Their names were Angel Guardian Home and Convent of Mercy, St. Mary of the Angels, St. John’s Home for Boys, and St. Vincent’s Home for Boys.
For Edward Rohs, born in Brooklyn in 1946, they were his entire life from the time his mother brought him to Angel Guardian at age six months until his graduation from high school while a resident at St. Vincent’s at age 19. He never saw his mother again.
Rohs’ story, told in collaboration with Judith Estrine, is not just the chronicle of one little boy’s progress to manhood in an institutional setting, but an honest account of the huge Catholic child care system which was then in place in New York and replicated in every [End Page 79] American city around the country, a system that today is vastly different and vastly diminished.
His memories of the first institution, where he was cared for by the Sisters of Mercy, are understandably vague. Recollections of his years at St. Mary between age six and 11 are clearer. With three sisters in a dormitory responsible for 85 boys, stern discipline was the only way to keep order. At St. John’s, his next stop, the Marianist brothers were in charge (typically nuns did not conduct institutions for older boys) and finally, at St. Vincent’s which had a mostly lay staff, where he had a measure of exposure to the world outside through attendance at a public high school.
There were good times and bad; Rohs remembers them well, and recounts them beautifully. As an adult, he put himself through college, became a social worker and psychotherapist and a coordinator of mental health services. With insight and humor he tells not only his own story, but the evolution of child welfare services over the years.
If the system has moved away from large institutions, that’s fine with him. Although the mostly women and men religious who staffed Catholic homes worked hard and made do with little, “No child should grow up in an institution,” he writes. “My upbringing was harsh, with little in the way of pleasurable ease, not much nurturing and many unanswered questions and unacknowledged needs.”
Because he was both a child of the system and a professional in the field, his insights are a valuable contribution to the ongoing conversation about the best way to care for children at risk in society. Rohs acknowledges the many laudable steps that have been taken since his own childhood to integrate children who enter the child care system into the community at large rather than house them in large institutions. And yet there is another side. In an appendix he lists the occupations of some of the graduates of St. Vincent’s, his last stop. Yes, one of his friends became a murderer, but among the “Vinnie boys” there were also policemen, a lawyer, a judge, a public school teacher, a postal service worker, an assistant principal, a cardiologist and Edward Rohs himself. [End Page 80]
The old orphanages, for all their very real shortcomings, did something right.