Some of the most modest memorial plaques in the Chapel of the Angels at St. Michael’s evoke the richest histories. Former children of the Sheltering Arms – no names specified – came together and collected funds for a memorial to Sarah Seaton Richmond (1836-1906, daughter of James Cook Richmond, St. Michael’s fourth rector) longtime Superintendent of the Sheltering Arms.
The Sheltering Arms, founded in the middle of the nineteenth century by clergy and lay leadership of St. Michael’s, was truly revolutionary. It was the first organization to take children from families in crisis, and then feed, clothe, house and educate them while helping parents get back on their feet; the goal was to reunify the family. The Sheltering Arms was a paradigm of what we now know as foster care.
In the beginning, Thomas McClure Peters, rector of St. Michael’s from 1858 to 1893, gave his large home for the experimental first Sheltering Arms building and moved with his family to a new rectory. Though the administration and management of the Sheltering Arms initially proved difficult, the value and success of its core mission were immediately obvious. More children than could possibly be admitted petitioned to be cared for at the Sheltering Arms and Peters’ former private home was soon deemed impossibly small.
A fund-raising campaign at St. Michael’s and among colleague Episcopal churches in and beyond the Diocese quickly accumulated enough money for a new dormitory complex; the large, impressive building extended from 126th to 129th Streets on 9th Avenue, adjacent to St. Mary’s Church in Manhattanville, St. Michael’s first “daughter” church.
Over time, this Sheltering Arms facility was modified and redesigned, serving as the institution’s base. However, as the numbers of children being served expanded and the governance structure of the organization was stabilized, the Sheltering Arms moved to Yonkers where several cottages of different sizes were built for girls and boys of varying ages and for invalids.
In the 1940s, as Robert Moses’ urban redevelopment plans altered the New York City landscape, the 126th Street building was torn down. Today, the only remaining Manhattanville vestige of the original Sheltering Arms facility is the playground which bears its name (www.nycgovparks.org/parks/sheltering-arms-park).
As of 2017, however, the legacy of the Sheltering Arms throughout New York City remains strong.
For more than one hundred and fifty years beginning after the Civil War, various charitable organizations, including the Episcopal Mission Society and St. Barnabas House as well as the Sheltering Arms, all founded by St. Michael’s Church, served abandoned and orphaned children, women struggling in poverty, and broken families. At the end of the twentieth century and in recent years, these various organizations and others have frequently been reorganized, reconfigured and consolidated.
Today, the Sheltering Arms (www.shelteringarmsny.org) , with offices and facilities throughout the city, provides counseling support in areas such as domestic violence, mental illness, substance abuse and trauma response in early childhood education and after school programs as well as foster care and adoptive services.
October 13, 2017