Orphanages cared for homeless children

Founded as the Kansas City Orphan Boys Home in 1896, this home was run by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. This photo, taken in 1952, shows the home shortly before it was renamed the St. Pius X Home, housing boys and girls, and some boarding students. In 1961 the property was sold to A.P. Nichols, who developed the Old Westport Shopping Center. (Photo courtesy the Diocesan Archives)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

KANSAS CITY — Many familiar care and charitable agencies across the country can trace their histories back to homes where orphaned or abandoned children were cared for and trained by Catholic religious orders. In the early 18th century, Jesuit and Foreign Mission Society missionaries, as well as some diocesan priests, cared for the sick, widowed and orphaned residents of the communities they visited. As more territory was settled, and more people immigrated to “The New World,” the care provided by missionary and diocesan priests was taken over by religious orders of nuns who relocated to America.

French Ursuline Sisters arrived in Quebec, Canada, in 1639, and established a convent and school there. In 1727, another group of Ursulines landed in New Orleans. They were the first Catholic order of nuns in what is now the United States. They established a convent and school, both of which still operate. The orphanage the Ursulines established at the same time was a forerunner of Catholic Charities USA.

The 19th century saw many religious orders resettle in America, and several others founded in New York, Baltimore and eventually the Midwest. In 1809 Sister (Saint) Elizabeth Ann Seton, foundress of the Sisters of Charity in the United States, opened a Catholic orphanage and free school for poor children in Baltimore, Md. During the 19th century, Irish, Russian, German and other European peoples came to the United States in droves, seeking a better life. Ethnic parishes provided services for their countrymen and other immigrants.

Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph has roots that go back to 1879, when Father Bernard Donnelly founded an orphanage.

The priest was distressed at the numbers of homeless children in Kansas City following the Civil War, and had sheltered some in his own home. So when the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who had opened St. Teresa’s Academy in 1866 and St. Joseph Hospital in 1874, suggested he do something to help local orphans his response was swift.

He wrote the superior in St. Louis to request Sisters to staff an institution for orphaned and homeless children. He had purchased 10 acres of land for a cemetery but changed his mind and planned to donate the land (at 31st Street and Summit) to the proposed orphanage in 1878. He purchased 40 acres on the eastern edge of the city later that year to establish Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery, and on his deathbed in 1880, Father Donnelly requested that an appropriation from cemetery surplus funds be given annually to St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum. For a long time, $1200 was given each year to the orphanage.

When the orphanage opened in January 1880, it housed 30 boys and girls and five Sisters. A few years later, the name was changed to the St. Joseph Orphan Girls Home. The boys apparently were moved to St. John’s orphanage in St. Joseph, which was established in 1880, and girls from that home came to Kansas City.

A number of other charities opened over the next two decades, including the Little Sisters of the Poor home for the aged (1882) and the St. Joseph/St. Catherine Home for young working women (1887).

Kansas City had come a long way in the 45 years since its incorporation. Downtown was a thriving center for retail, commerce and law; enterprising men were developing upscale residential areas south and east of downtown; academies, colleges, theaters and an art school were drawing more people to the city. But on the downside, there was also poverty, drunkenness and roistering, often resulting in orphaned or abandoned children. Mrs. Richard H. (Mary Lee) Keith, mother of five and stepmother of three children, was concerned about the orphans and abandoned, especially boys. She recruited several other influential women, including Agnes M. Johnson, Mrs. Hugh (Katie F.) McGowen, Mrs. Peter (Elizabeth) Tiernan and Mrs. John (Emma) Long, and they formed an executive committee to resolve the problem.

The committee purchased the Hamilton property at Westport Road and Belleview and turned a large two-story wood frame home on the property into an orphanage for boys. Kansas City Orphan Boys Home opened in 1896, housing 25 boys ages 5 to 15, who by 1897 were under the care of three Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. Ten-year-old Johnny Ryan was accepted as the first child to live at the home.

