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At the end of the 19th century, immigration transformed Boston’s North End neighborhood into a vibrant, bustling, albeit overcrowded Italian community. Even more so than other immigrant communities, for this burgeoning Italian society, the family unit was especially important, so much so that succeeding generations stayed in the neighborhood rather than migrate. While family networks were strong, the overcrowded conditions were a public health hazard.
Thus the North End was particularly vulnerable when on August 27, 1918, two Navy seamen docked at Boston’s nearby Commonwealth Pier entered the sickbay with flu symptoms. The next day they were joined by eight more men, and the day after, fifty-eight. Within a week, thousands more were sick, and by early September infected civilians were overwhelming city hospitals. Boston was ground zero in the U.S. of what was a larger influenza epidemic that eventually killed fifty to 100 million people worldwide. It was an especially virulent and lethal strain that spread quickly and could kill within 24 hours of first symptoms. For weeks the front pages of papers like the Boston Globe featured daily death counts. Schools were closed and emergency hospitals were created all over the city. By the end of 1918, over 5,000 Boston residents had succumbed to the flu, making it one of the worst-hit cities in the country.
The crowded North End was especially hard hit, and in its wake the epidemic left behind many orphans living with extended family. The plight of these orphans was taken up by Fr. Antonio Sousa, the Franciscan pastor of the North End’s St. Leonard’s Church. In sermons and letters he urged the Italian community to once again help its own, and the community readily responded to help these children in need. On October 10, 1919, a group of prominent parishioners gathered in St. Anthony’s Hall next door to St. Leonard’s to select a board of directors and create the Home for Italian Children.
An initial fund raising campaign allowed the directors to purchase a ten acre farm out in Jamaica Plain, a rural escape compared to the congested North End streets, and the Home for Italian Children officially opened on February 10, 1921, with 30 girls in residence. The girls were cared for by Sr. Mary Valentina and six of her fellow members of the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate conception, who had been part of the North End Community since 1902, when they arrived to teacher at the North End’s St. Anthony’s parochial school. While initially the Home was for orphan girls, in 1929 admission was broadened to include boys. Annually the Home opened its doors to 115 children, either orphans or children of families in crisis.
The Home was a smashing success, and much of the credit was due to the tireless efforts of the Sisters who managed it for its first five decades, caring for and teaching the children, and building relationships with the local community, such as the weekly visit to the city’s fruit and produce market where the sister’s would without payment be loaded down with produce for their keeps. The 1960s and 1970s saw great changes in the Italian Home. Professionalization trends within childcare, new government regulations, and declining numbers of women religious resulted in the Sisters working side by side with social workers, a consulting psychologist, and lay teachers. Larger demographic changes also meant that the majority of children at the Home were no longer Italian, and instead came from diverse communities all over Boston. Recognizing this change, in 1973 the board of directors changed the name from the Home for Italian Children to the Italian Home for Children. Since then the now-Italian Home for Children has continued to thrive and expand its services into a broader continuum of clinical and specialized education. While the faces and even the name of the Home has changed dramatically since its founding in the aftermath of the 1918 epidemic, its mission to safeguard the health and safety of children remains the same.