Catholic Charities Report
By Gary Bouchard
Some lights were never meant to go out. Like the ancient incandescent bulb in the hallway outside of the chapel on the top floor of St. Charles School in Rochester, which has been burning steadily since 1913.
To some it is an electrical oddity. To the Daughters of Mary, Mother of Healing Love who live there, it is - just as it was for their predecessors for the previous 105 years - a divine affirmation of their vocation and work of taking care of vulnerable children. Today, with a renewed clarity of purpose and a long-awaited licensing from the state of New Hampshire, the sisters’ work, just like the mysterious glowing bulb, continues uninterrupted.
What today is St. Charles School was originally a grand private mansion on the Rochester Common. When its second generation owner squandered the family fortune, the property was acquired by the state and then purchased by the Diocese of Manchester in 1913 and opened as an orphanage, run by the Sisters of Charity of Montreal. These Grey Nuns ran the orphanage successfully for over five decades, caring for thousands of children from local communities and from throughout New England as well as from other states and countries. During the 1950’s, Catholic Charities New Hampshire became the sponsoring organization of St. Charles, but then a decrease in the number of children needing placement in orphanages coincided with a decline in the number of Grey Nuns and it nearly closed.
But the light burned on. In 1968, the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady Mother of Mercy took the baton from the Grey Nuns and began running St. Charles as a home for children of families in crisis. This vital work continued successfully under the Daughters of Mary, Mother of Healing Love until 2013 when coordination with the Division of Children, Youth & Families increasingly conflicted with the school’s mission.
A 6th-grader at St. Charles School poses with Angel, a South American red-footed tortoise who serves as an immersive learning therapy aide to students at the school.
When they ended their relationship with DCYF in 2013, St. Charles continued to operate as a temporary therapeutic placement program for the Rochester school district, but, recalls Sister Mary Agnes Dombroski, the Executive Director of St. Charles, “Increasingly the question was becoming ‘What next?’ Should we be a day care? A private school? We even considered becoming a bed and breakfast. But we wanted to continue the mission of St. Charles which has always been to the neediest and most emotionally broken children. What could we do that would be worthy of this beautiful campus and its history?”
The answer came in 2016 in an e-mail from the state of New Hampshire with an invitation to become an Out of District Education Program. “We began work right away on the application process and submitted our application to the state in June of 2017,” Sister Mary Agnes says. On July 1, 2018, after an extensive review process, St. Charles School became approved by the state of New Hampshire as a special education program with a capacity for 24 students. It plans to eventually expand to a capacity for 36 students.
“It’s the right mission at the right time,” says Sister Mary Agnes. “Kids with special needs often have social and emotional needs and are victims of trauma. They come with low self-esteem. They’ve been suspended over and over starting in kindergarten for being aggressive, violent and disruptive. We don’t suspend them. We have a very relational approach and we’re very good at helping our students feel safe and calm.”
“The nice thing about this certification,” says Tom Blonski, President and CEO of Catholic Charities, “is that it really allows the sisters to continue to focus on their charism and mission of educating and caring for vulnerable and needy children.”
Upstairs at the school, where the children are not permitted to go, a glow still emanates from the ancient light that workmen recently dubbed “the eternal lightbulb.” Beneath the switch is a 50-year-old note with instructions to NOT turn off the light. There is little worry of that ever happening. Nodding to the picture of Christ on the altar to the Sacred Heart below the bulb, Sister Mary Agnes reflects, “He is the one bringing the light into St. Charles.”