Generations of Healing and Hope
St. Aemilian-Lakeside’s founding: an act of charity
A woman dying of cholera commended the care of her seven sons to Father Martin Kundig, a Diocesan priest who cared for them in his home with the help of his two sisters. Their act of charity alerted Milwaukee’s bishop, John Martin Henni, to the plight of children orphaned by the city’s cholera epidemic. In late 1849, Bishop Henni founded St. Aemilian’s Orphan Asylum in a small frame house on Jackson Street, just north of St. John Cathedral. Named for St. Jerome Aemilian, “patron saint of orphans and neglected boyhood,” the asylum was incorporated on Oct. 31, 1850, to support and educate orphan boys. In 1854, it moved to the grounds of St. Francis Seminary south of the city, under the care of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi.
Around the same time, a group of Milwaukee’s wealthiest and best educated Protestant women became concerned about the city’s rising number of orphans. In 1849, they organized the Ladies’ Benevolent Society to collect and distribute money and goods to the poor. In 1850, they opened the Milwaukee Orphans’ Asylum in a tenement on Cass Street, on the city’s east side.
Orphanage life: 1850-1963
The two orphans asylums grew and prospered for more than 100 years. The Milwaukee Orphans’ Asylum relocated in 1887 to the corner of Prospect and North Avenues. Built for 100 children, the three-story brick building featured Gothic arched windows and a tower. Growth continued at St. Aemilian’s as well, with a new building completed in 1896. Stately and spacious, it was considered a national model for institutions of its kind. At both places, orphanage life was regimented and disciplined.
A fire destroyed St. Aemilian’s in 1930. The cause was never determined, and miraculously there was no loss of life. The orphanage set up a “temporary” home in a former Lutheran seminary at N. 60th and W. Lloyd Streets. Although a 37-acre site at 8901 W. Capitol Drive was acquired in 1937, plans to build a permanent facility there would not be realized for nearly 20 years.
In 1943, the Milwaukee Orphans’ Asylum was officially renamed Lakeside Children’s Center.
View a Bay View Compass story on St. Aemilian’s historic fires. (© 2011 Bay View Compass.)
Residential treatment: 1963-1980
Between 1930 and 1965, the nation’s number of orphans dropped from 500,000 to 50,000, a development traced to improved medical care, the expansion of Social Security, and a growing body of social workers promoting adoption and foster care. Many of the younger orphans were adopted, and older ones often were indentured as domestic workers or farm hands, earning a small wage.
The nature of children needing residential care also had radically changed. By 1950, for example, only five of the 45 boys living at St. Aemilian’s were traditional orphans. By the early 1960s, most children in both centers were moderately or severely emotionally disturbed. Gradually, therapeutic treatment for emotionally disturbed children began to take precedence over custodial care. In 1963, both agencies became residential treatment centers.
By 1965, St. Aemilian’s had totally revamped its operation. The Capitol Drive building was remodeled to feature five group-living units, each housing 8-10 boys, staffed by trained lay and religious house parents. The program included schooling, group and individual psychotherapy, with a goal of restoring and rebuilding the emotional health of boys 6-12 years old.
At Lakeside, the emphasis had shifted to what was called therapeutic education. Lakeside replaced its orphanage with frame cottages in the 1940s to create a more family-oriented setting. By 1969, the Lakeside approach was described as a cross between child welfare and child psychiatry, a move designed to provide “total treatment of children’s ego deficiencies.”
St. Aemilian’s was run by the Milwaukee Archdiocese until 1969, when it was re-incorporated as St. Aemilian Child Care Center Inc., a non-profit, non-sectarian residential and day treatment center. Financial support shifted to various counties contracting for services.
Community services: 1980
On Jan. 1, 1989, to enhance the treatment program and become stronger financially, the two centers merged to become St. Aemilian-Lakeside, Inc., a private, not-for-profit, non-sectarian residential treatment center for boys. Able to treat 128 boys 6-15 years old at its two campuses, the agency became Wisconsin’s largest child-care facility.
Then, as now, it was licensed by the state and accredited by the Council on Accreditation. In 1994, the Lakeside campus was closed and services consolidated at the Capitol Drive location.
Innovations in child and family well-being: 2000-2014
St. Aemilian-Lakeside continued to grow into a multi-service agency, providing day treatment, foster care, services to young adults post-foster care, and other community-based outreach programs.
In 2004, the agency applied its knowledge and experience in helping children succeed educationally by creating Capitol West Academy, a public charter school.
In 2009, Integrated Family Services (IFS) was created as a subsidiary to provide ongoing case management and safety services to children in the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare. Within three years, St. Aemilian-Lakeside secured half of all the child welfare services in Milwaukee County and added adoption licensing and services.
In 2007, St. Aemilian-Lakeside began its strong focus on trauma informed care and by about 2011 was using it in all its services. In that year, the agency became certified in the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT™), and in 2014, became one of a select group of organizations worldwide with NMT™ Flagship status. A creation of Dr. Bruce Perry and the Neurosequential Network, this is a biologically informed way to assess when trauma occurred in a child’s development and create ways to mitigate its effects.
Within a short time, St. Aemilian-Lakeside became widely known for trauma informed care (TIC) and began offering seminars as well as trainings and consultations to educators, business and the criminal justice system, in addition to human services professionals. The curriculum, then as is now, was based on the 7 Essential Ingredients of trauma informed care.
In 2013, the organization innovated the 5 Pillars of Stability framework to support children, youth and adults in the areas of health, education, housing, employment and caring connections (relationship.)
In 2014, IFS and St. Aemilian-Lakeside merged to become SaintA.
Prevention and Early Intervention: 2015-today
SaintA continued to be a leader in trauma informed care and in 2016 concluded a three-year, process-driven, longitudinal research study using TIC to improve child welfare outcomes.
The study showed improvements in both placement stability and permanence and in 2019 was included in the Journal of Child Custody (view the abstract.)
In 2017, the organization prioritized its focus on prevention and early intervention of future adversity and closed its residential treatment program. By 2019, SaintA had made major advancements in mental health care by opening an outpatient clinic and significantly expanding school-based services.
In 2020, SaintA celebrates its 170th year of serving the community and is rolling out a new mission statement, which is to facilitate equity, learning, healing and wellness by the restoring connections that help children and families thrive.