The train ride from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Belmont took more than 12 hours and the Down syndrome baby cried on and off all the way.
Arriving at the station in the heart of the east Gaston County mill town in the early 1960s, Natale and Jean Giannini started walking toward Sacred Heart College, about a mile way. He held 8-month-old Lorraine while Jean Giannini carried the luggage.
The young couple’s long journey to a place they’d never been before had been exhausting. They also had misgivings about the spot they’d chosen: entrusting their daughter to the permanent care of the Sisters of Mercy at a new facility called The Nursery, a name later changed to Holy Angels.
They knew little about what was offered at the center but felt they had few, if any, other choices for a child experts said wouldn’t be able to do much during a short life.
The couple’s doubts lingered as they stepped inside The Nursery. There, they met the center’s co-founder, Sister Marie Patrice Manley, who held Lorraine and began talking to her. The flicker of a smile appeared on the baby’s face.
“That’s when it hit me,” said Jean Giannini, 77. “We’d made the right decision.”
Lorraine is one of the many miracles we’ve had. Here, she’s had the opportunity to grow and develop into the best person she can be.
Holy Angels President and CEO Regina Moody
Marking 60 years
At 52, Lorraine Giannini is the resident who has lived the longest at Holy Angels, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary and hosts an event Sunday afternoon.
Giannini blossomed under the sisters’ care. She became a talented cook at Cherubs Café, run by Holy Angels in downtown Belmont. She performs in the Holy Angels dance troupe and bell choir and lives in a group home where she’s a role model.
“Lorraine is one of the many miracles we’ve had,” said Holy Angels President and CEO Regina Moody. “Here, she’s had the opportunity to grow and develop into the best person she can be. She’s living a fulfilling and meaningful life. She contributes. And she has a tender heart.”
Holy Angels is a nonprofit center for children and adults with disabilities. The late Charlotte Observer columnist Kays Gary dubbed the first resident, Maria Morrow, “the littlest angel.” As a baby, she was paralyzed, her legs deformed. Her head was enlarged by hydrocephalus and she cried constantly. Her overwhelmed young mother, a Gaston County mill worker, left the infant in care of the Sisters of Mercy.
Gary wrote about the infant and national columnist Jim Bishop picked up on the story. Morrow became the face of Holy Angels until her death from cancer in 2010.
Today, Holy Angels has grown from a single building to eight residences on a 14-acre campus and operates two group homes in Belmont. Programs and services include education, vocational training, horticulture therapy, and medical services. Recently, the center has expanded with the LifeChoices program in Cramerton, offering day activities and life skills programs for adults and children.
Holy Angels has a staff of more than 300, more than 100 volunteers and an $11 million budget funded by government money, donations, grants and community support.
There are 85 residents, some of whom have delicate medical conditions and require around-the-clock care.
“A lot of our residents are living longer because of improved medical care and physical therapy,” Moody said.
Becoming poster person
With Maria Morrow’s passing, Lorraine Giannini became the poster person for Holy Angels. On Nov. 21, she and her mother were on the program at a private gala for Holy Angel supporters. On Dec. 1, she rode with Moody in the Belmont Christmas parade. Giannini will perform with the dance troupe at the Holy Angels Winter Wonderland celebration on Sunday, which would have been Morrow’s 60th birthday.
And on any given day, Giannini is an inspiration around Holy Angels, Moody said. At Cherubs Café and the adjacent Cherubs Candy Bouquet, she’s hardworking. Her room at the Gary group home, named after Kays Gary, is always neat, a quality she expects to see from others at home and work.
“She upholds the quality of work,” Moody said. “She’s pretty assertive.”
At the same time, “Giannini is respected by other residents,” Moody said. “She’s kind of the matriarch of Holy Angels. She’s brought great joy and love to so many and touched so many lives.”
There was absolutely nothing in New York to take care of a child with Lorraine’s problems. The Sisters did unbelievable things for her at Holy Angels.
Giannini has developed a special relationship with Sister Nancy Nance, vice president of community relations at Holy Angels and former live-in manager at Giannini’s group home. They go to plays together and afterward dine at restaurants “based on whatever starch she wants,” Nance said. “Last time it was P.F. Chang’s because she wanted noodles.”
They’ve recently been to Charlotte’s Blumenthal Performing Arts Center to see “Beauty and the Beast.”
Over the years, Giannini’s family members have kept in close contact with her. Her sister, Karen Jarvis, 50, remembers her parents’ weeklong visits to Holy Angels every summer and going with them for the first time around the ages of 10 or 11.
She’d heard about her sister in North Carolina, but they’d never met. While her parents tried to prepare her, she still didn’t know what to expect.
Any apprehension soon faded.
“My impression was how really loving the Sisters of Mercy were,” said Jarvis, a speech pathologist with Forsyth County Schools in Winston-Salem. “Everything was so normal, so welcoming. Lorraine was so loving. She immediately hugged everybody. She was happy to meet all of us as a family.”
Jarvis watched her sister’s steady progress.
“She developed into a very kind, loving young lady thanks to Holy Angels,” Jarvis said. “Holy Angels gave her what she needed to be a functioning adult in society and to be a contributor to society. It gave her the skills and foundation to give back.”
Jean Giannini feels the same way. In 1963, faced with the difficult question of how to deal with a Down syndrome child, she and her husband didn’t know what to do.
“There was absolutely nothing in New York to take care of a child with Lorraine’s problems,” said Giannini. “The sisters did unbelievable things for her at Holy Angels.”
The impact of Holy Angels on her daughter came into sharp focus in 2013 during the Christmas holidays when Lorraine Giannini visited her parents in Winston-Salem. Jean and Natale Giannini had moved to Forsyth County 21 years earlier after he retired as a civil engineer with the New York City Transit Authority.
Natale Giannini suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and Lorraine Giannini visited him in a facility near her mother’s home. The Christmas 2013 visit was particularly special.
“I usually fed him, but Lorraine jumped in and fed her father the entire dish,” Jean Giannini said. “She’d seen that at Holy Angels. Her father couldn’t take his eyes off her. He kind of knew he knew her.”
Giannini remembered her crying baby on the train ride to Belmont nearly a half century earlier. She called it a horrible time of fear and not knowing what to expect. But she watched the sisters’ “infinite kindness and generosity” bring about a transformation.
At that moment in December 2013, watching her husband being fed, Giannini knew her daughter had been taught by the best.
“What Holy Angels has done for my daughter I’ll never forget,” she said. “And I’ll never forget what they’ve done for my family. I congratulate them on their 60th anniversary for doing God’s work. They are truly like what Pope Francis said: ‘Mercy in action.’”
Want to Go?
The Holy Angels 60th Celebration and Winter Wonderland is 4-7 p.m. Sunday at the center’s campus, 6600 Wilkinson Blvd., Belmont. The event is free and open to the public and includes food truck vendors, Christmas activities, hayride and a visit by Santa.
For more information about Holy Angels go to www.holyangelsnc.org.
Donations can be sent to Holy Angels at P.O. Box 710, Belmont, N.C. 28012.