My Mum?- ”Baby Jesus”!

Group of 2-year-olds at the House of Baby Jesus, photograph from the Author's private collection

White, unadorned and entirely uninteresting building at the Subocz street does not rivet almost any attention to itself. It is certainly due to the eye-catching Missionary Church located nearby. The place talked about wonderfully lies on an acclivity. One can see a breathtaking view of Vilnius from there. Today, the buiding is desolate and silent, one gradually forgets about cacophony, shouting and laughing of the children inhabiting it for centuries as their family home. Unfortunately, it does not happen because of the children’s will.

It all started with St. Vincent a Paolo who established the Company of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul( AKA the Daughters of Charity). The sisters were invited to Vilnius in 1685 by the bishop Andrzej Kotowicz. First for two years  they occupied a small house, later the sister of Jan Sobieski 3rd,  , the Radziwiłł Duchess, gave them the square behind the Subocz Gate located on the acclivity. The venue was called the Mountain of the Saviour( Mons Salvatoris) and upon it-due to the proselytised Catholic family of Plater- the Church of the Lord’s Ascension, coloquially spoken of as the Missionary Church, was built.

Shortly afterwards, in 1704, the 1st hospital-almshouse was created by the church. Later there was also the great Foundation of the Smolensk Bishop Bogusław Gosiewski who, in 1744, sacrificed his palace, buildings and bigb square at the Bakszta street to establish the perfectly created hospital. The Bishop’s will was clear: it was meant to serve as a hospital for the destitute ill people ” in the streets and squares lying yet no contagious diseases spreading”. Apart from the premises, the Bishop devoted  100 thousand zlotys for this aim! The hospital was created as a result of the rearrangement of the palace and few tenement houses, majority of which constituted by the bare walls remaining after the fire destroying this part of Vilnius in 1737. The hospital, at first known as the one of the ”Gosiewski Foundation”, was retained in the history of Vilnius under the name of the Sawicz Hospital, at the same time constituting one of its most beautiful parts.

From the Oginiec Voivodess kind heart

Saint Vincent a Paolo among numerous aims for establishing the Company of the Daughters of Charity, emphasised the fate of infants abandoned by their mothers. Prserving them from inevitable death, he created special houses to which the children were brought. A similar house was created in 1732 in Warsaw by the missionary priest Gabriel Baudouin. He named it the Baby Jesus Hospital yet apparently it was the Foundlings House for orphans or abandonded children.

Within fifty years, such an institution was created in Vilnius as well. Its spiritual patron and creator was the superior of the Vilnius missionary priests, priest Andrzej Pohl. Funds for the orphanage arrangement were given by the widow-voivodess Jadwiga Teresa Ogińska nee Załuska(Skumin-Tyszkiewicz after her 1st husband). She was said to ”cherish the solitary orphans” as a childless woman. Hundred thousand zlotys given by her were meant for the Sawicz Hospital but, in accordance with her will, the funds were divided thus enabling to create a separate foundation concerned with  childcare.

The document of this gift recorded in the tribunal house’s scriptures was saying- apart from the money- also about the house donated by the voivodess for this purpose. It was located in the viccinity of the House of the Missionary Priests at the Subocz street. Then, there was a justification speakig of ”the anxiety and wet eyes at the view of the orphans loitering at the streets and the abandoned infants”. After a year, Kazimierz Wołodko, the treasurer of the Vilnius voivodship, contributed to the future institution by donating a neighbouring square and a tenement house.

The cornerstone of the new institution was consecrated on July 3rd 1787. Vilnius architect Augustyn Kossakowski created a beautiful plan of the presumably  gigantic building. Unfortunately, the forthcoming pauperisation of the country triggered by the political situation(2nd division) unabled the complete realization of the plan. It was being built for several years and only one third of the archtect’s ideas were eventually realized. Meanwhile, the Ogińska Duchess donated another sum of money, thanks to which the first orphans started to be admitted. At first, before the house proper’s completion, children were gathered in the Sawicz Hospital on Bakszta. All the kids, amounting to 100 girls and boys  in total, were officially transferred to a new place in the autumn of 1791.

