Patti Carroll grew up celebrating her mother and a choice she made nearly 50 years ago — to give her up for adoption at 14 months of age to a loving family in the United States.
But the story she knew to be true changed three years ago when Carroll, now a Clinton resident, visited her mother’s homeland in Tipperary County, Ireland. She learned the place she was born, Sean Ross Abbey, was a place of “national disgrace” for residents where babies were unwillingly “sold to America,” as she said residents put it.
The abbey was operated a home where unwed mothers went to have their children and later put them up for adoption, primarily in the United States of America. Some mothers even had to work off their time at the abbey, she said.
The home operated from 1930 to 1970.
Carroll was given books about the subject from nearby residents, including the book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” which has now been turned into an Oscar-nominated film called “Philomena.” The story follows a mother’s search for her child who was adopted through Sean Ross Abbey.
At 14 months, baby Patti was adopted through the mail to a family in San Francisco. This was the second child for her parents to adopt through the abbey, the first being her older brother Joe.
“With my parents I was lucky; it was never a secret — always a celebration,” she said. “We were always told ‘Your mom loved you, but they couldn’t take care of you and they wanted the best for you so they sent you our way.’ ”
Since her trip to Ireland, Carroll has poured through documents of her adoption and researched the cruelty endured at the abbey through books and websites.
She learned if parents of unwed mothers didn’t already send their daughters away to have a baby, their parish would step in and send them to similar homes. The women had no intention of giving up their children, as they wanted to have their babies and start life again, she said.
“But that wasn’t the reality,” Carroll said.
The truth was much more frightening: mothers forced to work off their time at the abbey, nuns who forged adoption documents to sell the babies, medical experiments conducted on infants, and many mothers and babies who died while at the abbey, she said.
When Carroll was delivered to her new parents, she had a “hole” in her arm which they thought was from a vaccination infection. She still has a mark on her arm today.
“Some of those kids died,” she said. “But here I am; my gratitude is huge.”
During her trip to Ireland, she visited Sean Ross Abbey and toured the boarded up nursery and empty playground. She said she felt something “eerie” when she wandered into what she believed to be an unmarked grave site. She was stopped by a nun who raced down from the abbey to keep her from going any further.
Carroll said she’s always been grateful for her mother and her sacrifice. After learning about the cruelty at the abbey she has an even deeper gratitude for what she went through.
“All those babies, all so deserving,” she said. “How did I get so lucky?”
Carroll is grateful for the recent interest through the movie and book. In her research she’s found many more adoptees than mothers were speaking out. With the movie release, more mothers are sharing their stories, she said.
The story of her mother resonates deeply in her life, along with her work helping children and families with several organizations, including one she founded — Kids First Island County.
“Now I work hard and with my whole heart for local kids,” she said. “I would work for every kid in the world if I could.”
Carroll helps make connections with foster-care workers for children who are in limbo during court proceedings. She believes many parents who are chemically dependent or have neglected their children are willing to change, but it takes time. These parents can be demonized and suffer a fate similar to her mother’s of losing a child.
“Horrible things happen to these children, but many parents want to make it right,” she said. “They’re up against all odds, even when they’re doing their darnedest.”
Carroll is still searching for her mother, and found three leads earlier this week with the same name, Anne Carroll. One was the same age as her mother, 18, when she was born. Carroll is on the lookout for any siblings she might have, as well.
Carroll is also applying to obtain her Irish citizenship and hopes to travel back and forth between Ireland and Whidbey Island.
She respects her mother’s privacy in her search, knowing she may never have told anyone about her time at the abbey. She said her message to her mother is that she is deeply grateful for her sacrifice.
“I’m so well, thank you for giving me life and everything you had to go through to do that,” she said. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to say — thank you.”
“Philomena” is playing at the Clyde Theatre Jan. 24 through Jan. 30.
7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.