Founded by the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1900, Holy Family Day Home has been "home away from home" for over 16,000 children and families throughout this rather tumultuous century of two World Wars, the Great Depression and two major earthquakes.
Our History: Excellence throughout the ages
San Francisco, the city that was never a town, sprung up amongst the sandy dunes of the bay after the discovery of gold in the low mountains to the east, the great silver discoveries in Nevada, the coming of the railroads and the post-Civil War migrations of the late 1850s and 60s.
When Richard and Mary Tobin took young Lizzie Armer into their quiet San Francisco home just after the Civil War, little did they know that she would translate the love, care and devotion she learned from her new family into a religious community dedicated to addressing the myriad of social problems that she observed in her diverse community. Moved by the often-troubled lives of her neighbors, Lizzie Armer, now Sister Dolores, founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1872. The City was an amazing agglomeration of wealth and poverty, opportunity and disadvantage. Although gold and growth generated many millionaires, thousands of families struggled to make even a meager living in a fast-changing and frequently unforgiving economy.
The Sisters turned their attention to the difficult lives facing the unattended children of working families in a booming city. In 1878, the Sisters opened their first official Day Home to “provide a place where the needs of the child could be attended to while peace of mind and material assistance” could be offered to the beleaguered parents.
By 1906, the Sisters of the Holy Family had pioneered the concept of Kindergarten on the Pacific Coast, importing the idea and accreditation for the teachers from New York. The growing Order of Sisters maintained and staffed three flourishing Day Homes: St. Francis in North Beach, Sacred Heart in the area of the present Civic Center, and the original Holy Family Day Home at 6th and Brannan Streets. These homes cared for children from ages two to seventeen and from all religious and ethnic backgrounds.
From tragedy comes a Home Away From Home
The great earthquake of 1906 and subsequent fire destroyed all of the Day Homes. Undaunted, the Sisters went immediately to several city parks and set up large canvas tents where the work of day care and family support could continue, needed even more during this deeply traumatic time for the citizens of San Francisco.
In 1911, Virginia Fair Vanderbilt, the inheritor of great silver wealth from the famed Comstock Lode in Nevada, offered to build a new Day Home on the northeast corner of 16th and Dolores Streets in the neighborhood already known as the Mission. Mrs. Vanderbilt hired the famous architect, Willis Polk, to create a state-of-the-art education facility. The building was designed especially for children, with half steps to accommodate little legs and large windows to let the sunshine pour through. Ground was broken on July 17, 1911, and the new building was dedicated at 11:30 a.m. on February 2, 1912.
By the 1920s, the Community Chest (later the United Way) came into existence and began to partially subsidize the work of the Day Homes. With public funding, the Sisters were no longer totally dependent on begging for food, clothes and school supplies. Still, nearly 110 of the 150 families served were paying no fees at all. A report at the time noted that the Day Homes, “unlike any other day care being established, were the only ones who took children in for need alone and were not interested in merely providing an interesting preschool experience for children.”
During the 1930s and 40s outside organizations, such as Public Health Nurses and Social Workers, began to provide services to the families and in the 60s and 70s there was much more outreach to the community, more resource materials published and more parent involvement in the school. The ministry of the Sisters of the Holy Family remained responsive and vital to the daily lives of so many San Franciscans. Throughout the economic boom and bust of the late 19th Century, the Great Depression, two World Wars, and two major earthquakes, the Day Home continued to serve children and their families.
The Journey to Today
As many San Franciscans will recall, it began at 5:04 p.m. on October 17, 1989. Fans were just settling into their seats at Candlestick Park for the third game of the baseball World Series when the first tremor was felt. A section of the Bay Bridge collapsed. Six people were killed when a brick building in SOMA crumbled to the ground. Power was out for nearly three days. Once again, as in 1906, fires were the real problem. At least 27 of them raged and dozens of apartment buildings were lost in the Marina District. San Francisco alone suffered nearly $3 billion in damages.
For 77 years, that wonderful building that was a “home away from home” for so many children, many of whom attended at a very vulnerable and developmentally significant time in their young lives, had stood proudly across the street from the great Mission San Francisco de Asis. Sixteen seconds after the 1989 earthquake began near Mt. Loma Prieta in Santa Cruz County, it shuddered through the Mission District of San Francisco and our beautiful home was irretrievably damaged. Staff and some of the children moved into a smaller building along 16th Street, but more than 50 children lost their space at the Day Home.
Even as the Day Home maintained its year-round programming, it now needed to develop a wide-ranging fundraising plan that would allow it to tear down the Willis Polk building and design and raise the funds for a new school. In 1992, the Sisters of the Holy Family ceded governing powers to a lay Board of Directors; the first non-religious Executive Director was hired in 1997. Today, all of the staff and teachers are lay persons. Only one Sister from the Order still serves in a social service capacity and maintains the important thread of history for the Day Home. In 2004, Sister Marianne entered her 60th year of service to the children and families of San Francisco.
In 2000, the Day Home was finally able to raze the old, unused building, clearing the lot at the historic corner of 16th and Dolores Streets for construction. In 2003, designs for a new, three-story, 15,404 sq. ft. building were prepared, a Director of Development was hired and the Board was expanded, all in readiness to begin a $7.1 million Capital Campaign in the Fall of 2004. The Day Home broke ground in the Summer of 2005. We watched the children walk up the steps of their new school in Summer of 2007. Our Grand Opening was Saturday October 13, 2007. What a wonderful day it was! Through all of this, the Day Home has been, and will continue to be, a “home away from home” for many generations of young children and their families.