When you Google “Cecilia Paul,” the top result is the Simon and Garfunkel song “Cecilia.” This breaks my heart, because Cecilia Paul lived a life that was a glorious song of a different sort.
Cecilia adopted her son Thomas as a newborn, along with his brother, Drew, who was a year older. Although the brothers would make contact with their biological parents — who were “in some bad stuff” — Cecilia was always Thomas’ mother as far as he was concerned, as he explained to lawyer Andrea Picciotti-Bayer for an amicus brief filed by The Catholic Association. “I think that whoever raised you is your parent,” he says, now in his early 30s with children of his own.
Cecilia Paul welcomed more than 130 foster children into her home over 40 years, adopting six of them. In 2015, the city of Philadelphia honored her with an “Outstanding Foster Parent of the Year” award. At the time, the head of the city’s Department of Health and Human Services emphasized the “desperate need right now for additional foster homes. “We need more families,” she pleaded. A former nurse in a children’s hospital, Paul had explained that “caring for children in need” was her “life’s work.”
Cecilia died this past month, and it seems only right to pause to pay tribute to her during a week when so many eyes are on political matters. The most important campaign isn’t run by politicians or spin doctors, it’s helmed by people like Cecilia: It’s a campaign of love.
Her fostering was made possible by Catholic Social Services. But in the final months of her life, that wasn’t happening anymore. She died a plaintiff in a case that asks Philadelphia to reconsider its decision to stop working with the group. As Cecilia explained: “The city won’t let me care for any more foster children because I work with an agency that shares my faith. The city’s actions have left my home empty, and I have felt lost without being able to continue my life’s work.” This, despite the city’s continuing need for foster parents.
It’s worth taking a deep breath and considering that tolerance includes appreciating that there is still room in our civic life for traditional ideas about life, love and family. When it comes to foster care, we have too many orphans to be considering places like Catholic Social Services — an arm of the Catholic Church in Philadelphia — anything less than a needed solution to the problem, a gateway to love for children, for homes for children. We need more, not fewer, people involved in foster care and adoption.
Thomas and his brother saw many foster care children go in and out of their home growing up. As foster-parents know, this means kids with a lot of trauma from abuse — including addiction — or abandonment. That, of course, was hard. “I have seen so much in my life that is sad,” Thomas says, but “joy overcomes all of the pain in my life.”
And Catholic Social Services was a part of his home life growing up. It would send presents at Christmas, for example, something that made him feel special. Without glossing over the real struggles that foster and adoptive families experience, the difference between being an orphan stuck in a system and knowing you’re loved makes all the difference in life.
Thomas is now a general contractor and a father of two young children. He has nothing but thanks for Cecilia Paul, who encouraged hard work and perseverance. Her heart helped him not become overwhelmed by feelings of abandonment. His mother taught him that “love is everything.”
“I want other kids to have the opportunity that I did,” Thomas told Picciotti-Bayer. “If they get shattered by situations that are not their fault, they should still have the chance to dream.”
November is the month in which Catholics traditionally celebrate All Saints and All Souls. It’s also National Adoption Month. Cecilia Paul seems an apt patron saint for letting no one feel abandoned. It’s a challenge we should rise to, if we can muster the time and attention.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online.