The institution received the name of Baby Jesus and was to be led by sister Elżbieta Filauzer sent from Warsaw. She was to be helped only by three sisters. How hard the work had been was proven by the death of the youngest nun after a year. Ogińska supported the foundation by  further donations of money and  ecouraging the others to do so as well. Amidst the more relevant donors there was priest Hrebnicki donating a square called ”Paradise”. It was adjacent to the venue and served as a perfect vegetable garden for the nuns.

Children were coming to the House of Baby Jesus straight from the street, most often brought by the police. They were found in various places, always noted in the admittance books. Wrapped bundles with infants were lying by the cross in Zarzecze, in the suburbian bush, on the grass behind the fence, on staircases of different houses, even in churches. Mothers always placed the children in such locations so that they could be soon discovered. Winters were worse in this matter and the percentage of deaths shortly after being brought was very high.

The House of  Baby Jesus started to play such a relevant role that it was helped by the Hospital Commission and the Vilnius City Municipality. For instance, there was once a  time period when theatre plays and public amusement events were under taxation for this particular purpose. Also the Tzar himself supported the house by issuing a resolution obliging all the bachelors of St. Stanislaus Order to make annual donations.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the House of Baby Jesus incessantly cared for approximately 160 children, including 40 infants. Apart from the foundlings, there were also some orphans brought there by the families of their deceased parents. According to the 1803 report, between 1797 and 1803, 1400 out of 2100 chilkdren admitted there, died(!). The name of ”institution” was now officially accepted, interchangeably used with that of ”home”, which, due to more positive connotations, I am trying to use.

Apart from the Daughters of Charity, the house would also employ nannies and wet nurses, each of them breastfeeding two children herself. Those who survived, at certain age started their education in the adjacent school. According to the Municipality’s decision from 1801, the House of Baby Jesus received for perpetual lease the lochs of former city fortifications, i.e. the today’s bastion at the Bakszta street( the so-called Barbakan). Deep and cool corridors were to serve as a pantry.

The nuns also received a plot of land at the Vilnia bank. Laundry, bath and distillery built there, would be remarkably profitable once leased to private people. The street leading to the Daughters of Charity’s laundry by Vilnia, was with time named the Laundry Corner. These were the good times of the house, due to the improved situation and diminished mortality rate. However, the number of children was still on the increase, amounting to 500 per year.

Official Russification

Nonetheless, the Tzar’s rule was abundant in non-sense undertakings, with time also felt by the House of Baby Jesus. About the half of the 19th century the situation got even worse. The police started to bring the hobos and the prisoners’ children, who could not have been refused the shelter.The real tragedy began in 1842 when, because of the governmental authorities’ order, all the additional money were taken away from the sisters. All the land possessions given to the nuns as leases, were taken away as well. All squares surrounding the house, including” Paradise”, were confiscated.

The House of Baby Jesus started to be at the governmental probator’s disposal. New regulations were created and the personnel working format was amended. When referring to the norms, the number of children was limited yet, due the growing number of foundlings and orphans, no norms were really obeyed. The number of children admitted each year would reach even 800, almost never being less than 500. This number included 100 to 200 deaths each year.

Only a few foundlings had a name card, the information about the christening being even rarer. Nameless infants( with no cards), at the registration were given names and surnames, later made lawful via inscriptions in the post-christening acts. The governmental regulations required the foundligs to be christened as Eastern Orthodoxes. The Daughters of Charity, though, as Catholics, used the knowledge of the brought children beig christened as Catholics so as they could retain their denomination. The cards were thus fabricated and also, respective inscriptions in the records were produced. The further procedure was obvious: child was raised in a Polish family as a Polish citizen. Certainly, it was well-known, that a child could have had not only a Polish, but also Belarussian, Jewish or Russian mother.

