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New York Foundling Hospital records

Call Number

MS 347


1869-2009, inclusive


New York Foundling Hospital


79 Linear feet (79 boxes, 253 volumes)

Language of Materials

The documents in this collection are in English.


The collection documents the programs and administration of the New York Foundling Hospital, 1869-2009, and the St. Agatha Home for Children, which operated separately from the Foundling beginning in 1884, before merging into the Foundling in 1977. The Foundling opened in 1869, under the auspices of the Sisters of Charity, as a Catholic haven for abandoned babies. It was one of the principal institutions sending children to live with families in the country, in a program known today as the "orphan train." That program ended in 1929. Thereafter the Foundling expanded, diversified, and decentralized. Today the Foundling is an organization providing foster care, adoption, social work, and community-based preventive and health services to children and families in New York and Puerto Rico. Portions of the collection have been digitized and can be viewed on flickr.

Historical Note

The Early Years

The Foundling Asylum of the Sisters of Charity in the City of New York opened at 17 East 12th Street on October 11, 1869, as a Catholic haven for abandoned babies. Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbon (Sister Irene), formerly Superior at St. Peter's on Barclay Street, founded the institution. The nuns placed a cradle outside the building to receive infants, and almost immediately the shelter was filled to capacity.

Sister Irene quickly instituted a Boarding-Out Department through which off-site married wet nurses took in one or two babies, and were provided an allowance. Alternatively, to encourage mothers to remain with their infants at the Foundling for at least three months, the sisters stopped leaving the crib outside the door, requiring the mother to ring the bell and deliver the child to the sister in attendance. When a mother could be persuaded to stay, she could nurse another infant besides her own, and might ideally choose to keep her baby upon leaving the Foundling.

The building was too small for the hundreds of children the Foundling received. The asylum moved to larger quarters at 3 Washington Square in 1870, and moved again in 1873. The state granted the Foundling an entire block, 68th-69th Streets, Lexington-Third Avenues, which the Foundling developed into a grand Victorian institutional complex. The main building at 175 East 68th Street was completed in 1873, followed by St. Ann's Maternity Hospital on the corner of 69th and Lexington in 1880, St. John's Children's Hospital on the corner of 69th and Third in 1881, St. Irene's residence (originally built as a quarantine for weaned babies returned from boarding with wet nurses) on the corner of 68th and Third in 1896, and the Hillyer Memorial Building, built ca. 1906-1907 on 68th and Lexington as a dormitory and kindergarten for young children.

The "Orphan Train"

The issue of how to care for children past infancy was pressing. In 1873 the Foundling began chartering trains (now known as "orphan trains") to carry children to Catholic families in Maryland, and later to other states in the West and South. The Foundling's placing-out program was part of a larger movement, run by many organizations from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1920s. During this period, tens of thousands of children without families willing or able to care for them were transported out of the city to country homes, contributing to the country's westward expansion. Most children from New York City were sent either by the Children's Aid Society (beginning in 1853) or the Foundling (beginning 20 years later). Families receiving children from the Foundling signed a document agreeing to raise the child Catholic, and giving the institution legal right to remove the "indentured" child should the placement prove unsatisfactory. Before children went west, they lived and attended nursery school at the Foundling.

Evolution of the Foundling

In 1891 the Foundling Asylum changed its name to the New York Foundling Hospital, and amended its mission to formally include not only abandoned children and foundlings but also destitute and dependent children. Sister Irene died in 1896. Sister Teresa Vincent McCrystal, who had been with Sister Irene since the inception, took over as Director. She saw the institution through two crises.

The first was an incident in Arizona in 1904, in which a mob of non-Catholic Anglo families forcibly removed children from Catholic Mexican families with whom they had been placed by the Foundling. The Supreme Court of Arizona ruled against the Foundling, in New York Foundling Hospital v Gatti in 1905, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

The other crisis was a sensationalized investigation of the city's private (particularly Catholic) child-caring institutions and of the State Board of Charities by John A. Kingsbury, New York City's Commissioner of Charities, in 1916. Although the Foundling was not singled out for censure, the organization was required to submit to more city oversight and to change its foundational principle that a mother might surrender her child with no questions asked.

After Sister Teresa Vincent's death in 1917, Sister Anna Michella Bowen, who had been in charge of the placing-out program, succeeded her. In 1926, Sister Xavier Maria Hurley became director, and ended the placing-out program in the west and south. She was followed by Sister Dominica Maria Rochford in 1931 who continued her predecessor's work of professionalizing the Foundling's social work programs.

A 60 acre annex, St. Joseph's-by-the-Sea, donated by Charles Schwab of Bethlehem Steel, opened at Huguenot, Staten Island, in 1910 for overflow of mothers and babies. In 1927 the Foundling charter was amended to advocate that families be kept together whenever possible, and that adopted and foster families reside in the New York area so that more intensive supervision could be maintained. The policy of "indenture" was discontinued, and the maternity and pediatric hospitals became teaching hospitals. A School for Baby Nurses began training students that year. A Social Service Department for unwed mothers was initiated in 1930. In the 1930's, the Foundling consisted of St. John's Children's Hospital, St. Ann's Maternity Hospital, the Boarding Department, the Adoption Department, St. Mary's Temporary Shelter for unmarried mothers, and the St. Joseph's-by-the-Sea annex.

