Kansas City Woman Finds
Birth Family & Irish Connection

by Barbara Free, M.A.

     When I attended my first Regional Conference of the American Adoption Congress, in Kansas City, MO, in 1999, I met a woman named Carolyn Pooler, who was living in Minnesota but who had been born in Kansas City, on the Missouri side. The state line is very significant in this case, because Kansas has always been an open-records state, and Missouri has been a closed records state and a difficult state in which to search for birth family.
     Carolyn’s birth mother had been at The Willows, a well-known maternity home in Kansas City. By the time Carolyn was able to search, her birth mother was deceased, but she did find an aunt and some cousins.
     Carolyn was born in 1943, just a few months after my own birth, and she and I hit it off right away. She had obtained a letter which was written by The Willows to her prospective adoptive parents when she was several months old, in which they stated they were enclosing a sample of her hair “so that you can see that, although it is red, it is not too bright a shade of red. Apparently, she had been told, the prospective adoptive grandfather said he did not want a red-headed grandchild, particularly an adopted “bastard” one. The letter also stated that “she has a well-shaped head and appears normal.” This was code for “she is of normal intelligence.” They kept babies for eight or nine months, so as to give them what purported to be I.Q. tests, before placing them. The letter also contained a poem about how much more important nurture was than nature, that it could “change the wild Apache” into a respectable civilized child. Appalled as she was by all this, she had kept the letter and gladly gave me a photocopy. I have referred to it in numerous articles and presentations, and we have always laughed about her being “the red-headed woman with the well-shaped head.” Over the years, we’ve kept up, as she has remained active in AAC and moved back to Kansas City.
     Shortly before Christmas, I received a telephone call from Carolyn, who said, “This is the red-headed woman with the well-shaped head, and have I got news for you!” She had never been able to find out her birth father’s name nor anything about him. She had her DNA tested and through that, found out she is mostly Irish, with some English and Scots. Through a website called DNA Detectives, she also found a nephew on her birth father’s side, born and adopted in St. Louis, MO. That means the young man’s birth father is/was Carolyn’s half-brother on her birth father’s side! This nephew does not yet have his birth father’s name, but has found his birth mother, who has not divulged the birth father’s name. Carolyn is very excited, as she had given up hope of finding any connections on her birth father’s side.
     This nephew lives in Chicago. In the first part of December, 2015, Carolyn went to St. Louis, where she met the nephew and other relatives, including his birth mother and her twin sister. She still does not have the names of either her half-brother or her birth father, but expects to find that information soon. She said, “I am absolutely giddy with this new information.” She also mentioned that there is a “Philomena” connection, about which she has written on her Facebook page.
     Rosecrea, the same “home” in Ireland where Philomena Lee gave birth to her son and where he was taken from her, was the same place where Carolyn’s nephew’s birth mother and her twin sister were as infants, and then adopted by a family in St. Louis in 1952. In their case, the parents were married and had three other children, were very poor, and the mother of the twins died in childbirth, so the father placed them at Rosecrea because he could not raise them. The nuns there, including the same Sister Hildegarde, with whom Philomena had such difficulty, played a similar role in Mary and Ann O’Meara’s placement and in her efforts to keep Mary from learning her true identity in later life.
     The Dublin newspaper reported on the twins’ departure for New York and St. Louis, which angered the nuns at Sean Ross Abbey, Rosecrea, because they wanted no publicity, lest it interfere with the flow of children to the U.S. and of money (“donations”) to the Abbey. The Dublin Evening Mail reported, “The Rosecrea nine months’ old twins, Ann and Mary Maher, have left for the U.S. after being cared for at Rosecrea District Hospital for the past nine months. They are the first girls to be adopted by American citizens living in the U.S. [This was not true— there had already been others.] Following their 3,000 mile air trip from Shannon to New York, they will be flown to St. Louis, Missouri, their new exile home, an address that has been kept a ’secret’ from the parent of the children or the immediate relatives.” A week later, the final adoption papers arrived in the mail, along with a letter from Sister Hildegarde complaining that pictures had been taken in New York and published, “So I want you to pray that it will not stand in the light of the other children who are promised.” And she added a P.S.: “In case you have not paid Rev. Mother, your expenses will be nearly 30.” After the movie Philomena was released, they knew it was the same “Mother and Baby Home” in Ireland.
     The twins were adopted by Walter and Elaine George, who had two girls, aged 13 and 10, at the time. They had a good childhood with parents who were proud that the twins were from Ireland. Mary says her father also kept meticulous records of the correspondence between himself, the Archdiocese of St. Louis, and Sean Ross Abbey. “The very characters that are in Philomena—Sisters Barbara and Hildegarde—these are the people who were writing back and forth with my father. The only difference for us was that my parents were married. My mother didn’t have her children there at the abbey.”