Such a ritual lasted for some time, but the Russification entering its climax point in 1863, eventually reached the Daughters of Charity as well. The authorities ordered to create an Eastern Orthodox chapel inside the House of Baby Jesus. Once a sister died, she would be immediately replaced with a Russian nanny. Vilnius Civil Governor Stefan( Stiepan) Paniutin eagerly started to eventually  order everything. In a memorial to some higher authorities he appealed for the Daughters of Charity to be removed from the House of Baby Jesus. He justified such claims by the apparent lies concerning establishment of the child’s identity and later raising them as Polish people by means of using this language near them and teaching them in secret. The appeal was accepted and subsequently at the end of April 1864, the sisters were forced to leave. They moved to the Sawicz Hospital for some time, later forced to adjourn to the Kingdom of Poland.

The House immediately underwent serious changes. All Catholic children were removed, the Catholic chapel was destroyed and the priest was replaced by the Eastern Orthodox Pop. Governor Paniutin had only withdrawn the prospect of renaming the institution for there were proposals to transform it into ”Educational Institution of St. Mary”. It was yet no good will but only self-serving of the official. He stated that if Tzar had once confirmed the institution’s statue and its initial name,appealing for a change would recquire a lot of admionistrative effort.

Governmental and wholly Eastern Orthodox House  was fuctioning for a few centuries without changing the form of childcare. The only thing was that until 1915 all the boys and girs leaving the institution were given Russian nationaity and Eastern Orthodox denomination. Between 19th and 20th century about 700 children resided at the House. There were some tragic years, like this of 1905 characteristic for the death of 230 out of 250 infants within a short period of time. Thus it poses no surprise that Vilnius people used to call it a ” dreadful asylum” then. Under the German occupation(1915-1918), the House of Baby Jesus become, due to the Lithuanian authorities’ order, an educational facility.

Daughters of Charity come back

The missionary priests returned to Vilnius in 1921 and soon after, the 1st three Charity Daughters led by Zofia Kowalczyk did the same. Despite the venue being destroyed and solitary, they were not depressed at all. After 57 years, the sisters started to arrange a nursery, kindergarten, school and shelter for school children. In 1922 running water and electricity were installed. In order to obtain funds for further activities, they organised the dress-making and sewing institutions. PKP Board of Directors, as help, ordered the production of summer  work uniforms and caps.
Among the solemn celebrations there were the consecration of the newly arranged chapel and placiong the monument of St.Mary  in the garden. The House of Baby Jesus was enhanced in 1927, because the sisters leased a small house with a garden located on the other side of the Subocz street.
It was a former stable, renovated and arranged to suit the needs of the 100 of kindergarten children. About 1932 11 sisters and 60 members of the assistant personnel worked at the House. Security guards, nurses, nannies, wet nurses, washers, dress-makers, cooks..always women. Men were rarely seen by the children. These were only priests and additional doctors, sometimes the suppliers of food and equipment.

During the interwar period about 600 children per year were admitted to the House. The personnel gradually managed to diminish the mortality rate. Some children were old enough so as to(after some basic preparation) be transferred to other orphanages in Vilnius. The majority remained at the Baby Jesus’, though. In the respective departments there were always over 100 infants, the same number of children under 7, and school children of both sexes. Approximately 300 of those children constituted  constant residents of the House each year.

The institution was funded by the Municipality providing the money according to the hourly rate. The House would thus receive 1,20 zlotys for an infant and 0,80 zlotys for an elder child. Also the Vivodship Office would provide the House with little amounts of money for some time. However, as the expenses outnumbered the incomes, constant shortage of money was a serious problem of the Sister Superior, Maria Burbianka-in office since 1924. Sisters never regained the territories lost under the Tzar’s rule: Żośle in the Trakai Region(remained at the Lithuanian side of the border),
Międzyrzecz, or the leased Szaterniki(within the Vilnius Region). Only the ”Paradise” garden was given back to them. Substantial subsidy was provided by Aleksander Prystor who, as a minister of work and social care visited the House three times. Thanks to the means given by him it was possible to i.a. refurbish the roofs.

Boys could remain at the House until the age of 15. Then they would learn in the primary school supervised by the missionary priests in the parisian building by the church. They would also be sent to craftsmanship workshops for traineeships, to the stores as young employees, or to the country-as farm-hands. Girls sometimes left the House later, but they were most often predestined to be house servants. A lot of younger children were sent to the strangers’ houses. It was a sort of adoption, recorded and  controlled as much as possible.

