St. Francis-St. Joseph Homes change along with the youths they serve

By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

BENSALEM – Keion, Lester, Daniel, Brian and Kerry were impressed. They had never met a real bishop before. During an April 6 pastoral visit to St. Francis-St. Joseph Homes for Children, Auxiliary Bishop Joseph R. Cistone chatted with the quintet at Bouvier House, their group home.

They talked about basketball – who was going to win the NCAA championship, North Carolina or Michigan State? North Carolina was the prophetic consensus. They sang “I’m Gonna Let it Shine” for the bishop. Keion, who like most of the boys at St. Francis-St. Joseph, is not Catholic, asked Bishop Cistone for his blessing.

“You have a lot of talents, let your light shine,” Bishop Cistone told them. “You are not alone. There are a lot of wonderful people here, and they are here for you.”

“I had a good experience. I met the bishop, I got to sing. It was a good day,” Keion said.

St. Francis-St. Joseph, like the youths it serves, is an institution in transition.

It is the end product of the merger of two venerable institutions, both coincidentally founded in 1888. St Francis Industrial School (later St. Francis Vocational School) was founded and funded by the Drexel sisters – Elizabeth Drexel Smith, St. Katharine Drexel and Louise Drexel Morrell – as a residential school for academic and vocational training of adolescent boys, mostly from the now-defunct St. John’s Orphan Asylum.

St. Joseph’s House for Homeless Boys, which at its foundation literally took homeless boys from the street, gave a similar education. For years, St. Francis was run by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, and St. Joseph’s by the Holy Ghost Fathers. Now combined into a system of group homes headquartered on the old St. Francis campus, it is directed by archdiocesan Catholic Social Services.

“This is our second largest (youth services residential) facility and St. Gabriel’s System is the biggest,” said archdiocesan Secretary for Catholic Human Services Joseph J. Sweeney. At St. Francis-St. Joseph’s on-campus school, “The interaction between the teachers and the classes is incredible. It’s beehive of activity,” he said.

The changes in recent years go well beyond combining two institutions. At the time the predecessor schools were founded, typically boys would enter at age 11 or so, and leave at 16, which was then considered a reasonable age to enter the workforce. Although Bouvier House, which Bishop Cistone visited, does have boys in that age range, residents of the other group homes are older, even 20 or 21.

“I would say 40 percent of our residents are over 17,” estimated Francis Swiacki, St. Francis-St. Joseph’s director. The reason is that most of the boys or young men received by the school are far behind in their education and need intensive if belated tutelage to acquire a high school diploma or G.E.D. “They are aging out of other schools without a diploma or job skills,” Swiacki said.

Staffing is also quite different because of the needs of the students. A half-century or so ago St. Francis alone had about 18 Christian Brothers aided by half a dozen lay workers and vocational teachers for a population of 250 boys.

Today, Swiacki oversees a highly professional full-time staff of 210 with about 30 part-time staff, caring for an average of 128 resident boys and young men.

“All of the kids have problems,” Swiacki said. “We are seeing more kids with pronounced mental health problems who have previously been in psychiatric hospitals. Many are coming out of an environment of drugs and violence, and we have about 54 who are adjudicated delinquents.”

St. Francis-St. Joseph works with the youth and young men, teaching them academic and life skills and bringing them to a point where they can be discharged, often into an independent living program rather than back into the toxic and often abusive community experience from which they came. Most are discharged with what is considered a positive outcome, which makes all of one-on-one care well worth the expense.

“I was really impressed by the staff and their enthusiasm for reaching out to these young men. I guess I have a better understanding of how hard life has been for the young men and boys and how much we take for granted,” Bishop Cistone said at the end of his visit. “They have a lot of challenges, but they have a great staff with genuine care and spiritual motivation to reach out and give them hope to see their own potential and to help them see, with God’s help, what they can be and do in life.”

Kerry, one of those young men he’d spoken to, agreed. “I’ve learned good things here and I’ve come a long way,” he said.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.