Harriet Ware was born on July 12, 1799, in Paxton, Massachusetts, a small town just northwest of Worcester and about thirteen miles northeast of the town of Ware, settled by her ancestors. Little is known about her formative years. The brief sketch of her life by her benefactor, the Reverend Francis Wayland, president of Brown University, is platitudinous and lacking in detail. Still, it does include a number of her personal letters. Consistent with the intense religious fervor of its author and his subject, it was published in 1853 by the American Sunday School Union. From it, we learn that Harriet was “gay and thoughtless, and wholly devoted to the pursuit of pleasure” in her teens, but in 1819, while a resident of Franklin, Massachusetts, she experienced a dramatic spiritual conversion so that “the whole force of her character was now turned in a new direction. Her renunciation of the world was sincere and universal.”
According to Wayland’s memoir and her letters, we learn that Harriet Ware taught school in Union, Maine, and Hopkinton, Rhode Island, before coming to Providence in the spring of 1832. She was invited to the newly incorporated city by a “society of benevolent ladies” to create a Sunday school in the India Point-Fox Point section of Providence along its then-busy waterfront. Inhabited by mariners, dockworkers, and tradesmen, the area also contained an increasing number of Irish Catholic immigrants, causing Foxes Hill, overlooking the harbor, to be referred to as “Corky Hill.” According to Wayland, it was “the most neglected spot in Providence,” and Harriet’s “motive for going there was to do good for those whom all other persons believed to be irreclaimable.” According to Ware herself, she was told “that the people were completely savage, that it was an improper place for a female.”
Although the East Side elite obviously exaggerated this terrifying assessment, Harriet Ware had no Sunday school picnic in her new position. Yet, her courage and persistence brought forty children to the school after its first year. Her success under adverse conditions prompted President Wayland and some of the benevolent ladies to offer financial assistance to give Ware’s social experiment a fair trial, and several, including Lucy Wayland, the wife of the Brown president, even volunteered their services to ensure its success. Soon, the Sunday school added a primary school and a children’s shelter.
By 1835, Ware’s efforts had resulted in the chartering of a pioneering private institution that she named the Providence Children’s Friend Society. This agency embraced “all children who are in the condition of orphanage” and was the only Rhode Island institution where provision was made for their support and education. Within a year, this facility housed thirteen boys and twenty-seven girls. Some were placed into good Protestant foster homes, while others remained at the orphanage until they reached their majority. The “unruly” were sometimes transferred to the Dexter Asylum (Providence’s poor farm) or apprenticed out. To track its progress and gain further support, the society issued interesting annual reports detailing its efforts and describing the status of children under its care.
There is no doubt about Ware’s zeal, integrity, dedication, and commitment. The home was literally her mission in every sense of the word. However, with the number of Irish Catholic immigrants increasing during the 1840s, priests became alarmed that the Catholic children served by such an agency might be lost to the faith unless a Catholic orphanage was established. For this purpose, Bishop Bernard O’Reilly invited Mother Frances Xavier Warde and her Sisters of Mercy to Providence in 1851 to staff the new St. Aloysius Home, as the Catholic counterpart to the Children’s Friend Society was named.
Ware continued her benevolent efforts until she became gravely ill in 1847. Even when she was faced with a terminal illness, her main concern was the enlargement of her orphanage to accommodate more needy children; when that goal was met, she confided to a friend that “now I feel that all my work is done.” She died peacefully at her cherished home on June 26, 1847, less than three weeks before her forty-eighth birthday.
Professor Sandra Enos of Bryant University, an authority on the history of child welfare, assesses Harriet Ware’s significance as follows: “In her founding of Children’s Friend, Ware’s leadership is emblematic of the social entrepreneur—vision, the talent to inspire, persistence, resourcefulness, the ability to adapt, and finally, the commitment and courage to be of service.” Her work continues today as the Children’s Friend and Services of Providence.
Harriet Ware was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2001.
For additional reading:
The Makers of Modern Rhode Island, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley, History Press, Charleston, South Carolina.