A valiant woman of the nineteenth century,
and the foundation which memorializes her.
by Priscilla Leith
When Rebecca Pomroy settled in Newton at age 55, her life had been successively devastated by a series of tragedies, but she had acquired a remarkably large experience as nurse to her family, to patients in the primitive hospitals of the Civil War, and eventually to the family of President Abraham Lincoln. With friends, she founded in 1872 the Newton Home for Orphan Girls. Today, charitable groups whose activities are congruent with the goals of the Foundation which Rebecca Pomroy's admirers established in her memory still obtain financial support through grants made by the trustees each spring.
POMROY'S EARLY YEARS
Rebecca Pomroy was born on Commercial St. in Boston on July 16, 1817, the fourth child of Samuel and Dorcas (Norton) Holliday. Her father, captain of a merchant ship that sailed between Boston and European ports, was fatally injured by a ship's masthead as she watched at the age of 10. Dorcas Holliday and her four daughters survived on what they earned by sewing.
At age 19 Rebecca married Daniel F. Pomroy, an upholsterer on Dock Square who was a chronic asthmatic. She took on nursing her ailing mother-in-law, her own mother ill with consumption, and Daniel's aunt. A year after their third child was born, Daniel himself became bedridden. Rebecca, then age 32, opened a confectionary shop in Chelsea to support her family.
Within a 5-year period her mother, husband, daughter and one son all died and her home had to be sold to pay debts. Rebecca suffered from depression and grief for 18 months until she attended a Baptist religious camp at Hamilton, Massachusetts and "put her life in God's hands," according to biographical accounts. ("Rebecca Pomroy: Nurse to Tad Lincoln, mother to homeless girls" by Sherri Tucker. Equinox, March, 1977.)
CIVIL WAR MILITARY CAREER
The Civil War had erupted and her only son had enlisted. A call came for nurses. Citing her long years of experience nursing her own family, Mrs. Pomroy wrote to Miss Dorothea Dix, the Superintendent of Women War Nurses. In late September, 1861, she received orders to report to Washington. Two days later she was at Georgetown Hospital assigned to a ward with 50 typhoid patients.
In her own words, "What with the odor and moans of the dying, it did seem to me unbearable. As the surgeon came round about 4 o'clock to tell me the medicines, I felt such a faintness that I had to be excused and go to my room. After partaking of water and throwing myself on a miserable little cot, struggling with this dreadful weakness, the familiar words, 'He that putteth his hand to the plough and looketh back,' broke in upon my distress, and from my heart of hearts I asked the Lord to strengthen me for all that awaited me.'" (Echoes from Hospital and White House by Anna L. Boyden. Boston: D. Lothrop and Co., 1884.)
Shortly, Rebecca Pomroy was assigned to Columbia College Hospital on Meridian Hill in the outskirts of Washington. Supplies were short, so she appealed to friends back in Chelsea to send thick socks, "postage stamps for the sick men when they write home, also a boiled ham, as we can eat that without cooking; and some crackers, as the sick men cannot eat the poor bread." (Echoes)
NURSE AT THE WHITE HOUSE
A year into the war, with the Union army making little progress, the Congress restive, and the country impatient, President Abraham Lincoln suffered personal tragedies. His son Willie died, another son Tad lay critically ill with typhoid, and Mrs. Lincoln was sick in bed. Miss Dix was asked to recommend a good nurse to care for them at the White House. Mrs. Pomroy was chosen. At the going salary for nurses, 40 cents a day, Rebecca Pomroy nursed Mary and Tad Lincoln back to health and "helped rekindle President Lincoln's hope and faith." (Echoes)
Ill herself with typhoid when Lincoln was assassinated, Mrs. Pomroy was unable to attend his funeral. She ended her military career on April 20, 1865 after caring for over 700 patients.
THE NEWTON HOME FOR ORPHAN GIRLS
Upon returning to Massachusetts, Rebecca Pomroy became involved in nursing-related duties in the Boston area and migrated to Newton Centre. With Mrs. Daniel L. Furber and Miss Mary C. Shannon, and aided by the counsel of the Hon. J. Wiley Edmands and William Morton, she established a home for orphan girls on Church Street in Newton. On the day it opened, November 8, 1872, Mrs. Pomroy had 4 girls and just $75 in donations and promises of help.
Within a year the home had moved to 24 Hovey Street, Newton Corner, Mrs. Pomroy had been designated as the "Superintendent", and she was caring for 15 or more girls. Food, supplies and services were donated to the Newton Home for Orphan Girls, as it was called, by scores of public-spirited citizens, merchants, professional people and churches. Many took a very personal interest in the welfare of the children. Mr. Smith P. Burton, who owned a local dairy, gave his estate in Wolfeboro, NH on the shore of Lake Winnepesaukee for use as a summer camp for several weeks each summer. He also provided a daily quart of milk for each child living at the Home.
The orphanage is described as "one of the more interesting examples of those 19th century, Protestant charities created and dominated by a strong female personality," and "largely the result of Rebecca Pomroy's religious zeal, administrative skills, and genius for managing on a limited budget." (A Guide to the History and Records of The Rebecca Pomroy Newton Home for Orphan Girls by Clare M. Sheridan. Boston, MA. May, 1985.)
Open only to Newton residents, but to all regardless of race or creed, the Home averaged 17-20 girls who were sheltered there in a "family atmosphere" until they became of age. The girls attended public schools. They did all the housework, so that no full time domestic staff was required. Hand sewing was stressed: clothing was made and altered, quilts and lace made and sold - all for income for the Home. The girls became wards of the Home upon entering. At age 14-16 they usually worked for two years as domestics in the Home, preparing for placement as maids in private homes. The girls might also go into clerical or nursing work, but jobs in factories were discouraged. The Home continued supervision over them until they reached 21 years of age.
THE REBECCA POMROY NEWTON HOME
Rebecca Pomroy died of angina pectoris at age 66 early in 1884. A military funeral was held in the Eliot Church and her coffin was wrapped in the U.S. flag. Miss Anna Boyden, a longtime Associate Superintendent under Mrs. Pomroy, became Superintendent of the Home. Its name was changed to the Rebecca Pomroy Newton Home for Orphan Girls. It continued to receive financial support from a variety of sources: a modest number of legacies and investments, individual donations, gifts from Protestant churches of Newton, local businesses, school children and women's societies.
By 1939 the number of residents had dwindled to only 3 or 4. Social work philosophy had changed to the view that it was better to place orphans in private homes, in foster care.
MERGERS AND THE POMROY FOUNDATION
The home merged, in 1939, with the Nonantum Day Nursery Association, into a newly chartered entity called The Rebecca Pomroy House but commonly called the House on Hovey Street. The orphanage was closed down. The House now functioned as a private, non-profit community center for residents of all ages. It ran a nursery school, a day camp, women's and senior citizens groups, and classes in homemaking, drama, dancing and music.
The Rebecca Pomroy Foundation was created in 1955 to help with maintenance of the property at 24 Hovey Street. When the Hovey Street property was sold in 1967 to Frost Motor Company, Pomroy house moved to a former men's club building at 84 Eldridge Street. The original house on Hovey Street was demolished and is today a car parking lot.
In 1968 Pomroy House merged with the Newton Community Service Center and became the Newton Community Services Centers, Inc. operating out of 84 Eldridge Street. Pomroy House retained its name and building until the NCSC established its headquarters in the former Davis Elementary School building in West Newton. NCSC has received substantial annual grants from the Pomroy Foundation since it continues to support programs similar to those for which the Pomroy Home was originally established.