The story of Holy Family Day Home covers more than 100 years. Today what we celebrate is 100 years at the present site at 16th and Dolores Streets, a great accomplishment in itself. But to truly appreciate the constant efforts of this unique child center, we must consider how caring people, long ago, began to respond to the invitation of Christ to “Let the children come to me. Do not hinder them. The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
The roots of the Day Home are in the California Gold Rush which brought to San Francisco four persons who would create the ministry of which Holy Family Home is such a wonderful example. The two men – Catholic Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany of Spain, and Father John Joseph Prendergast of Ireland – were concerned for the many needs of San Francisco, a city that had gone from a village of 300 persons to a city of 50,000 in just over a year. Sometime later among those brought to the center of action were two women – Lizzie Armer of Australia and Ellen O’Connor of Boston, Massachusetts. Together these four persons established a new religious order called the Sisters of the Holy Family, a Catholic community of women organized to visit homes and service the poor in their many needs, regardless of race, religion, or place of origin. Lizzie became the first Sister – Sister Dolores, and was joined by Ellen almost three years later as Sister Teresa.
San Francisco was home to the very rich and the very poor, many people having made fortunes and thousands of others losing everything in speculation during the Gold Rush of California and the Silver Rush of Nevada. The efforts of deeply concerned, socially conscious individuals, organizations and churches tried to address the growing and overwhelming needs of the chaotic picture of the 1850s, the organizing of the 1860s and the established City’s efforts of the 1870s.
One day Archbishop Alemany and Father Prendergast were walking through the Catholic parish area around Old St. Mary’s in present day Chinatown. (story of little boys out the window)
The two men worried together about this event, trying to imagine how many situations like this might exist. They discussed it with the five women that now made up the Sisters of the Holy Family. It was decided that the Sisters would endeavor to begin the work of caring for what we today would call latchkey children. The first Day Home was opened in the Sisters’ own home on Post Street in 1878 with 14 children.
The Sisters intended that the atmosphere of these centers would be homelike — a home away from home for the children of the poor. For this reason, the established centers were always called Day Homes. The goal of this work was to keep the family together, to help give the family’s adults peace of mind concerning the care of their children, and to provide the children with whatever was necessary to assist them toward success in their lives.
The work grew and flourished and many interested persons and businesses of the City supported it. At the time of the great earthquake and fire of 1906 there were three thriving day homes in San Francisco: St. Francis Day Home at Broadway and Powell Streets; Sacred Heart Day Home at 110 Hayes Street, and the first Holy Family Day Home where the flower markets stand today near Bryant Street. Care was given to infants and preschoolers, and kindergarten all day, while youngsters up to the age of 17 came after their schools closed in the afternoon; 150 to 200 children were cared for at each location. The 1906 disaster that struck the City destroyed all of these centers. The Sisters immediately turned part of their convent at Hayes and Fillmore Streets into a Day Home and opened tents for day care in the refugee camps established around San Francisco. Their thoughts quickly turned to rebuilding the Day Homes that had been lost. They were anxious to “Let the little children come.”
Many friends of the ministry of day care rallied to the cause. Mrs. Virginia Fair Vanderbilt who, as a high school girl had helped the Sisters at Sacred Heart Day Home, wanted to rebuild a center at the place where it had been before the 1906 catastrophe. The man who was now Archbishop Patrick William Riordan looked over the plan and approved it heartily, except for the placement of the home. “There are few families in that part of the city now,” he said. “We should go where the children are.” And attention was turned toward the Mission District. There were several sites available. Father Prendergast, sitting and chatting with interested parties, noted: “Mission Dolores, Dolores Street, Sister Dolores. It seems clear which site is the one to build upon.”
And so today we celebrate the anniversary of the site that has served for 100 years what those heroes of faith foresaw, those church leaders, Sisters, parents, teachers, and staff, those who have loved little children in the past and have sustained the dream into our own time, those who envision its continuance into the future. “These are all heroes of faith, yet they never saw the promise fulfilled; for us, God had something better in store. We were needed to make the history of their lives complete.”
At Holy Family Day Home today the same attention to those in need and those whose families are adversely affected by stresses of many kinds is evident. The dedication of the staff at the Home, under the spirited guidance of its creative Director Donna Cahill, continues to offer education, exciting life experiences and a loving, homelike atmosphere to the present generation of children. The Sisters’ presence is there in Sister Marianne and in Holy Family Community’s representative on the energetic Day Home Board. It is truly a home away from home for little people, offering peace of mind to families, helping to keep families together, and working hard to bring holistic opportunities into children’s lives.
We give thanks today for the past 100 years of excellent preschool and kindergarten care and experience. We give thanks for our heroes of faith. We give thanks for 100 years of loving, giving, responding and being on this holy ground.
~Sister Michaela O’Connor