In 1898, Mary L. Keith and some of the same women began a home for abandoned infants, and approached Kansas City Auxiliary Bishop John Glennon for advice. He warned the women that it would be a big undertaking. Hospitals weren’t equipped to care for infants found abandoned and brought to them by local police, and if the hospitals couldn’t manage it, what would the women be able to do? But the women were determined to do something.

A year later, in June 1899, St. Anthony’s Home for Infants opened in an 8-room frame house on 23rd Street between Walrond and College. It wasn’t unusual for a baby to be left at a local hospital or on the steps of a police station and Mrs. Keith’s group wanted to find a way to provide for these children. Several local physicians, including Jules Brady, J.J. Dorsey, Thomas Fields, C.H. Lester, and J.A. Boarman, Mrs. Keith’s brother, agreed to donate their services to the home’s children.

Two days after the home opened, the first baby was received. Within three years, more than 100 babies had been admitted regardless of nationality or religion, if known. However, there were more babies in need of care than the house could accommodate.

Laura Long of Pleasant Hill is writing a book about St. Anthony’s Baby Home and St. Vincent’s Maternity Hospital, A Snapshot in Time. Over the past 10 years she has compiled information from diocesan archives, Catholic Charities archives, The Kansas City Star files at the Central Library, online historical newspaper articles, genealogy research into the Keith family, and other sources. Father Patrick Tobin, a long time member of the Catholic Charities Board of Directors now serving as liaison to the Catholic Charities Foundation, provided information about that agency’s relationship with St. Anthony’s. Several birth mothers completed a questionnaire about their memories of the Home. 

Long is seeking additional information for her book. “What would be extremely helpful and interesting would be to obtain more personal stories about the Home from those who lived, worked or volunteered there, or adopted children from there,” she said.

The St. Anthony Home for Infants and old St. Vincent’s Maternity Hospital occupied this building on the corner of 23rd Street and Walrond. The Daughters of Charity staffed both the hospital and the baby home. St. Anthony Home was closed in 1986. (Photo courtesy the Diocesan Archives)

More than 1,500 children were cared for at St. Anthony’s through the years. Lay volunteers were the first caregivers, but in the late summer of 1899 the Sisters of St. Mary took over St. Anthony’s Home for Infants. When they were recalled to St. Louis in Jan. 1900, volunteers again stepped in to care for the babies. Then in June, “Black Cap” Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati took charge of the institution, and remained until 1908.

In 1906, the Sisters founded a 60-room maternity hospital, hoping it would help underwrite the cost of infant care. St. Vincent’s Hospital, which opened in 1907, replaced the small house where the babies had been cared for since 1899. The house was moved to a corner of the property and served as a home for the nurses. Two years later, the Sisters of Charity withdrew from the institution as they felt they were unable to provide enough personnel to run the home the way it should be run. While Mary Keith and Kansas City Bishop John Hogan sought another religious order to care for the children, they were cared for by volunteers.

Children who were not adopted earlier remained at St. Anthony’s until the age of 5, then the boys were sent to the Kansas City Boys Home at Westport Road and Belleview and most likely the girls were sent to the St. Joseph Orphan Girls Home.

In 1909 the Daughters of Charity of Emmittsburg, MD, who also had charge of the orphan boys home, agreed to take over St. Anthony’s.

Mary Keith was thrilled that the sisters were to take charge of St. Anthony and her happiness shows in an April 2, 1909 letter to the superior of the sisters that Long quotes in her book.

My dear Mother Margaret:

I hardly know how to begin to tell you of the joy the good tidings brought to so many hearts in Kansas City, the young, the old, middle aged, priests, nuns and sisters, in fact, thousands. It surely must have been God’s will that your Sisters have this Baby Home, and with the trials that it has gone through, will, doubtless, cause it to bear more fruit and shine with greater luster, when the proper ones have hold of it. Nothing could have caused me more real happiness than the knowledge that the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul will assume charge of my Babies; now I can die content. When I wake in the night, I find myself thanking God over and over again…”

When the Sisters arrived in August, there were 28 babies in the home. As time passed, more babies arrived, averaging about 100 a year.

