On Research–Writing the Gaps in the History of Unwed Mothers

Our Lady of Victory Basilica

Our Lady of Victory Basilica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Village of Brockport, where I live, is just an hour away from the site of Father Baker’s Home for Unwed Mothers in Lackawanna, NY.   For as close as I live to this building, I knew little about it when I began.

This became a topic of ongoing research for my newest story, a novella, which describes a 15-year-old’s experience in a home for unwed mothers during the late 1960s.

To say I’m not superstitious would be a lie, but I’m not superstitious when it comes to talking about a story while I’m writing it.  In fact, I think it’s a necessity.  It’s an important part of research–it’s part of the writer’s responsibility to gauge the many facets of the topic they write on.  At AWP, Bret Anthony Johnston said something about it being “irresponsible” to require a student to write a story and not also require that student to conduct research while writing that story.

For research, I read The Girls Who Went Away, by Ann Fessler, conducted interviews of my own, and dug up some news articles to get public perception on this phenomenon.  Young girls whisked away from their families during perhaps the most vulnerable time in their lives, only to have their own babies whisked away from them.

Part of this was the culture of the time.  Parents sent their pregnant daughters away to protect them.  Or to protect their families, which proved backwards and harrowing for the mothers.  As treacherous as society can be for marginalized groups today, the same went for unwed mothers in the 50s-60s.   I didn’t quite understand this on an emotional level, this sending away of daughters, but as a mother of two boys in 2013, I can only grasp it in a far-off, detached manner.  But that type of grasp is not the type of grasp a writer has to have, and it only worked until I actually started writing the scenes.

The problem was, these girls only knew part of their stories.  They knew what happened to them, but what happened that made this phenomenon possible?  Questions like, What did these babies cost?  Where did the money go?  And what they have all been asking since it happened, Why?  Why?  Why?

There are many shadows surrounding these homes, and I crept around in them–well, in the texts of them–while I researched.  There were articles by sources that felt not quite reputable, claiming the nuns “stole” the children.  And while this language is inflammatory and inciting, could it be true?  The level-headed part of me wants to know why this has not become a more investigated, legitimate issue, why I can’t find some source to give me information I can put stock in?

Anne Fessler’s oral history of this issue brought up many emotional questions on the part of the unwed mothers.  That helped quite a bit, but still, what happened as I was reading was exactly what happened as the birth mothers told their stories–the gaps frustrated the information.  Sure, what the mothers endured–the shame, the guilt, the work in the nurseries, the drugging so that they would sign their just-born for release–all presented fine, but both the mothers and the readers, on different levels, have gaps to fill.  This is, perhaps, the most gut-wrenching part of the story.  The unknowable.

Who were these nuns?  Have any stepped forward to tell their stories?  How were they instructed to coerce these women into adoption?  I’ve read few comments from nuns themselves, in old newspapers, and the potential for that has dwindled with time.  I’ve read vague articles commending the many existing institutions for their charity, but no oral history of the nuns who counseled these young women.   Maybe few of them felt they were in the business of “stealing” babies?  Or was it the culture that masked this?

That’s where writing comes in, in part.  I imagine who my character, Sister Josephine, was.   What if she wasn’t completely bound to the Catholic Charity’s mission?  What if Sister Josephine had a secret of her own?  Were there renegade sisters or nuns?  Likely.  Would they ever tell their stories?  Not likely.

So, for me, in this story, there is the writing–there is the voice to give.  What makes writing so hard–that these are potholes, the fallen bridges, the trap doors we fall into.

About Sarah Cedeño

Sarah Cedeño received her BA and MA in Creative Writing from SUNY-Brockport, and her MFA in fiction from Goddard College. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Hippocampus Magazine, The Bellevue Literary Review, Literary Mama, and Redactions. She lives in Brockport with her husband and two sons and teaches writing at SUNY-Brockport. View all posts by Sarah Cedeño

21 responses to “On Research–Writing the Gaps in the History of Unwed Mothers

  • Luanne

    Sarah, sounds great. I’m reblogging this on the adoption blog I write with my daughter. I can’t wait to read your final product.

  • Don't We Look Alike?

    Reblogged this on Don't We Look Alike? and commented:
    There has been a lot of talk recently about the book The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler. Blogger Sarah Cedeno is writing a novella about a 15 year old girl in a similar situation.

  • menomama3

    Interesting insights and difficult information to digest. Good luck with your project.

  • Peggy Harris

    Was actually a “resident” of OLV in 1966-67. I never felt pressured to give my child up for adoption either by the nuns or the counselor on staff. The atmosphere was such that I felt safe and protected when my own family rejected me. I don’t know how anyone could ever say anything negative about everyone at OLV from the nuns to the nurses to the volunteers. They definitely made a traumatic experience of being an unwed mother into an experience that was made bearable by their caring.

  • Sarah Cedeño

    Thank you for your reply. I’m happy to know Father Baker’s eased your hard time. It was hard for me to accept that women at OLV had the same experience that many of the birth mothers in Ann Fessler’s book had, so it helps to that you were willing to share your experience.

  • Gail Bayer===

    I wish I could agree with Peggy but not everyone had a caring, loving experience at OLV. They were told they were sinners. The doctor as he was delivering said that he was going to sew you up so this would never happen again, they wouldn’t allow you to eat four days before the birth because they said you were too fat etc. etc. I would not call this loving. Moreover, they discouraged you from ever seeing your baby.


