BIDDEFORD – Seventy years ago today, on March 24, 1940, St. Andre’s Home for unwed mothers received its first patient.

A 16-year-old high school student, she kept her baby. Until 1962, St. Andre’s had its own maternity hospital, delivery room and nursery right on the premises.

From 1941 to 1952, hundreds of married women also delivered babies at St. Andre’s until Notre Dame Hospital opened next door.

The home was staffed by the Good Shepherd sisters, who answered the call of the home’s benefactors, the Decary fathers.

In its first three decades of existence, the vast majority of St. Andre’s patients placed their babies for adoption. To protect their privacy and anonymity, mothers were given pseudonyms.

There are many references in the home’s archives to the emotional pain caused by the separation of mother and child.

One sister whom I interviewed remembers taking one distraught mother to the courthouse in Alfred several times before she finally signed the surrender papers.

There were no open adoptions in those days. Dr. Andre Fortier used to receive letters from former patients asking him for help in locating the babies they had placed for adoption.

He was unable to help them, since only a few sisters were privy to adoption details and they were pledged to secrecy.

Nevertheless, while some girls faced incredible pressure from parents, families, boyfriends, social workers and society in general to give up their children, not all did so unwillingly. In 1967, a Maine Sunday Telegram reporter interviewed seven girls at St. Andre’s.

Four planned to give up their child and start life anew. Their secret was safe with the sisters. One was still undecided.

It is difficult to get first-hand accounts from patients on what it was like to live in secrecy at St. Andre’s Home. One woman, Lynne, was sent to the home at age 19 in 1967. Her parents dropped her off in Biddeford in June and did not return until her baby was born in August, insisting that the baby be placed for adoption.

Relatives and friends were told that she was working at Old Orchard Beach. Given the infelicitous circumstances under which Lynne found herself at St. Andre’s, it is not surprising that she is quoted in a book as saying that the sisters were sometimes “harsh.”

In a subsequent e-mail to me, however, Lynne wrote in 2007, “I cringe when I think in my immaturity I thought of the nuns as harsh. I wish I could go back even to the grave and say thanks.”

Lynne named her baby Margaret after Sister Margaret, her favorite Good Shepherd sister at the home. Under intense parental pressure, Lynne eventually signed the surrender papers.

The sisters themselves always spoke kindly of their “guests.” In response to visitors’ questions about the girls, a sister answered, “We have no bad girls.” Given that the girls had been, in effect, thrown out of their homes by embarrassed and angry parents, the sister continued, “We have to try to penetrate the wall that they have put around themselves, understand them, love them. After that, our work of helping them is easy.”

Addresses to the home’s Ladies Auxiliary always conveyed the same theme.

The daily routine at the home until the early 1970s started with Mass for those who wished to attend, then breakfast, followed by chores (one of Lynne’s jobs was to read to a blind sister) then doctors’ visits, crafts, lunch, a walk by the Saco River, rest period, pre-natal classes, dinner, free time and then classroom instruction.

In 1967, accredited high school classes were made available at the home so the young girls could continue their high school education.

There were also dozens of parties throughout the year where the girls could get a sense of home away from home. Lynne’s favorite activity was playing cards with the sisters.

In 1973, St. Andre’s moved from its quiet, secluded Pool Street location and established three group homes in Biddeford, Lewiston and Bangor.

As society became more accepting of the unwed mother, St. Andre’s also began serving young mothers with children at risk and providing outreach counseling.

Today, almost all the unwed mothers-to-be who come to St. Andre’s keep their babies.

Since its founding, St. Andre’s has provided a home for more than 4,000 women. The sisters still sponsor the home and work there on a daily basis.

For those interested in reading more about the home, check its Web site at www.saintandrehome.org.

– Special to the Press Herald