Catholic Charities history is focus of museum exhibit

By: By Jennifer Willems

Making history is nothing new for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Peoria. For 130 years, the agency and its forerunners have looked for new ways to serve those in need while remaining true to the mission of treating all with compassion, dignity and respect.

That long history is being traced in an exhibit in the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Museum and Diocesan Historical Museum, located on the first floor of the Spalding Pastoral Center in Peoria. Compiled by Sister Lea Stefancova, FSJB, and Sister Ann Gill, FSJB, archivists, the exhibit will run through the end of December.

“They chose this project and we were blessed by that, because we’ve had all these pieces of history but have never had the wherewithal to preserve them and put them in one place,” said Tricia Fox, interim executive director of Catholic Charities.

“We received a small grant from Catholic Charities USA that allowed us to do that,” she told The Catholic Post. “It just worked out perfectly that the Sisters were interested in having a temporary display this fall.”

The exhibit was designed to coincide with the centennial celebration of the national agency, which seeks to support local affiliates in their efforts to efforts to “reduce poverty, support families, and empower communities.”

Many of the photos, stories and artifacts being displayed revolve around the main building on the West Peoria campus, Guardian Angel Home, and that’s fitting, according to Fox.

“Our mission to serve others and treat people with compassion, dignity and respect hasn’t changed, but the needs have changed and Guardian Angel is a perfect example of that,” she said.

The roots of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Peoria go back to 1880, when Bishop John Lancaster Spalding established St. Mary’s Orphanage in Metamora. It was entrusted to The Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis until 1890, and then to the Sisters of St. Francis of the Immaculate Conception, also known as the Heading Avenue Franciscans.
Guardian Angel Home was built in 1914, under the personal supervision of Bishop Edmund M. Dunne.

“Bishop Dunne also started a Catholic Charities office in 1925. That was incorporated in 1942,” Fox said. She explained that the agency was known as Catholic Social Service from 1942 to 2002, when it went back to being called Catholic Charities.

Since its early years as an orphanage, Guardian Angel has served as a haven for pregnant teens and as a “home away from home” for unaccompanied refugee minors from Cuba as well as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

“Guardian Angel now is a treatment facility with a focus on clinical behavioral health intervention,” Fox said. “It’s not just to provide kids with a meal and a bed and a stable environment, which is all important and that’s what the orphanage did, but there is also a treatment component to it.

“The idea is that we would help these young boys with the issues they’re facing — many of them have been severely abused,” she told The Post. “The goal, though, is that they would be able to return home to a family.”

While Catholic Charities still has its Guardian Angel services and its day care center, a lot of the agency’s work is being done in the community now, Fox added.

“Our services to strengthen families take place in their homes,” she said. “Many of the children, rather than being in orphanages, now are cared for in family settings and foster homes. The mission and the purpose of our services is still the same, but how we do it has changed over time.”

When the idea was broached for an exhibit about Catholic Charities, the diocesan archivists went to their files to see what they could find. “One thing led to another,” Sister Ann said.

Not only did they receive artifacts from the Guardian Angel chapel, including a portion of the communion rail, a monstrance and a holy water container and aspergillum, but photos, a video and accounts of life at the orphanage started to find their way to the museum. One of the reflections came from Sister Catherine Maloney, OSB, of Rock Island, who lived at Guardian Angel for five years with her twin sister, Nan.

“We like to get those personal stories,” Sister Ann said, noting that visitors seem to enjoy them, too. “They read everything — going from board to board to board.”

The archivists already have started working on the next exhibit, which will document the presence of the Benedictine monks and Sisters in the Diocese of Peoria. It is scheduled to open in January and run through June.

“Our big hope is that we will be able to reach schools, CCD and RCIA better to let them know that these are our roots,” Sister Lea said.

The Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Museum and Diocesan Historical Museum is open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are gratefully accepted to help defray costs.

For more information or to arrange a tour, call (309) 671-1550.

SPALDING PASTORAL CENTER | 419 NE MADISON AVENUE | PEORIA, IL 61603 | PHONE (309) 671-1550 | FAX (309) 671-1595
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