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100 years on, St. Charles Children’s Home in Rochester has new purpose

Union Leader Correspondents

October 02. 2013 5:22PM

ROCHESTER — It has been 100 years since St. Charles Children’s Home first opened its doors to care for children in need.

During that time, more than 6,000 children have called the old Victorian mansion, built in 1878, home, for various lengths of time.

Many early features of the home remain the same, from the grand foyer to the layout of the children’s play rooms, but much has changed.

At its height, the nuns of St. Charles took care of as many as 150 children. Today, those numbers have dwindled, and soon St. Charles will transition from a residential home for children to a day-based program to help children with behavioral problems, carrying on the mission started in 1913.

At that time, Father Charles Lacroix was serving as the priest at Holy Rosary Church, and had long advocated for a home for orphaned children, or children whose parents for one reason or another could not take care of them.

In the early days, some single-parent families would bring their children to stay at the home during the week while they were working long hours, or until they could get back on their feet.

This was the case for Roger “Butch” Tremblay, 80, of Rochester who lived at the home from 1936 to 1939. His father was injured in an industrial accident and his mother couldn’t “hack it” with two rambunctious boys, he recalled during Monday’s open house. He was 4 when he arrived at the home; his brother, Ronald, was 7.

Although the home has undergone some changes, Tremblay can still remember where he slept, ate his meals and went to school during those years.

He also remembers his father visiting on weekends to help them build a boat for the Sea Scouts.

“It brings back some memories,” Tremblay said.

Clement Comtois, 73, also pointed out the location of his bed in the boys’ wing when he was at the home 70 years ago with his brother, George, 75, of Raymond.

“It’s amazing — I was here when I was 3. I’m (almost) 74 and still remember,” Clement Comtois said.

The brothers return to St. Charles every year to drop off donations and help the facility continue to take care of children in need.

It is friends like these that have kept the home operational for so many years.

And it is a long series of nuns like Sister Mary Agnes, the home’s current administrator, and Mother Paul Marie, that have made every child who passed through the doors feel loved and part of a family.

Sister Mary Agnes has been at St. Charles for 25 years, Mother Paul Marie for 40.

“To be honest, I think the key in the past 100 years to the residential program has been the sisters who live here. It is much easier to operate like a family when the people you have here are here 24 hours a day seven days a week,” Sister Mary Agnes said.

It is also less threatening to children and their biological families.

“There are no loyalties violated by the kids becoming comfortable with us,” Sister Mary Agnes said. “If they become comfortable enough, the bond with the sisters is not a threat to their families of origin. It is a unique reality that has given us great success in the past.”

The sisters also make sure the children leave with good memories of the many excursions, activities and adventures they have while at St. Charles. Three years after arriving, Mother Paul Marie instituted “life books” an individual scrapbook made for each child to take with them when they leave.

In 1946, New Hampshire Catholic Charities got involved and began to monitor the placement of children in new families.

The home was operated by the Grey Nuns of Canada, until 1968, when the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady, Mother of the Church took over administration.

It took only a handful of nuns to take care of as many as 80 children in the early years, but the effects of the 1970s and 80s drug culture began to change the needs of children.

“We started getting kids who had been the victims of different forms of abuse and neglect and everything that comes with a drug culture,” Sister Mary Agnes said. “Our program became much less of an orphanage, because these are not orphans, and more of a therapeutic placement.”

The children and their many needs became harder to manage, and the numbers of children at the home began to decline.

At the same time, the trend nationally has moved away from placing children in group homes.

As the four children remaining at the home are transitioned into new families, St. Charles Children’s Home will transition to other programs, while retaining its name and location.

The former chaplain’s home will serve as a new location for “Our Place,” a NH Catholic Charities program that focuses on helping young mothers, and the home has started working with area school districts offering services at St. Charles for children whose behavioral problems are prohibiting them from participating fully in a public school classroom.

“It is important to keep in mind, as the needs have changed, the home has adapted to those changing needs,” Sister Mary Agnes said, and will continue to do so.

Some things will remain the same, including the sisters’ commitment to caring for needy children and families.

They will also maintain their now iconic image as the “running nuns,” started in 1996 by Sister Maximilian, who engaged the children in a daily running program to help them deal with some of the issues they face.

The sisters have held a 5K road race for the last 17 years and Sister Mary Agnes said they will continue to do so, particularly because it has become an important connection with former residents and raises much needed money to keep the children’s home operational.

Sister Mary Agnes said the 100th anniversary on Monday was a perfect opportunity for members of the public to visit or return to St. Charles.

“The home is a mystery for some,” Sister Mary Agnes said.

Marlene Brooks said she has lived in Rochester her entire life but had never visited the home, and was glad she did.

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