Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Wilmington traces its roots to 1830, some 39 years before Pope Pius IX established the diocese itself, and more than a century before the diocese created the organization that today we know as Catholic Charities.
In 1830, after a number of explosions at the DuPont powder mills on the Brandywine had left numerous children as orphans, or with only one parent, the Daughters of Charity arrived in Wilmington and set up St. Peter’s Orphanage for Girls at Third and West Streets in Wilmington’s Quaker Hill neighborhood. Over time, its location and name would change – eventually moving in 1939 onto an old estate near the north Wilmington town of Bellefonte and becoming known as Seton Villa.
In 1874, when the new Diocese of Wilmington was just five years old, Bishop Thomas Becker arranged for the Dominican sisters to staff the St. Paul’s Male Orphanage at 320 Jackson Street in Wilmington, where the nuns also operated the diocese’s first parochial school. The orphanage would prove short-lived, lasting only two years. However, in 1879, the Franciscan Sisters of Glen Riddle, Pa., established the St. James Male Protectory at Lovering Avenue and DuPont Street in Wilmington. Within a few years, the orphanage would move to a 95-acre farm, called Reybold, near Delaware City, and would remain there until 1941. Two years later, the diocese would acquire the Bancroft Estate near the Delaware Art Museum, where it would operate Siena Hall, an orphanage and group home for boys for nearly 60 years.
In 1931, Bishop Edmond J. FitzMaurice created the diocese’s first Charities Department, formalizing a series of ministries that would assist needy Catholics of all ages. Over the years, its name would change – to the Catholic Welfare Guild, Catholic Social Services and Catholic Charities – and its responsibilities would continue to expand. In its first years, during the depths of the Great Depression, the Catholic Welfare Guild struggled to find its identity. The Guild’s first efforts included organizing chapters of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in the parishes and assisting pastors who did not have the resources to help all the families in their parishes who sought aid. The Guild also acquired fabric from the Red Cross, which parish volunteers would sew into clothing for needy families. Other early services included teaching Catechism at institutions like Ferris School, Delaware State Hospital and the Women’s Prison, and providing for the burial of destitute Catholics who died in the care of the state or county governments. The Guild began providing a number of child-care services, arranging to have children watched in their own homes or having them placed in a boarding home. It also took over responsibility for placing children in the two orphanages. By 1935, the needs of children were deemed so great that the Guild scaled back its other activities to concentrate on child placement. Within two years, the Guild’s mission would again broaden, as it opened its first thrift store, at Fifth and Orange streets in Wilmington.
From its earliest days, the Catholic Welfare Guild would focus on the family, and do what it could to keep families together. “The intimate family circle is the foundation on which our civilization rests, and the training ground of all social and moral virtues,” Bishop Fitzmaurice wrote in the 1933 annual report. “The Guild has spent all its energies to keep the family intact.”
That emphasis on stabilizing families would remain, even as changes in the larger society would affect the components of the diocese’s social services mission. As the issues of poverty and civil rights drew the nation’s attention, Catholic Social Services, under the direction of Father (later Monsignor) Thomas J. Reese from 1957 to 1977, extended its reach to care for the victims of poverty and social injustice. During Monsignor Reese’s tenure, the agency began providing family, individual, marital and pregnancy counseling, large-scale emergency financial assistance, aid to refugees, group home care and adoption services. The agency’s work became more sophisticated and specialized, as a team of professional counselors, psychologists and social workers was developed to respond to an ever-widening range of needs. As addictions to drugs and alcohol increased, the organization hired counselors trained to treat people with addictions.
For many years, the diocese’s social services programs focused heavily on Wilmington and New Castle County. In the 1960s, Catholic Social Services would open an office in Dover; offices in Georgetown and Salisbury, Md., would follow. Responding to the needs of the rural poor, and especially migrant farm workers, Franciscan Sisters established Casa San Francisco in an unpretentious home in Milton, Del., in 1981, and the Daughters of Charity opened the Seton Center in Princess Anne, Md., two years later. Both eventually became part of Catholic Charities, and continue to offer comprehensive social services within their communities.
Other additions to Catholic Charities’ diverse services include the HIV/AIDS ministry, established in 1985; a unified parish social ministry and a domestic violence program, both in the mid-1990s; and Bayard House, a transitional home for unwed mothers and their babies, in 2004.
In 2009, Marydale Retirement Village, a rental community for extremely low-income seniors and persons with disabilities in Newark, DE, came under the auspices of Catholic Charities.
For over 180 years, Catholic Charities has continued to grow, adding services and reaching further into the community. It is known throughout Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore for its professionalism, its dedication, and, most of all, its loving care. Catholic Charities faces the uncertainties of the future knowing that two things are certain: that new needs will continue to appear, and that it will be ready to meet them.
1830: Daughters of Charity establish St. Peter’s Orphanage for Girls in Wilmington.
1874-1876: Franciscan Sisters operate St. Paul’s Orphanage for Boys in Wilmington. 1879: Glen Riddle Franciscan Sisters establish St. James Male Protectory in Wilmington.
1886: Diocese acquires Reybold property, near Delaware City, as new site for St. James Male Protectory.
1931: Bishop Edmond J. FitzMaurice creates the diocese’s first Charities Department (which evolved into the Catholic Welfare Guild, Catholic Social Services and Catholic Charities).
1937: First Catholic Welfare Guild Thrift Store opens in Wilmington.
1939: Diocese and Daughters of Charity acquire Coxe Estate on Bellevue Road and open orphanage for girls that becomes known as Seton Villa.
1941: St. James Male Protectory closes.
1943: Diocese acquires the Bancroft Estate on Kentmere Parkway and opens a residence for boys known as Siena Hall. A new facility is constructed in 1967.
1957-1977: Msgr. Thomas J. Reese serves as director of Catholic Charities.
1960s: Margaret Weller, first Catholic Charities employee in southern Delaware, began work from her home and car and later opened the agency’s first office on Bradford Street in Dover.
1970-71: Diocesan staff replaces religious orders as operators of Seton Villa and Siena Hall.
1972: Family Life Bureau created.
1978: Richard V. Pryor becomes first lay director of Catholic Social Services.
1981: Casa San Francisco opens in Milton, Del., as a ministry to migrant workers.
1983: Daughters of Charity open Seton Center in Princess Anne, Md., as a ministry for rural and migrant workers.
1985: AIDS Ministry established.
1989: Catholic Social Services renamed Catholic Charities.
1992: Parish Social Ministry Division created.
2003: Siena Hall closes.
2005: Catholic Charities acquires Bayard House, providing services to unmarried mothers and their babies.
2008: Catholic Charities receives its Delaware license to provide substance abuse counseling statewide.
2009: AIDS Ministry expands to entire State of Delaware.
2009: Marydale Retirement Village joins Catholic Charities.