A Place of Refuge

So peaceful, so happy is this large building that you might never know that fifty formerly abused, abandoned and neglected infants and young children are living here. There are also twenty-one pregnant adolescents and young mothers, with their babies, who find shelter and support in this place.

© Copyright 2003 Catholic Exchange

Pavel Chichikov is the Poetry Editor of Catholic Exchange.

St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home is a true refuge in a world that too often treats its helpless young as dispensable resources.

St. Ann’s, a Social Ministry of the Archdiocese of Washington DC, has been rescuing children and young women in need since the 1860s. Sister Josephine Murphy, a Paulist nun and director of St. Ann’s for the past fifteen years, described how desperate this need can be:

“I’ve seen so many kids come in here looking burned, beaten. I’ve never forgotten one little baby we took in one night. The police had picked her up on the street in the middle of the night. It was winter. All she had on was a diaper. When they brought her here they had wrapped a blanket around her — and it wasn’t even a real diaper, it was an old pair of men’s shorts.”

Sister Josephine, who was at first rejected by the Paulists because of poor eyesight when she applied fifty-six years ago, reflects for a moment as she sits at her desk under a portrait of a smiling St. Vincent de Paul.

“Sometimes I consider the young moms who have spent so many years walking the streets and being abused, and I think they’ve had a much tougher time than most of the babies, who’ve only gone through it a year or two.”

As Sister Josephine speaks, St. Ann’s nursery staff cuddles and plays with the toddlers who have found sanctuary here. One of these motherly women embraces a small child, who clings to her.

“I don’t want to let him go, and he doesn’t want to let me go,” she laughs.

Down the hall the mothers of some of these babies sit at computers, studying for their high school degrees. One of them is Nicole Harris, seventeen, the mother of two-year-old Damonia. Later, I talk with her as she stands beneath a stained glass window in the chapel while Damonia sits quietly in one of the pews. She tells me how important St. Ann’s has been in her life:

“The most important thing about St. Ann’s is the support you get from everybody. For instance, when babies are first born they can have colic, and people will step in and watch the baby for you so you can get some rest. They also teach you how to take care of your baby. Or if the mother is sick they’ll watch the baby for that day until the mother gets well. Here, you get family support, and everybody is united as one.”

Cheerful, self-confident Nicole plans to graduate from high school next year.

St. Ann’s operates an accredited high school with as many as fifty girls working toward their diplomas. It also offers medical care, parenting classes, life skills training, day care, individual and family counseling, and social and cultural activities.

St. Ann’s also administers Faith House, a separate operation located just across the way from the Home. It offers housing for eight young mothers, 18 to 25 years old, and their children. Residents there work toward self-sufficiency and receive help with job placement, day care, and parenting skills.

One young mother there, who works full-time as a medical assistant, told me that St. Ann’s has helped her to achieve a sense of responsibility and control over her own life.

“I found out that if I don’t do the shopping, feed the kids, make sure they get their baths and get to bed on time, nobody is going to do it for me. It seems tough at first, because your Mom has always done everything for you, but once you get used to it you realize how good it makes you feel to meet that responsibility. This is a place where they encourage you to focus on the kids, not on yourself.”

“Children need stability, and children today do not have stability in their lives,” Sr. Josephine observes. “St. Ann’s offers a chance to give the young ones back their lives.”

She sums up her long, unassuming and yet distinguished career in child care this way: “St. Vincent de Paul told us to serve the poor in such a way that they forgive us the bread we give them. I have always loved my work and still do. It’s a great life. I just wish more kids and young people saw that.”

Anyone who visits St. Ann’s, in Hyatsville, Maryland, can see for themselves.

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