In 1915 a wing was opened on the west side of the hospital, which could accommodate 235 children, and became the home for the babies. The old wing became St. Vincent’s Maternity Hospital.

The most unusual arrival of a baby at the home was one that arrived in a suitcase which had been left at Union Station. Others were simply left on the steps.

Between the orphan boys home and St. Anthony’s, by 1923, the Sisters had cared for more than 1,000 children.

In 1899, a large wing had been added to the Boys Home, a gift of John Perry, who had amassed a considerable fortune as co-owner of Keith & Perry Coal Company with Richard H. Keith, Mary Keith’s husband. Perry’s wife and children drowned in the sinking of a French ocean liner, La Bourgogne, July 4, 1898. Because the Boys’ Home had been one of Mrs. Perry’s favorite charities, her husband wished to honor her and the children by enlarging the home. The new facilities, completed in 1905, included steam-heated dormitories, a chapel, dining room and kitchen. The chapel was dedicated to St. Catherine of Siena, patron saint of his wife, Katie. The grounds were filled with playground equipment, two basketball courts and a baseball diamond.

By the 1920s, St. Anthony’s was taking in infants and their mothers, as well as foundlings. Young women from all races, faiths and socio-economic backgrounds were cared for and their babies were born at St. Vincent’s. Adoptions were arranged through the Kansas City Diocesan Family Life Bureau.

In 1954, the Maryknoll Sisters accepted an invitation from Archbishop Edwin O’Hara to repurpose St. Vincent’s into a general hospital to be named Queen of the World Hospital. St. Anthony Baby Home relocated in 1955 to a home on 27th Street. Still cared for by the Daughters of Charity, the girls received medical attention at St. Mary Hospital, where their babies were usually born. By the late 1960s, only a few sisters remained, and in 1969 the Daughters of Charity withdrew. St. Anthony’s was taken over by Catholic Family and Community Services.

On June 6, 1986 the property was sold to Welcome House, an alcoholic rehabilitation agency. Today, it is home to Benilde Hall, which provides transitional assistance to men and women recovering from substance abuse.

Over the years, the population of Father Donnelly’s St. Joseph’s Orphan Girls Home rose to a high of 250 girls then fell to less than 45. Following WWII, social workers and children’s advocates began recommending placing orphaned or homeless children in foster homes rather than institutionalizing them. St. Joseph’s Orphan Home closed in 1958. The site is now occupied by One Park Place, luxury lofts in the former BMA Tower.

At the Kansas City Orphan Boys Home, the educational curriculum consisted primarily of manual arts until 1913, when the Kansas City Board of Education began providing teachers and books for the children, providing them a complete grade school education through seventh grade.

By 1914, thanks to a pledge drive begun by the Knights of Columbus the year before and promoted by Bishop Thomas Lillis into a city-wide effort to raise $100,000 to enlarge the house and grounds, 165 boys were living in the expanded home in Westport.

In 1940, it was deemed in violation of the Missouri State Constitution to have public school teachers teaching in a religious institution. The Daughters of Charity resumed teaching the boys.

In 1952, at the suggestion of Bishop (later Cardinal) John Cody, the Kansas City Orphan Boys’ Home was renamed the St. Pius X Boarding School for Boys. It continued to be run by the Daughters of Charity, who began to accept boarders who were not orphans. In 1958, the school became coed with the merging of the St. Joseph’s Orphan Girls Home and a year later with the Children’s Home of St. Joseph. The school was then renamed the St. Pius X Home.

Bishop Cody urged the Sisters to get into special education, which they did, rapidly taking in students with learning, emotional and developmental disabilities. The sisters renamed the school St. Pius X School of Special Education.

In 1961, the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph sold the orphanage campus to

A. P. Nichols, who developed the “Old Westport Shopping Center.” The Sisters and their students moved to 106th and Wornall Road in south Kansas City, and established Marillac Home and School, which opened in 1962. The school was named in honor of St. Louise de Marillac, who with St. Vincent de Paul, founded the Sisters of Charity.

