Emma Quinn's Project

Founding a New American at the New York Foundling Hospital: Catholic Institutions and Identity 1850-1900

In 1852, the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, or AICP, critiqued the “accumulated refuse” in New York City. While the streets of New York were often full of trash and human waste during this period - the Department of Street Cleaning was not established until 1881 - the AICP was actually not referring literally to trash. They were instead discussing the children of Irish Catholic immigrants, many of whom were living in abject poverty in the poorest neighborhoods of the city. The thoughts of the AICP were indicative of the extent to which poor Catholic children were seen as a serious problem for the city in the mid-nineteenth century.

The mass immigration movement of Irish and German Catholics during the 1840s and 1850s fundamentally revolutionized the Catholic population of the United States, which had previously been a very small minority group. Between 1840 and 1870, the Catholic population in the United States increased to more than seven times its original size. This population surge was even more extreme in eastern cities like New York. Many of the Irish Catholic immigrants living in New York struggled to gain financial security. The same year that the AICP referred to Irish immigrant children as “accumulated waste,” more than three-quarters of the organization’s aid went to Catholics.

The AICP was just one of many Protestant founded organizations that sought to alleviate the poverty problem among New York’s Catholics - and, more ambitiously, to sway Catholics, and particularly their children, away from the Catholic faith that Protestants saw as the root of their poverty and towards Protestantism. Organizations like the Five Points House of Industry and the Children’s Aid Society hoped to save Catholic children by taking them out of the city and adopting them into Protestant families. Catholics, concerned that an entire generation of children would be lost to the dominant Protestant community, established their own religious organizations to provide aid to Catholic children without forcing them to give up their religious identity. One such organization was the New York Foundling Hospital, which was founded in 1869 by the Sisters of Mercy to provide refuge to Catholic children whose parents could not take care of them. It was not the only example of this type of Catholic charity, but it was one of the largest examples in New York, as well as one of the longest-lived. This organization is still in operation, although now it is referred to simply as the New York Foundling.1

This essay will argue that the New York Foundling Hospital served a dual purpose towards its young charges. Even while it strove to protect destitute children from being converted to Protestantism by fervent missionary organizations operating in the immigrant communities of New York, the New York Foundling Hospital often emulated those same organizations. In that process, the immigrant children were simultaneously able to maintain their Catholic identities and assimilate into a greater American culture.

My research began with a review of literature on Irish immigration to New York. I also conducted archival research at the New-York Historical Society and American Irish Historical Society, focusing on the histories of the New York Foundling Hospital and Children’s Aid Society. I would like to thank my advisor, Daniel Soyer, whose advice has proven invaluable throughout the course of this project. I would also like to thank the FCLC Dean’s Office, who generously provided me a summer research grant to work on this research. Finally, I would like to thank Karina Hogan, whose guidance helped bring my thesis from an idea to a finished product.

1 “History.” New York Foundling. New York Foundling. Accessed December 3, 2019. https://www.nyfoundling.org/who-we-are/history/