The two hospitals were closed in 1945 and 1946. After that, the Foundling focused less on medical services and emphasized foster and adoption services, nursery care for children and shelter for unwed mothers. In 1958, they left their Victorian complex on 68th Street, and moved across the street to new modern headquarters at 1175 Third Avenue.

From the 1960's to the Present

In the 1960's and 1970's, the organization decentralized into local community based residences, day care centers, family service programs and preventive service facilities, and opened an office in Puerto Rico, while continuing to provide institutional care, boarding home care, and adoption for children, and services to unmarried mothers. The Foundling merged with the St. Agatha Home for Children in 1977 and the latter became the St. Agatha Home of the New York Foundling Hospital. St. Agatha, also run by the Sisters of Charity, was founded in 1884 as a home for orphan girls, but had diversified to run group homes for developmentally disabled children, children with emotional problems, refugee children, and others.

A 1985 booklet by Sister Marian Healy described the NY Foundling Hospital as "a family-oriented agency administered under Catholic auspices and committed to the preservation of family life, especially those whose family life is disrupted through poverty, sickness, and neglect…All of the services of the Foundling, administered by the Sisters of Charity, are part of the ministry of the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of New York. It is our aim to foster the compassion of the Gospel by recognizing the absolute worth of every individual."

The Foundling moved into a smaller building at 595 Avenue of the Americas in 1988. The Third Avenue building had been designed as an orphanage, but the new building was built with wide halls and large therapy rooms to reflect a new mission of helping handicapped and seriously ill children, as well as providing a maternity shelter for teens in their last trimester, a crisis nursery for abused or neglected children, and centers for emotionally disturbed pre-teens and teen girls. The Vincent J. Fontana Center, a separate building dedicated to child abuse prevention and treatment, opened on Christopher Street in 1999.

The St. Agatha property in Nanuet was sold in 2005. That same year, the Elizabeth Seton Pediatric Center became an independent entity in the 595 Avenue of the Americas building, separate from the Foundling. The Foundling no longer managed a hospital, and dropped the word "hospital" from its name. These changes allowed the Foundling to expand its core services of foster care and adoption, and to develop new community-based programs. In 2007 it embarked on a demonstration project to provide support and guidance to youth in the juvenile justice system and their families, to keep offenders in their homes and communities rather than detained in an institution. In 2008, the Foundling partnered with the Mott Haven Academy to create the first charter school in the nation specifically designed to serve children in foster care and the child welfare system.


The collection is arranged in 17 series.

I - Minutes of the Board of Trustees/Managers, and Related Materials, 1869-1978

II - Annual Reports and Inspections, 1869-2000

III - Administrative Records, Chronological, 1869-2004

IV - Centers, Programs and Departments, Alphabetical, 1869-2008

V - Records of the St. Agatha Home for Children, 1875-2001

VI - Foundling Administrators, 1869-2001

VII - Foundling Publications - Pamphlets, Newsletters, Appeals, 1909-2009

VIII - Events, 1875-2007

IX - Histories of the Foundling, 1869-1994

X - Sisters of Charity and Archdiocese of New York, 1900-2006

XI - Visual Materials, circa 1880-2005

XII - Clippings and Periodicals, 1869-2007

XIII - Notes Left with Children, circa 1869-1884

XIV - Records of Children and Mothers (Restricted), 1869-1966

XV - Audiovisual Materials, 1958-2008 and undated

XVI - Nurse's Capes, circa 1915-1965

XVII - Published Books, 1951-2001

Scope and Content

The collection documents the programs and administration of the New York Foundling Hospital, 1869-2009, and the St. Agatha Home for Children, which operated separately from the Foundling beginning in 1884, before merging into the Foundling in 1977.

The collection includes minutes and annual reports; correspondence and memos; bound registers and other administrative volumes; pamphlets, brochures and fliers; legal documents; reports; grant proposals; manuals; birth certificates; clippings and periodicals; published books; audiovisual materials including VHS tapes; and photographic prints. There are a particularly large number of materials by and about Vincent Fontana, Medical Director of the Foundling (1962-2005) in Series IV.6. Unusual items in the collection include circa 1000 notes by mothers and other guardians leaving babies at the Foundling 1869-1884 (Series XIII). There are also yearbooks from the Foundling's nursing school 1948-1970 (Series IV.29), and two nurse's capes (Series XVI).

