150th Anniversary of Catholic Charities

This article was posted on: January 26, 2023

Adoption –  Then and Now

The year was 1868. The Civil War had ended three years earlier, and the State of Wisconsin was 20 years old. It was a year that saw the creation of two new dioceses in Wisconsin: Green Bay and La Crosse. Rev. Michael Heiss was appointed as the first bishop of La Crosse. It was also a time when there was a great influx of Catholics into western Wisconsin. One of Bishop Heiss’s pressing concerns was the care of children who lost their parents and had no one to care for them. Before 1868, orphans were sent to Catholic institutions in Milwaukee. But now, caring for orphans within the new diocese had become more pressing.

Providence intervened when six sisters came to America in 1849 from Kaufbeuern, a town in southern Bavaria, Germany, and formed a religious community in Milwaukee. From there, they were assigned to begin a motherhouse in Nojoshing, now St. Francis, just south of Milwaukee. Almost immediately, they were entrusted to care for some orphan girls. Although they struggled economically, they were able to teach at two schools and, for a while, managed an orphanage for boys.

Boys from St. Michael’s Orphanage out for a picnic at Granddad’s Bluff in La Crosse in this 1954 photo.

Bishop Heiss convinced Archbishop Henni of Milwaukee to transfer the sisters to a motherhouse in La Crosse. The cornerstone of their new building was laid on Aug. 21, 1870. The arrival of the sisters in La Crosse meant Bishop Heiss could realize the need for providing homes and care for orphaned children in his new diocese. Bishop Heiss established the Catholic Welfare Bureau (CWB) in 1872 to formalize this charitable arm of the diocese. Later, in 1875, St. Michael’s Orphanage for boys opened in La Crosse, and others soon followed. In 1910, St. Michael’s Orphanage was rebuilt so it could accommodate both boys and girls.

Over time, the CWB underwent name changes and additions to its charitable functions beyond caring for orphaned children. In 1960, it was called Catholic Social Service, Inc. and in 1976, it became Catholic Charities. From its humble beginnings, Catholic Charities now has a staff of 70 men and women who are devoted to proclaiming Christ’s Gospel of Life and promoting human dignity by alleviating poverty and strengthening individuals and families.

Adoption is a beautiful thing if it is approached with the right heart.

Catholic Charities presently offers a wide variety of services, including adoption and adoption support through FOSTERing Connections, Wisconsin Adoption and Permanency Support, pregnancy support, community homeless facilities, disability services, disaster recovery, Driftless Pass School (students with special needs), immigration, HIV assistance, Project Step Up (financial literacy and advocacy) and parish social ministry.

The Catholic Welfare Bureau, the forerunner of Catholic Charities, assisted with adoptions.

The adoption services offered by Catholic Charities differ greatly from the orphanages of the early years. Today, Catholic Charities is a licensed, accredited, nonprofit agency that provides adoption services to people of all faiths throughout most of the state of Wisconsin. Many families have asked Catholic Charities to help them through the adoption process. One couple, Leah and Casey Garner, share their story of a recent adoption.

Adoption Journey

About two years ago, Leah and Casey decided to adopt. “I always wanted to adopt,” said Leah. “On one of my first dates with Casey, I told him, ‘If you are not at least open to adoption, this ends here, because I want to.’” Although Casey had no previous experience with adoption, he was fine with the idea.

“It was a little overwhelming at first because there were so many different views on it,” said Leah. “So many different agencies, and so many paths to follow. We could choose between an international adoption, a domestic adoption, or foster care with openness to adopt.” Casey added, “After careful prayer and consideration, we decided that a domestic infant adoption was the best path for us in our first attempt to adopt. We hope and plan to do foster care down the road.”

Children at St. Michael’s Orphanage gather for breakfast.

Although there are many different adoption agencies in Wisconsin, the Garners decided to go with an open adoption through Catholic Charities. Casey said, “We looked at the websites of approved agencies, and we found Catholic Charities to be a good match for us. They were fair and up front with us, and when we requested information, we got a ton of detail that we loved to see. That was reassuring and clarifying for us. Plus, it is a Catholic organization and church is important to us.”