In 1978, the diocese relinquished control of the home and school. Marillac Center for Children was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) organization under the laws of the State of Missouri. A board of directors assumed responsibility for its governance. Today, Children’s Psychiatric Hospital of Marillac, the only children’s psychiatric hospital in Johnson County, operates on a 17-acre campus in Overland Park, Kan.

By 1900, more than 800 Catholic institutions across the nation served its most vulnerable —orphaned or abandoned children, the elderly, the sick, those with disabilities and prison inmates. Each operated independently of the others. Propelled by a need for cohesion, the first National Conference for Catholic Charities met in 1910. The social service providers attending the conference formed a network of Catholic Charities bureaus.

Less than a decade later, in 1917 Kansas City Bishop Thomas Lillis merged several religious order-run Catholic charitable institutions — orphanages, homes for the aged and for single young women away from home into a single diocesan system. According to the 1992 diocesan history, This Far By Faith, Bishop Lillis assigned Father Matthew Tierney, associate at the Cathedral to “organize the Catholic charities in Kansas City and to represent the Diocese at the juvenile court, especially in cases involving Catholic children.” This was the seed of the local Catholic Charities network. Its first branch was the Catholic Welfare Bureau, established by Bishop Lillis in 1927. Although later overshadowed by poverty and the growing need for family relief, counseling, housing, employment following World War II, in the beginning, the raison d’être for the agency was infant and child care and adoption.

Early on, adoptions of children from St. Anthony’s Baby Home and the Kansas City Orphan Boys Home were handled by the Diocesan Family Welfare Bureau, which became the Catholic Welfare Bureau. Over the years, its name changed from the Catholic Welfare Bureau to Catholic Family and Community Services and finally, in 1958, to Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

Catholic Charities continues to offer services to pregnant women and their families and several adoption programs. In the past, most adoptions were “closed,” meaning that adopted children were not able to learn much about their birth parents, their medical history and more. Last summer, the Missouri State Senate passed Senate Bill 351, allowing adult adoptees to access their adoption records. Governor Jay Nixon signed the bill July 5, and it went into effect Aug. 28.

St. Anthony Baby Home and the Kansas City Orphan Boys Home may no longer serve abandoned or orphan children, but more than 100 years after their openings, they live on through Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph and the Children’s Psychiatric Hospital of Marillac.

If you have information, memorabilia or stories about St. Anthony’s Baby Home to share, please contact Laura Long (816) 540-3610 or email LbLongci@gmail.com. Any information, memorabilia or stories will be appreciated.


  1. April 3, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

    Would love to connect regarding the Kansas City Boys Orphanage. Will you write about that institution? Thank You Frank Wise 9In care of the Sisters during the 1940’s. Please reply to Frank Wise c/o Hayriya Hansen hayriya1@gmail.com

  2. February 2, 2015 at 1:11 pm #

    Would also like more information/stories about the Kansas City Boys Orphanage. My father was there for approximately 7 years starting around 1927. Are there records of any kind concerning the kids who were there? Any imformation would be greatly appreciated.

    Dan DeLapp (father M. Lawrence DeLapp)

  3. August 31, 2016 at 3:38 pm #

    My mother was born at St Vincent’s in 1936 and given the name Carol Jean Wellborn. Her mother’s name was Lucille Gipson. She lived at st Joseph’s home for girls with her sister, Genevieve Gipson (from Macon Co, Missouri and patents names Ruth (Howard) Gipson and Glenn Gipson) from about 1927 to 1931 or 2. I have tracked Lucille up to 1963 and then nothing after that date. If anyone has information on my birth grandmother or her family, please leave a message here. Thank you.


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    […] Charity at the time. Marillac is mentioned in an article I found about orphanages in Kansas City: Orphanages Cared for Homeless Children in the Catholic Key.  Eddie was only 2 at the time, and was immediately placed in a foster home […]

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September 28, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph