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Early Beginnings

In a pastoral letter dated May 28, 1792, addressed to the priests and people of his diocese, Bishop John Carroll directed the revenues of each parish be divided into three equal parts: one-third for the care of the pastor; one-third for the upkeep of the church; and one-third “for the relief of the poor.” Thus did Catholic Charities come to existence in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

At that time, the diocese consisted of what was then the entire United States—the 13 colonies that had declared their independence from Britain and formed a new nation together. The diocese covered an area of approximately 890,000 square miles, almost a quarter of the United States’ size today.

The seminal letter centered on carrying out rulings from within the church, including feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the poor and welcoming strangers. Because of this, in his 1930 book, “Catholic Charities in the United States,” Monsignor John O’Grady stated that Baltimore could claim to be “the birthplace of Catholic Charities in the United States.”

In the decades immediately following Carroll’s directive, the need was fairly modest, due to Catholics being a small portion of the population. In the mid 1800s, however, a great wave of immigration welcomed a great amount of people from Ireland, Germany, Italy and other European countries home to many Catholics. Since Baltimore was the second largest seaport in the nation, many of these immigrants entered and settled here.

Sadly, it was not uncommon for small children to start out from Europe with their parents and arrive in America as orphans. These children, coming of vessels with no one to take care of them, became wards of the state. This meant that they would be placed in secular institutions, schools and homes where they would receive no Catholic training or education—the Church did not want to see this happen.

In the 19th century, therefore, there was a steady growth in “orphan asylums,” schools and other institutions for Catholic children in the area. Many of these facilities were the earliest programs connected to the work of Catholic Charities, and several evolved into modern day services and locations, such as St. Vincent’s Male Orphan Asylum, St. Leo Italian Orphan Asylum and St. Elizabeth’s Home of Baltimore City. The latter was the first orphanage for African American children in the nation.

There was no competition between these institutions, but neither was there coordination and purposeful unity. A unifying vision and a central core authority would bring them together and give them a supported common sense of direction. This direction would eventually arrive in early 1923, when Archbishop Michael J. Curley created the Bureau of Catholic Charities, appointing Father Edwin Lee Leonard in charge. This action effectively made official the organization today known as Catholic Charities of Baltimore.