The collection is notable for its large number of photographic prints. The majority of prints are 8x10s created by professional photographers for public relations purposes. There are also many non-professional snapshots documenting activities for internal purposes, from recent years. Most photographs date from 1950-2000, but there are some prints from earlier decades of the Foundling. Many photographs are interspersed throughout the collection, arranged according to the department or program they document. Others are collected in a separate chronological series of visual materials (Series XI). This arrangement reflects the original order of the materials as they were kept at the Foundling. Claire Yaffa, James Heffernan and David M. Grossman are the professional photographers most represented in the collection.

The Foundling is well known for its participation in the "Orphan Train;" however, genealogical researchers should be aware that this collection contains no case files from the placing-out and boarding-out program. Those records remain at the New York Foundling Hospital. The collection at the New-York Historical Society includes documents of the 1904 "Arizona Incident" and materials from reunions of Orphan Train riders from the 1960s to the present. The collection also includes restricted volumes 1869-1958 which contain information on Orphan Train children, among other children and parents. Special permission is needed from the New York Foundling Hospital to view records that include personal information on children, labeled as Restricted in this finding aid. Restricted records include books of baptisms and confirmations, registers of mothers, foster home records, etc.

This finding aid provides links to digital images of selected items from the collection, including photographic prints, pamphlets, and notes left with children. These images may be viewed at

The collection complements several other collections at the New-York Historical Society, including the Records of the Children's Aid Society, 1836-2006 (bulk 1853-1947).



Abandoned children -- New York (State) -- New York.; Adoption -- United States.; Charities -- New York (State) -- New York.; Child abuse -- Prevention; Children -- Hospitals -- New York (State) -- New York.; Children -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.; Children with disabilities -- New York (State) -- Nanuet.; Children with disabilities -- New York (State) -- New York.; Developmental disabilities -- Treatment; Drug abuse counseling -- New York (State) -- New York.; Fresh-air charity -- United States.; Foster children -- United States -- History.; Group homes -- New York (State).; Group homes for people with disabilities -- New York (State).; Health facility-based child care; Homeless youth -- New York (State) -- New York.; Hospitals -- Maternity services -- New York (State) -- New York.; Hospitals, Convalescent -- New York (State) -- New York.; Nuns -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.; Nursery schools -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.; Nursing -- Study and teaching -- New York (State) -- New York.; Nursing schools -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.; Orphans -- New York (State) -- New York.; Orphanages -- New York (State) -- New York.; Social service -- New York (State) -- New York.; Social work administration -- New York (State) -- New York.; Social work with children -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.; Social work with youth -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.; Orphan trains; Unmarried mothers -- New York (State) -- New York.; Women's shelters -- New York (State) -- New York.

Access Restrictions

Special permission is needed from the New York Foundling Hospital to view records that include personal information on children, labeled as Restricted in this finding aid. Researchers who wish to view restricted volumes should contact the library of the New-York Historical Society. These researchers will be referred to a designated specialist from the New York Foundling Hospital who will interview the potential researcher to determine what he or she may consult and will then supervise the reader's use of the appropriate material. Guidelines currently in place for family history research at the Foundling, as determined by legal restrictions on the accessibility of adoption and foster care records, will be followed. Such researchers will follow as well the general registration procedures of the New-York Historical Society.

Researchers who wish to view open materials will register as Manuscript users, and be allowed access to the unrestricted materials in the collection.

Photocopying undertaken by staff only. Limited to twenty exposures of stable, unbound material per day. (Researchers may not accrue unused copy amounts from previous days.)

This collection is stored offsite and advance notice is required for use. Please contact prior to your research visit to coordinate access. Keep in mind that it will take between two (2) and five (5) business days for collections to arrive, and you should plan your research accordingly.

Use Restrictions

Permission to quote from this collection in a publication must be requested and granted in writing. Researchers will be asked to agree that no names of principals (children, families, etc.) will be included in any published material. Send permission requests, citing the name of the collection from which you wish to quote, to

Manuscripts Curator
The New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024

The copyright law of the United States governs the making of photocopies and protects unpublished materials as well as published materials. Unpublished materials created before January 1, 1978 cannot be quoted in publication without permission of the copyright holder.

Preferred Citation

The collection should be cited as The Records of the New York Foundling Hospital, MS 347, The New-York Historical Society.

Location of Materials

This collection is stored offsite and advance notice is required for use. For information on making arrangements to consult it, please visit

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The collection was donated in 2009 by the New York Foundling Hospital. Much of the material was collected and assembled by Sister Marilda Joseph at the Foundling, beginning in September 1997. She sent questionnaires to, and requested materials from, administrators of Foundling programs, and kept these materials grouped by program. Beginning in late 2006, Richard Reilly of the Ignation Volunteer Corps, in consultation with administrators at the Foundling, rearranged some of Sister Marilda's categories, added new ones, and incorporated other materials from the Sisters of Charity archives, materials from the Vincent Fontana Center, and materials from the basement of 590 Avenue of the Americas.

Collection processed by

Cherie Acierno

About this Guide

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on 2023-08-21 15:46:42 -0400.
Using Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language: Description is in English.


New-York Historical Society
New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024