Judge Christopher Foley was the keynote speaker for the Christ Child Society’s Shower of Love luncheon celebrating the organization’s 75th anniversary. (Photos by David Bernacchi)

In June, Judge Christopher Foley presided over his 4,000th and final adoption before retiring.

The 70-year-old chronicled several cases he presided over during his 37 years on the bench as the keynote speaker Oct. 4 when the Milwaukee chapter of the Christ Child Society celebrated its 75th anniversary with the Shower of Love luncheon at the Italian Community Center.

He united families, aggressively advocated for children’s best interests, and in some cases, welcomed them into his own family.

“Miguel was a child who had three siblings. He was sent to be adopted by his foster father, who got sick, so not only could he not get adopted, but he couldn’t stay in his foster home where he had been for a long time,” Judge Foley said.

“He was very connected to his foster father and without him, he was just sitting somewhere the entire summer with nothing to do. We brought him home to our place in Eagle River, where he enjoyed jumping in the lake and having fun. He stayed for 14 days. He wanted to stay with us. Miguel needs our prayers. He wasn’t adopted but was placed with a great foster family who adopted two of his siblings.”

Judge Foley shared several similar stories, including the story of Samuel, who suffered a terminal illness and was adopted shortly before his death, thanks to the courts and child welfare system rushing the process.

“From Madison on down, they stood the process on its head. We went to Samuel’s home and did the adoption with a police and fire department honor guard and with half of Sheboygan present. We were packed in there like sardines,” he said. “It was amazing to see how he responded to his adoptive mother and siblings, and how everyone was touched by the experience. Samuel died recently. This family, to my amazement, has gone on to adopt two other children with incurable fatal diseases.”

Foley served as a Circuit Court judge for Milwaukee County since 1985 and was named a “Milwaukeean of the Year” in 1996 by Milwaukee Magazine and given the Children’s Service Society Service to Children Award in 1997 for his work in implementing the Foster Care Conversion Project, which freed hundreds of children for adoption who had been mired in long-term foster care.

Foley took the same bench his father, Judge Leander Foley, held, and his great-uncle before him. Together, the three dispensed justice from Branch 14 for 97 years straight.

“I have seven kids and three grandchildren and was significantly influenced by remarkable women in my life, especially my mother, grandmother, sisters, sister-in-law and mother-in-law. They had the tough task of keeping me on the straight and narrow,” he said. “My mom, Clare Foley, was a member of the Christ Child Society. She demonstrated a core value that was always reinforced by the Children’s Service Society. Whenever you have a chance to lift up, you lift up.”

Judge Foley hailed the Christ Child Society members for all the good they do to help vulnerable children.

“They provide layettes and clothing for children entering the child welfare system; think about that,” he said. “How many lives have been and continue to be touched here and throughout the country because of this organization?”

Long-term member Ellen Johnson serves as the membership co-chair and has belonged to the organization since she was 10; her mom was a member. She was looking over an array of knitted layette items displayed on a table and explained how they could donate so many hand-knit items.

“We have some members who knit, and we also reach out to the Milwaukee knitting guild and anyone else who can knit,” she said. “When we run out of knitted items, we substitute with a six-month size hooded sweatshirt in pink for girls and blue for boys. We like to have something handmade, but people can only knit so much.”

The Christ Child Society began in 1887, after Mary Virginia Merrick, paralyzed and bedridden from an accident she suffered as a teenager, founded the Christ Child Society in Washington, D.C., and devoted her life to providing handmade layettes to babies born to impoverished mothers. The Christ Child Society has since spread to 45 chapters across the country.

Formal inquiry into her life and initiation of the cause for canonization began in 2003. Mary Virginia Merrick was declared a Servant of God, the initial step in the process of beatification and canonization.

In 1948, 61 years after the national group’s founding, Milwaukee native Marjory Wilmot began the Christ Child Society of Milwaukee by inviting eight friends to join her in service to poor children. Their first service project provided 11 layettes to needy children through the Milwaukee Catholic Social Welfare Bureau.

In the early years in Milwaukee, members provided services to the Catholic Social Welfare Bureau, St. Vincent de Paul, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, St. Vincent’s Orphanage, St. John’s School for the Deaf, Old St. Mary’s programs, and more. Over the years, CCS has provided volunteers and major financial support to Saint Francis Children’s and Achievement Center, the primary wing at St. John’s School for the Deaf, Ronald McDonald House, Hope Network and Guadalupe Children’s Clinic.

Currently, the interdenominational Milwaukee Chapter with 194 members and six provisional members is funded through donations and a resale shop at 4033 W. Good Hope Road, Milwaukee. Judy Keenan and Kathleen Semrad serve as the organization’s co-presidents.

Visit www.ChristChildMilwaukee.org for more information.