    • Sarah Cedeño

      So there are great discrepancies in the care birth mother’s received. I am so sorry to hear about your experience. It really pierces the isolation the young mothers were already feeling in such a situation. This is very similar in tone to the experiences in Ann Fessler’s book. I can’t imagine.
      Thank you for sharing this with me.

  • Shawn

    I was wondering if during your research you spoke to anyone at Father Baker’s.
    My mother was there when she was pregnant with me in 1975. I never knew my biological father nor the brothers and sisters that I have. Now that I am grown and have children of my own I would like to know that side of my family history. It’s been weighing on my heart for many years. Any help on how to get some info from Father Baker’s would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

  • Sarah Cedeño

    Hi Shawn,
    You might try contacting Father Baker’s Directly or the Catholic Charities, who sometimes have records. Good luck with your search!

  • Michele Robledo

    My comment is directed to Peggy Harris I was born January 30, 1967 at our Lady of victory my mother was 27 at the time, catholic Irish The name given to me at birth was Lara Anne Scott Any information anyone has would greatly be appreciated

  • Michele Robledo

    Searching for my biological mother, she would’ve stayed at our Lady of victory 1966 to 1967, she gave birth to female girl January 30, 1967 My given name was Lara Anne Scott before my adoption at 6 weeks old my biological mother was 27 at the time 5″3, brown hair the father was 34 at the time about 5’4 also brown hair Their relationship had ended. Mother was a secretary at the time and father was a bricklayer I have been searching for about 30 years, never getting any further than un- identifying information I’ve always felt a missing link in my life that I feel only an adopted person can understand Any information that anyone has would be a blessing 918-734-5932

  • Bob Burdick

    Just a quick word of thanks to OLV as an “heir”. My 89 year old father recently passed. He was born at OLV in 1927. After his birth, he was taken home to Caton NY by his 14 year old birth mother but cared for by others until his adoption at age 3 by Ralph and Nora Burdick of Corning. Needless to say, Dad was an ardent opponent of abortion, as I am, and for good reason, I wouldn’t be writing this had that happened. I have no doubt some bad things happened at OLV but I thank the Lord for Father Baker and the pathway he opened for life. We’ll never know the details of his mother’s situation there at OLV, but the Lord made a way for life… my life, my sisters, their many children and grandchildren and my sons and grandchildren.

  • khal spencer

    Hello, Sarah.

    My mom stayed in that Lackawanna home for unwed mothers when pregnant with me in 1953. Needless to say, she did not give me up for adoption. We went home and my maternal grandmother moved in with us on the old west side of Buffalo, near Niagara Street, so mom could go back to working two jobs.

    I thought about her situation a lot this week after reading about the March for Life in D.C. Marching around did not help my mom. My grandmother and that guy Nelson Henry Baker sure did help her.

    I was perusing the web for some information on the City of Charity and found this blog.

    Khal Spencer, Ph.D.
    Los Alamos, NM

  • Margie Poulin

    My grandmother was adopted from Father Bakers orphanage back in 1919 or 1920. I’m wondering if there is anyway to get records.

  • LaTia Mulkey

    My mother stayed at OLV and birthed her daughter in 1979 whom was placed in foster care and then later adopted…My mother was from Niagara Falls and I believe that was where the adoption took place…Long story short I am looking for my sister if anyone can give me any information on where to begin my search I would greatly appreciate it.

  • Helen Bay

    My mother was in home in1957… gave both to a boy. .. he would be my brother.
    She told me this story when I was in my 20’s
    She knew she was giving the baby up for adoption when she went there … but changed her mind. She She was not allowed to leave with the baby, whom she named Michael Collins. She went back many times to get him with my father but was told he was given an Irish family in the area.
    I am still looking for him .
    Are you still writing this story ? This is the first tome I have seen the actual name of this home

  • Richelle Cisco

    My mother was given up for adoption there i. 1953. She is a twin (frdternal-brother) and they were adopted together. Unfortunately, my mother became pregnant at 16 and her adoptive mother sent her back there (hidden for months) changed her name, ect. She was not allowed any visitors and told us stories of wotking in nursery wigh hydrocephalic babies. She was also told her baby boy (with my father)died at birth. She went on to have my sister and i with our father….but i always wonder if the baby was truly dead!!!

  • Christine Corsette

    For those who were adopted in NY state, you can now access your original birth certificate, which will reveal the name given you at birth and your mothers age and place of residence at the time of your birth (prior to her stay at OLV). From there you can search ancestry – take the DNA test and see who you match. You can look at your closest matches trees and see if anything rings a bell. Also facebook is a good source. 3 weeks ago, I found my birth mother and her subsequent children. I also read Ann Fessler book, which I found fascinating. I found my mothers sister, 1st cousin and 5 brothers and their families. My siblings had no idea I existed. My bio-mother has never told a soul…she still lives. Her younger sister remembers her being sent away. My bio-mom (BM) wants no part of me, but her children (all adults) think having a big sister is great. I have no intention of pushing my self on BM, I am in my mid 60’s so there is no point.
    Good luck to those searching.

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