The kids would most often go to families from villages near Vilnius and unemployed people in town who were willing to adopt a child. Some of the kids would receive the surnames of their adoptive parents. There had been some tragic cases of people adopting children only for money, since the Municipality gave 15 zlotys per month for each child. Many children would suffer cruelty and mistreatment. In dirt and poverty, beaten and abused, they would frequently fall ill and die. In such cases, the sisters’ work would go in vain. Yet another group was formed by the children sent to orphanages, almshouses or shelters led by different organisations.

The plague of foundlings

The House of Baby Jesus in Vilnius was the most important institution admitting the foundlings, but not the only one. Today, when we know about children voluntarily left in hospitals soon after the birth or, about the so-called ”windows of life”, the extent of children abandoned then is really hard to imagine. In 1932, 2000 was the number of infants only, found within 2 years and residing in  orphanages across the city. At that time, the Municipality warned it could not give any more money.

Salesian Sisters Convent at the Stefańska street was the second biggest point admitting the foundlings. Social care officers coming there controlled the so-called ”sorting room”, where the future fate of the nameless foundlings was decided. Between 1932 and 1932 even a plague of foundlings was talked about. It resulted, to a large extent, from the exconomic crisis and widely-spread unemployment. There was also a great number of cildren either born out-of-wedlock or raised in pathological families.

Children’s abandonment would take diverse forms. Some ridiculous examples are known from the witnessess’ accounts. Once, a woman walked into the gate of the Kalwaryjska street with three children aged from 8 to 1 year and told them to stay there, insdtructing the oldest one that, when asked who they were, they were to admit being foundlings. Yet another mother left an infant on a bench at the Municipality’s corridor. The police searched for the children’s mothers, yet most often with no results. In hope for the child’s better future, the countrywomen from neighbouring villages willing to get rid of a child, wandered to the city and left them there.

The kids coming to the House of Baby Jesus without stated origin would leave with names and surnames given by the nuns. It was a custom particularly interesting with respect to the etymology of some surnames, especially with regard to neophites. Cases, when the name of month or day of christening would become the child’s surname, were quite frequently experienced in Poland. Equally common were the surnames connected with the circumstances of finding a particular child.

During their stay at the House, such words as ”mum” or ”mummy” were magical for the youngest children, connecting them with the fairy tales’ characters. Nuns and nannies were not mums, though they were perceived so by the children, which is entirely understandable. Each person took care for a couple of children.

Currently, the Internet has contributed to the growing interest in genealogy by providing new methods of accessing the source documents. The broadbands enable to search through more and more data bases, in which some crucial information can be found. Some  already scanned christening scriptures include positions where, in the place for ”Parents”, NN(unknown) is written.While examining the history of Vilnius, I  avail myself to genealogy and I sometimes came across such inscriptions. This influenced immediate association with the House of Baby Jesus and the fortune of the foundlings. When considering the number of children going through the house during its activity, there are a lot of people across the world, provided with name, surname, nationality and denomination.

They received identity impossible to go without. Once being left to themselves as the society members, they would go to work or join the army. Finding their place in life, girls would find themselves a husband, boys-a wife. When they had their own children, they would have no grandmother, grandfather or ancestors in the next generations. What to to then, with the future generations, which( assigning 20-25 years to each of them) are manageable within the genealogical examination. Some of the children raised in the House of Baby Jesus can thus encounter, in the course of their inquiries, a moment when there willbe nothing further, nothing to go beyond. They will be unable to find different documents than the institutional record kept by the nuns. Then, they will get to know that the mother of their great-grandfather was actually…Baby Jesus.

Illustrations and photographs- from authorial collections

Waldemar Wolkanowski( University of Opole)

Source: http://www.wilnoteka.lt/pl/artykul/moja-mama-dzieciatko-jezus

Tłumaczenie by Katarzyna Piskorz w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Katarzyna Piskorz within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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