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Life's ahead of you, don't look back: Memories of Mercy Boys' Home

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These days life is pretty good for Patrick Arbor. He's chairman of the Board of Trade, a wealthy and influential trader who consorts with people like Cardinal Bernardin and Mayor Daley. In his spare time he indulges in favorite hobbies, like mountain climbing.

But life was not always so sweet. There was a time nearly 40 years ago when Arbor was a penniless teenager with no place to call home. Then the Mercy Boys' Home, a Catholic orphanage at 1140 W. Jackson, took him in. The rest of Arbor's story reads like a Dickens novel with a happy ending. Arbor is using his power and prestige to help raise money for Mercy, which, like most social-service agencies, needs all the help it can get.

"My stay at Mercy wasn't glamorous," he says. "It was a rough time for me and there are a lot of things that I now wish they might have done. But Mercy was a port in the storm for me when I needed one, and I will always thank them for that."

Arbor came to Mercy in 1955, when the orphanage was almost 70 years old. Like many orphanages, it was founded to care for kids whose parents died in the Civil War. "Orphanages used to be arranged by ethnicity," says Father James Close, Mercy's superintendent. "Catholics, Protestants, Jews, they all had their institutions. Even within the denominations there were differences. Angel Guardian was for German kids. Saint Hedwig was for Poles and Slavs. Other Catholics went to Maryville. Mercy was for those kids who were booted out of one of those other places."

Appropriately, the superintendent most associated with Mercy is the legendary Father Edward "Jake" Kelly, a tough ex-boxer who supervised the place from 1934 until 1973. "It was very disciplined, very structured when I got here," says Arbor. "It was run by an autocrat with a fast left hook. Father Kelly was the king, people were afraid of him. He didn't talk much, but when he talked, you listened. I would describe him as an imposing man. He was only about five-foot-ten, but he seemed much bigger. The legend has it that when he came here the place was out of control. Father Kelly brought it under control by taking on the tough kids one by one and beating them up."

Arbor was 17 when he moved to Mercy. He had recently graduated from Saint Mel High School and was planning to attend Loyola University. "My family had fallen apart," says Arbor. "I don't like to talk about it; it's still very painful. But my family was what nowadays you would call dysfunctional." He had no relatives to stay with and no money to pay for rent. A friend told him about Mercy, and Father Kelly took him in. "Then as now Mercy was mainly for high school kids, so I was sort of a prefect; I helped out in return for food and lodging while I went to Loyola," says Arbor. "If they hadn't taken me, I don't know how I would have been able to go to college."

To earn his keep, Arbor tutored other residents at Mercy. They were seldom unruly. "You did what you were supposed to do, and if you didn't you could expect some corporal punishment," he says. "There was a time when a couple of the kids jackrolled some bums and someone told Father Kelly. He called all of us into the chapel. There we were in this holy place with the Eucharist and the tabernacle, this wonderful religious setting, and Father Kelly's swearing up a storm. There must have been 60 people in that chapel. He picked out the guilty parties and took them out in the back by the stairs. You'd hear, bam, the sound of a fist smacking someone, and then the sound of that guy tumbling down the stairs.

"I don't think I had more than ten minutes of conversation with Father Kelly, but I learned a lot from him. I remember he had this gathering for some priests. He was standing at the dais pulling at his collar--he always pulled at his collar--and he said, 'I want to thank everyone for being here today,' which was a joke. It's not as though we had a choice. I mean, where else would we be? He said, 'Let me tell you how this place works. I take care of the money needs.' Everyone laughed. I remember being impressed by the power he had. I learned from him how to use power and money to do good."

Arbor also learned self-discipline. "My favorite book at the time was 'Self-Reliance,' by Ralph Waldo Emerson," says Arbor. "That's what it was all about. I galvanized myself. There was no staff to take care of things aside from Al the cook and Jimmy G. the maintenance man. The kids did most of the work. We had to make the beds and clean the floor and wash the dishes and clear the table. We were preparing ourselves to go out into the world."

In 1959 Arbor left Mercy Home. Within a few years he was married and teaching algebra at Sullivan High School, on the north side. From there he went to work at Jefferson State Bank, where under the tutelage of bank president Bernard Feinberg he learned about the world of finance. He then worked his way over to LaSalle Street, where he made his mark as a trader.

In the meantime Mercy underwent some changes of its own. Kelly died in 1974 and was replaced by Close. "When I got here Father Kelly said to me, 'I know why they sent you here. They sent you here to knock some sense into these kids,'" says Close. "Actually, that's not my style. I have never hit a kid. Times have changed. As a state-regulated institution we have to abide by state rules. And corporal punishment is outlawed by the state.

"I think kids today have it harder than when Pat went here. There is so much more violence and the influence of drugs. The kids who came here in Pat's day were homeless. Now you have kids who are terribly abused and deeply psychologically wounded. Only a few of them, maybe 5 percent, are orphans. The rest are 'throwaway' kids. It's a traumatic thing to realize that your parents don't care about you. It's brutal. A kid is convinced he's going home, and his mother will say she never wants to see him again. We have to be that kid's parents."

The orphanage was also struggling financially. "Father Kelly was a great fund-raiser," says Close. "He had a mailing list that he cultivated and guarded very carefully. They started that list by giving kids the Boston phone book and telling them to copy down all the Catholic-sounding names. Then they'd send out a letter, the Waifs Messenger. After that they'd repeat the process using phone books from, say, Philadelphia. But over the years that mailing list diminished. We needed a new source."

Arbor returned in 1988. "I was having dinner with Al Petrulis, who lived at Mercy at the same time I did, and we got to reminiscing," he says. "One thing led to another and we decided to drive by the place. Father Close was sitting on the front porch with some kids. He invited us in. He gave us a tour. I hadn't seen the place since I moved out in the 50s."

Seeing Mercy again brought back memories, not all of them good. "When I went here the attitude was life's ahead of you, don't look back," says Arbor. "These were not happy years. It was a cold place. They didn't know about sensitivity or nurturing. I kept my problems to myself. Everybody did. You struggled on your own. I left here tough, stable, and disciplined, but this place scared me. No wonder I didn't come back."

Walking through the building made Arbor realize how much had changed at Mercy. For one thing, it was a bigger operation. There are 45 residents living at the Jackson site (and another 20 at a recently established home for girls on the south side). Together they're now known as the Mercy Home for Boys and Girls. They employ about 100 people and have a budget of $8.3 million.

When Arbor lived there, most of the residents were white kids who attended Catholic schools. Now few are Catholic or white and most attend public schools. In Arbor's day, the kids slept in one large open room; it has since been divided into private rooms. Residents are still responsible for basic housecleaning chores, and they must abide by a strictly enforced curfew. But now there are guidance counselors and therapists on staff who can help kids with their most per- sonal emotional needs. "I like the changes," says Arbor. "Believe me, I'm not putting Mercy down. As I said, I couldn't have made it without it. But I wish I could say that I learned some spiritual things there. It just didn't work that way for me. I'm glad to see it's happening for some of these kids."

In time Arbor became a member of Mercy's Board of Regents. On February 6 he helped stage a black-tie fund-raiser at the Bismarck that featured a boxing match between members of the Board of Trade and the Mercantile Exchange; they raised $85,000. "Boxing was appropriate, if for no other reason than Father Kelly," says Arbor. "Eventually I'd like to help out in other ways besides raising money. I have a passion for mountains. Maybe one summer I can take some of these kids on a mountain climb. Maybe I can get them out, and show them that they can have a life different than the one they have known."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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