Miriam Gannon, foster mother to more than 70 children; at 82

Miriam Gannon

Miriam Gannon was at Mass with her husband and daughter in the mid-1960s when a plea from the pulpit changed their lives, leading them to create one of the state’s largest families.

In the decades that followed, Mrs. Gannon nurtured 70 foster children and then some. She and her husband, Matthew, adopted nearly two dozen of their foster children and became legal guardians to a handful more.


“I believe each one of us was meant to be in the family because we fit together so well,” said their sole biological child, Maryanne Zeller, whose wish for younger sisters and brothers helped inspire her parents’ decision that Sunday in Braintree’s St. Thomas More Church more than a half-century ago.

Mrs. Gannon was 82 when she died of lymphoma Friday evening in the Braintree house that was the first real home for dozens of children. Since being diagnosed in September, she was able to see in person or speak by phone with nearly all her 62 surviving children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

In January, she made a final trip with her family to Walt Disney World in Florida, a favorite vacation spot for scores of trips she carefully planned with her husband, who died in 2010.

Several weeks after last fall’s diagnosis, she also made time to visit stores the day after Thanksgiving — a last chance to spoil her brood at Christmas. “She went shopping on Black Friday and said it was the best day ever,” Maryanne said. “From the time I was little, everyone got so many Christmas gifts. It was her thing – she went crazy.”

Her children said she dispensed greater gifts, though, through the example she set every day.


“My mom was accepting of everybody,” said her daughter Corinne Croop of Macungie, Pa. “She was not judgmental. As kids growing up, that was very important to us. She was compassionate, had a big heart, and always was the strongest advocate for children I know.”

Mrs. Gannon’s son Bernard of Winston-Salem, N.C., said his mother “was driven by her religious faith. She felt that her calling was to help children.”

With the boys pitching in to help, the family kept building additions to their Braintree house to accommodate more children – at one point, 18 were living with Mrs. Gannon and her husband. “She always told me, ‘If I had to stack the bunk beds four high, I would have done it,’ ” Bernard said.

In a 2010 interview that is posted on wickedlocal.com, Mrs. Gannon said “homes don’t have to be perfect to raise good kids. All they need is understanding and love. Kids would come in distraught and withdrawn. Within a short period of time, they would be OK.”

The oldest of six siblings, Miriam Smedile was born in Boston, a daughter of Charles Smedile, who worked for a laundry business, and the former Edith Clark, a homemaker.

When Miriam was young, her family moved to North Quincy, where she attended North Quincy High School. She was about 20 and living at home when Matthew Gannon, who worked for an electronics company, stopped by one day on a repair call.

“My dad knew my mom’s dad and he came over to help fix the TV,” said Maryanne, who lives in Duxbury.

Miriam married Matthew in 1955 and they lived in Hingham briefly before buying land in Braintree, upon which Mr. Gannon built their home.

When Maryanne was in elementary school, she told her parents that everyone else in her class had siblings. Then the Sunday arrived when the priest at St. Thomas More Church announced during Mass that foster homes were needed for children. “I was 6 or 7 years old and thought, ‘This is how I can get brothers and sisters,’ ” Maryanne said.

Her parents agreed, and within a few years, more than a dozen foster children had joined the Gannon household. Maryanne recalled that her mother “would get a call from the social worker that a child was coming and we would kick it into high gear: You get the room ready. You find out the child’s size and buy some new clothing.”

As decade followed decade, the number kept growing. “My brothers and sisters joke that at some point I could have said, ‘OK, we’re good now. I think we had enough,’ ” Maryanne said, but her parents never gave much thought to the word “enough.”

“God has blessed us and given us these kids,” Matthew Gannon said in 2000, when the Knights of Columbus named the Braintree clan the International Family of the Year. They were chosen from among the 52 families who had been honored as Family of the Year in the organization’s statewide jurisdictions.

Announcing the International Family of the Year honor, the organization noted that Matthew had “transformed the family’s four-bedroom house, which he built himself, into an eight-bedroom home equipped with an elevator, ramp, and wide wheelchair-friendly doorways.”

Globe Staff/File

Matt and Miriam Gannon, front row, center, and their family, photographed just before they received the Knights of Columbus International Family of the Year award in 2000.

The couple fostered many children with disabilities, some of whom Mrs. Gannon outlived.

Bernard said his mother set an inspirational example in their home. “It wasn’t what she said so much as how she lived her life and how she expected us to live ours,” he said.

In addition to her daughters Maryanne and Corinne, and her son Bernard, Mrs. Gannon leaves 10 more daughters, Trish and Kristin of Weymouth, Bernice French of Taunton, Vanessa of Fairfield, Iowa, Alicia of Raleigh, N.C., Nicole of Manchester, N.H., and Anna, Kathleen, Lisa, and Alexis, all of Braintree; 10 more sons, Peter, Joseph, Charles, and Andrew, all of Braintree; David of Brockton, Paul of Hanover, Kevin of Bridgewater, James of Norwood, Gregory of Oregon, and Michael of New Hampshire; three sisters, Mary Claire Smedile of Whitman, Judith Lewis of Halifax, and Susan Berry of North Carolina; a brother, Charles Smedile of Whitman; 21 grandchildren; and 18 great-grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Wednesday in St. Francis of Assisi Church in Braintree. Burial will be in Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne.

In 2010, a couple of weeks after her husband died, Mrs. Gannon described how she and Matthew raised more than 70 children, and made it sound simple. “You love each other. You have children. You love the children. You put your own needs aside,” she told Wicked Local.

“Each child who stepped into our house knew they were loved the minute they walked in the door,” she added. “Each one was loved because they were a child of God.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.

Article source: https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/05/07/miriam-gannon-mother-more-than-children-dies/Y4SKFOt5vVBCfgTXGDBDBI/story.html

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