Leah and Casey started the adoption process in September 2020 with a home study. A home study is conducted by a social worker who interviews the prospective adoptive parents and inspects their home to make sure it is a safe place for a child. A 20-page report is compiled that presents the findings. The Garner’s home study was approved in February 2021, and they were listed with Catholic Charities as a family waiting to adopt.

Finding Adoptive Parents

An expectant mother working with an agency, reviews information about prospective adoptive parents and selects who will be the adoptive parents. That is how the “match” is made. It is the expectant parent(s) who choose adoptive parents and identities of all involved are known. Leah said, “We even made a connection card with our picture on it to let a birth family know we were hoping to make a match. The birth family saw our page and picture, clicked on it and read about us. They then contacted Catholic Charities and said, ‘We want Leah and Casey.’”

Photo credit Mary Turner, owner of Heart & Hands Birth Services

Once the match is made, Catholic Charities assists both parties to legally finalize the adoption and provide support services afterward. “Rhea Newman is our social worker,” remarked Leah and Casey. “She has been amazing, supportive and encouraging. We have nothing but high praise for her. We asked a million questions and got a million answers.”

“Adoption is not for everyone,” said Leah and Casey. “Adoption is a beautiful thing if it is approached with the right heart. We encourage everyone to learn about adoption and to support it.”

When a woman becomes pregnant, she experiences many emotions and has a wide range of thoughts. Keeping her child is not always considered possible. Catholic Charities has worked with women in many situations and has offered many successful placements. Leah and Casey’s birth mother, Grace, came to Catholic Charities and was able to find the family she was hoping to raise her child.

Making an Adoption Plan

When Grace found out she was pregnant, at first, she refused to believe it. She was frightened but knew she had to do some planning. The baby’s father was the first person she confided in, and she wondered how their parents would react. On hearing the news that Grace was pregnant, their parents responded with love and understanding and gave them their support. Together, they discussed options.

With plans to enter college, Grace and the baby’s father knew they were not ready to be parents of a newborn child. They decided to put together an adoption plan. The plan was especially relevant to Grace because she is an adoptee herself under a closed adoption. However, she wanted an open adoption with her baby. She said, “I have always been curious about who my birth parents are. I hope to eventually learn more about my birth family and their stories.”

During the early years, Catholic Charities had neighborhood centers.

At the suggestion of Grace’s father, she went to a clinic in her hometown, where she found information about Catholic Charities. There, she met her social worker, Karla Meyer, who guided her through making an adoption plan. Grace said, “My main concerns were that we wanted to make sure our baby was going to a home in which it would be loved deeply, and we wanted to have contact with the adoptive family and the baby.”

All their concerns were met with kindness and understanding and, with the help of Catholic Charities, they found their adoptive parents, Leah and Casey. “We were so happy to know that they were completely fine with having an open adoption. We now consider each other as extended family and feel included in their lives.”

Grace shared a couple of special memories about her adoption experience. “We were talking to Leah and Casey about possible names for the baby. I had a name picked out that had a deep personal meaning for me. When their faces lit up it made me so happy. That name also had a personal meaning to them as well. The other special memory I have is when I invited Leah to be with me when the baby was born. She was so excited. Her face lit up immediately. After giving birth, seeing the loving look on her face as she looked at the baby made me so happy. I knew the baby was going to be loved unconditionally. That moment, for both of us, was very important, and I don’t think I will ever forget it.”

The “closed” adoption process common during the early years has seen a change to an open process where the adopted child, the adoptive parents, and the birth parents are known to each other. Grace reflected, “With an open adoption, you have an amazing opportunity to meet new people who may feel like family. I truly feel that adoption needs to happen more often than it really does, even if your choice is to do a closed adoption. But I think an open adoption can create a better relationship with the baby and an amazing relationship with the adoptive family.”

Story and photography by Robert Rogers
Published in the Jan./Feb. 2023 issue of Catholic Life Magazine

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