     A few days after the twins arrived in St. Louis, the adoptive father wrote to the nuns that they believed the girls would, when they came of age, want to get in touch with their family, and therefore they would like to have the names and ages of their siblings, addresses, etc., and pictures of the parents and a background story of the family. He sent generous checks over the years to help support the family as well as the clergy, particularly the two priests who had made several trips to St. Louis to visit the George family.
     Apparently, the family never got any of that money. The nuns would not divulge any information about the birth family, except that they were poor and that the George family wouldn’t want to meet them! They did send the girls’ Irish birth and baptismal certificates. When Mary was grown, she decided to go back to Ireland to find her birth family, which, she says, her father supported. Ann did not display any interest in finding family. Ironically, she is the one who became the birth mother of Carolyn Pooler’s nephew!
     Although the priests tried to discourage Mary from coming or trying to meet her birth family, she finally told them she was coming anyway, and she did, with two of her own children. Her older birth sisters met her at the airport in Shannon. It is a memory that still brings her to tears.
     In 1997, nearly two decades before Philomena’s Oscar nomination, a reporter named Mike Milotte published Banished Babies: The Secret History of Ireland’s Baby Export Business. His interest had been piqued when he was talking with a former Aer Lingus flight attendant who described seeing Irish babies and toddlers bundled onto flights headed for the U.S. She also told him she’d overheard an American couple, who had dropped by the airline’s headquarters, thanking the staff for “the babies they bought.” They said they were there to buy another. Yes, “buy” is the word they used!
     What Milotte learned was that there was collusion between the Irish Catholic Church, the Irish government, and U.S. Catholic Charities. At least 2,200 Irish babies born “out of wedlock” between 1949 and 1973 were forcibly adopted into American families. The second largest source for these adoptions was the Sean Ross Abbey, Rosecrea. The church felt it was the “right thing” to “rehabilitate” fallen women and send the children far away so the women could re-enter Irish society. The homes received support from the Irish government and the mothers, of course, worked for no pay, which is slavery. The nuns, said Milotte, would write letters to adoptive families, dropping hints about financial struggle, received a great deal of money in this way.
     In 2002, the United Nations investigated the Magdalene Laundries, where 30,000 women, some of them mothers, but not all, also worked for no pay. In 2013, the Irish Prime Minister formally apologized to the Magdalenes, and outlined a plan to financially compensate them, calling what happened “the nation’s shame.” Many of the women are now elderly, if they are still alive at all.
     Since the movie Philomena and the attendant publicity, Philomena herself and her daughter, Jane Libberton, have started The Philomena Project, to work for adoption rights in Ireland and take a case to Geneva (U.N.) if needed, to fight a court case. Mari Steed, a member of the Adoption Rights Alliance, who was born in Ireland and adopted by a family in Philadelphia, reached out to Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill’s office. Sen. McCaskill is a stepparent to several adopted children, and she discovered that at least 200 of the adoptions from Ireland had occurred in St. Louis, and others in Kansas City, MO. After meeting with Philomena Lee, McCaskill sent a letter to Irish Ambassador Anne Anderson, voicing support for legislation that would open adoption records.
     As for Mary O’Meara George, she visited her mother’s grave in Ireland, saw the house where she and her sister were born, met family and her parents’ friends, spent time with her sisters, and also went to Shinrone in County Offaly and confronted one of the priests with whom her father had corresponded. She asked him what happened to the money her adoptive father sent. She says that, had she known about Philomena at the time, she would have found Michael Hess’s (Philomena’s son) headstone at Sean Ross and paid her respects. She still has not found her birth father (her sisters were also farmed out). One of the sisters says, “Back in 1952, with the Catholic Church being so dominant in Ireland, they would not allow a father to raise four daughters, and so our father left. I think he felt there was no use for him. And we don’t even know what happened to him. He lost his wife and five children, because Pat, my older sister, was also a twin, and her twin died at three months.”
     Mary says she knows not every adoptee will want to connect, as her own twin has not, but that many more do want to, and that although the Irish government says birth mothers may not desire contact, she knows many more, like Philomena Lee and her son, are desperately trying to find each other, and these are all adults.
     Visit adoptionrightsalliance.com for more information on the Philomena Project, or for assistance in tracing birth parents in Ireland.
     Carolyn Pooler was so kind to pass on this article to us, and also to tell her own continuing story. She continues to search for her birth father’s and half-brother’s names and to get to know her nephew better. She says she will never give up hope of learning more. She no longer has red hair, but she still has “a well-shaped head,” and she will use the brain in that Irish head to do all she can for adoption rights for everyone.

Excerpted from the January 2016 edition of the Operation Identity Newsletter
© 2016 Operation Identity