Head of Mercy Home shares stories of hope

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, December 25, 2016

The first thing to remember about the young people helped by the Mercy Home for Boys and Girls in Chicago is that all of them are individuals, said Father Scott Donohue, president and CEO of the home.

That’s a point he tries to get across in “Years of Mercy: Stories of Hope and Illumination at Mercy Home for Boys and Girls,” a short book that includes several stories of young people who found help and hope at the home.

The book, to be available on the Mercy Home website,, for $9.99, tells stories of young people who joined the Mercy Home family.

There are the two young brothers who wanted a headstone and some grass and flowers to make their mother’s burial place more beautiful. Their wish was fulfilled with the help of schoolchildren at the parish where Donohue lives, St. Robert Bellarmine, who raised money to pay for the stone and some sod.

There was the boy who was acting out in the lobby before a Christmas party for the Mercy Home board members; Donohue walked him to the outdoor Nativity scene and told him the Christmas story to help him calm down.

Later that night, Donohue went outside to find the baby Jesus wrapped in a blanket with a note from the boy, saying he wanted the baby to stay warm.

There was the teenage girl who came to Mercy Home after being held captive by her mother’s ex-boyfriend. She was years behind in school when she arrived, but with support and resilience and determination, she eventually earned an MBA from the University of Chicago and works in the financial industry in New York.

When she married, Donohue walked her down the aisle and then officiated at the ceremony. She now serves on Mercy Home’s board.

Nearly all the 700 young people that Mercy Home helps each year have experienced trauma, abuse or neglect. More than 90 percent have not had a stable father figure in their home, Donohue said; many don’t have a mother either.

“For a lot of our kids, Grandma is raising them, but then maybe Grandma gets sick, and the kid is in area with gangs, and Grandma says, ‘I love him, but I just can’t do this,’” Donohue said.

Mercy Home provides a safe, structured home, therapy and education for the children who live there.

The ongoing care for the young people who pass through Mercy Home’s doors even after leaving is one thing that stands out, said Mark Schmeltzer, the agency’s communication director for 12 years. Schmeltzer helped Donohue put the book together.

Donohue said he was inspired to write stories from Mercy Home after Pope Francis announced the Jubilee of Mercy, which closed Nov. 20.

“Pope Francis announced a Year of Mercy,” Donohue said. “We have 130 years of mercy.”

In a foreword, Cardinal Cupich directly related the Jubilee of Mercy to the mission of Mercy Home.

“These cameos of mercy in action witness to the powerful transformation that happens in the lives of others when charity and generosity frame one’s life,” the cardinal wrote. “These inspiring accounts offer and instructive and inspirational alternative — or better, a solution — to the crisis of indifference that the Year of Mercy was meant to address.”

The home was founded by priests who wanted to serve the boys who lived on the streets of Chicago in the late 19th century, having made their way to the city usually by hopping on freight trains in hopes of making it big.

“Most of them were probably running from something,” Donohue said. “They ended up cold and hungry and taken advantage of.”

When the plan was presented to Archbishop Patrick Feehan in 1887, he approved it, but said the archdiocese could not offer financial support. It has operated independently ever since, and has helped more than 38,000 children and teenagers.

All proceeds from the book benefit the home, Schmeltzer said, and if those who read it are inspired to donate more or find other ways to help, all the better.

About 99.7 percent of Mercy Home’s nearly $38 million budget comes from private sources.

“If there’s only one thing we’ve learned, it’s that good multiplies,” Donohue said. “A donation helps us change the lives of these children, and then they go on and do more good. A lot of the kids we have, they come from generations of abuse and neglect. We can break the cycle. It changes generations going forward.”

At a Christmas party this month for alumni of Mercy Home, Donohue said he met children and grandchildren of the young people he has watched grow up. The kids played and visited Santa while the adults caught up with one another.

“This one man came up to me with his 4-year-old grandson,” Donohue said. “He said, ‘This is Father Scott. He saved my life.’ But of course it wasn’t me. It was Mercy Home.”


  • cardinal cupich
  • priests
  • mercy home for boys and girls

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