personal storyBy: David Gibson
“I remember being lonely, but I was never alone,” writes Edward Rohs in Raised by the Church, his moving, true story of growing up from the age of 6 months until he was 19 in the Catholic orphanage system of Brooklyn, NY.
Rohs’ mother and her boyfriend brought him to the Mercy Sisters’ Angel Guardian Home in Brooklyn in 1946. At that time, immediately after World War II, orphanages experienced a “huge influx of infant baby boomers and young children.”
Some of these were the children of war widows “who could not support their family.” Some, like Rohs, were “babies born to unmarried women.”
Rohs eventually learned that his mother “was a poor young woman of German descent who worked in a factory in Brooklyn.” She “was poorly educated and possessed few skills.”
He notes, too, that unwed mothers in that era frequently “were shunned by their families.” Some brought their child to an orphanage in order to “marry without the shame and responsibility that came with being an unwed mother,” he explains.
The author’s mother and father eventually married, but never agreed to take him back. For some reason his parents also never signed papers allowing him to be considered for adoption.
Angel Guardian Home was the first of the five institutions in which Rohs lived. Because “the Catholic orphanage system in the 1950s and 1960s separated children by age and by gender,” Rohs remained in each institution only until he “aged out” and was sent to the next one.
Frequently today, news reports tell about the past abuse of children in church schools and homes in various countries. Against that background, I suspect many readers will feel refreshed at hearing much that Rohs tells of his relationships with the sisters and religious brothers who raised him.
He felt “homesick” at age 11 when he moved to St. John’s Home for Boys, run by the Marianist Brothers. For the first time he found himself in a place with “no sisters.” Before long, however, one of the Marianists was added to Rohs’ “list of men I wanted to be like when I grew up.”
Mercy Sr. Johanna McLaughlin was one of the strong women in Rohs’ early childhood. Much later, she served as a unique information source when, as an adult, he sought to understand the circumstances surrounding his entrance into the orphanage system.
Some readers will draw inspiration from Sr. Johanna’s sister, a laywoman named Katherine McCarthy. She first became a caring presence in Rohs’ life when he was 4.
“Aunt Katherine” provided a long-lasting, hospitable connection to the world beyond the institutions Rohs inhabited. He came to welcome her gift of treating him as someone “special.”
The author does, however, tell about two unwelcome incidents involving a religious brother who visited the orphanage briefly and attempted to abuse him sexually while he was asleep in bed. Thinking he would not be believed, Rohs did not report this at the time. Many years later he revealed to the brothers at the home what happened.
“The sad part is that all the brothers who work year-round” at the home “are really good and dedicated people,” Rohs writes.
Another disturbing account involves the “out-of-bounds” behavior of an innocent-looking layman the nuns hired, but who instilled considerable fear in the young Rohs. Describing the man as “a sadist,” Rohs says he was “cruel and mean” when alone with the boys as a group.
“No child should grow up in an institution,” Rohs concludes. Despite its limitations, though, he insists not all was bad about the orphanage system.
For example, Rohs speaks “for the most part” of feeling “safe and secure during those 19 years of care.” On the negative side, he found too little in the way of privacy or individual attention.
Raised by the Church is the story of Brooklyn’s postwar Catholic orphanage system. The book reminds us that every generation is challenged to find ways to take care of children whose parents cannot do so.
Of course, times have changed. Rohs points out that by 1982, the “answer” to how “parentless, abandoned or abused kids” would be raised had shifted “from institutionalization to foster care.” Various social services aimed at keeping struggling families together also now help to answer this important question about children.
But much more than a history of orphanages, Raised by the Church is Rohs’ own story. It is an autobiographical account of growing up in genuinely out-of-the-ordinary circumstances.
Happily, it appears that Rohs’ heightened social conscience took form in these very circumstances. Not surprisingly, after living so long with so many boys of various races and ethnicities, and witnessing the issues in their lives firsthand, he went on to spend much of his adult life working with youths.
Yet, for an amazingly long time Rohs did not tell others about his orphanage past. He considered it “a shameful secret.”
Then one evening, during an awards dinner where he was honored, Rohs experienced “an epiphany” and revealed his story. “It was time to acknowledge that even though I had been raised in an institution, this experience no longer defined me,” he states. “It was time to share my story because, finally, there was no shame.”
Gibson was the founding editor of Origins, Catholic News Service’s documentary service. He retired in 2007 after holding that post for 36 years.