IN AN AGE when more and more of the seven million adoptees in the United States are seeking the right to unseal records and obtain their original birth certificates, in all but eight states it is frustrating or impossible.

Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming Our Families—and America, said in The Huffington Post on January 12, 2011: “Every additional day, month and year that original birth certificates remain sealed, some more adoptees and birth parents who want or need to find each other will give up instead, and some more will die, without ever filling the hole in
their hearts.”

Because Great Britain changed its laws and unsealed adoption records in 1975, the story of Patrick Ferraro’s search for his birth mother is as unexpected as it is poignant. His journey crossed three countries and spanned 40 years. It is a tale about love, family and a series of providential encounters with complete strangers who helped him.

Meet Patrick Ferraro

Patrick Ferraro is 50 years old: a man of medium build, tanned complexion and startling blue eyes. He is married to Trisann—his wife of 30 years. They have three children, Joseph, Lauren and icholas.

Patrick always knew that he was adopted. His parents, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Niel and Rita Ferraro, a devout Catholic couple from Corning, New York, were unable to have children. When they were stationed in London in 1960, they applied to adopt a child through the Crusade of Rescue (now the Catholic Children’s Society of Westminster), a Catholic organization founded in 1859. Patrick was born in London on November 14, 1960, placed briefly in foster care and, on January 11, 1961, the Ferraros met their son and took him home.

The family moved frequently. Patrick attended both public and Catholic schools, played baseball, joined the Boy Scouts and Sea Scouts, became an altar server in the fourth grade and was elected president of his eighth-grade class. But if there was one thing he truly loved, it was the sea.

Beginning in his teens, curiosity about his biological mother and the circumstances of his birth started. When Patrick turned 30, married to Trisann and already the father of two, he experienced an existential crisis. What had been a birthday curiosity as an adolescent to know where he came from was now a deep yearning. He wanted to connect with his roots, especially his birth mother.

The desire overcame him. He wrote a letter to his parents, asking for guidance about how to move forward, knowing so little about his birth mother. He never sent that letter, but his deep yearning for some connection to his birth mother continued to grow.

Expectation and Wonder

Patrick had received a commission in the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1990. In February 1995 he was preparing to go to London for two weeks of active duty at the U.S. Naval Regional Contracting Center. Before he left home, almost out of the blue, his father surprised Patrick by asking if he would like any information about the circumstances of his birth.

Though Patrick declined, his dad mentioned the name of an adoption agency—the Crusade of Rescue. Patrick made a mental note of it. His parents had previously given him a copy of the record of his Baptism on November 26, 1960, which they received when they adopted him. It was from the adoptee baptismal records of the Archdiocese of Westminster, listing Marylebone as the area in London where the Baptism took place—but not the parish.

As the plane landed at Heathrow Airport, Patrick experienced a feeling of expectation and wonder. He was landing in England and would be, perhaps for the first and only time in his life, as close to his mother as he ever could be.

Divine providence, however, had other ideas. Patrick was to encounter a series of strangers over the next few months who would change his life forever in ways he could never imagine.

Finding His Roots

Patrick met Paul Parmar, a British citizen working at the Navy facility where he was assigned. Paul asked Patrick where he was from. He mentioned his adoption and that he was trying to figure out in which hospital he was born. Paul asked if he had any documentation with him that was related to his adoption.

Patrick showed the baptismal form to Paul who, through his wife who worked at the archdiocese, suggested that Patrick call a priest who might know the parish church where he had been baptized. The priest suggested that Patrick contact the Catholic adoption agency that had been called the Crusade of Rescue back in the 1960s.

Patrick spoke with Frances Holmes, a post-adoption counselor who found his file. Frances explained that the agency preferred to counsel adoptees over time, but given that time was so short in his case, she would meet him the next day at the Naval base and let him see his file.

“It was surreal,” Patrick says. “I discovered how well I was cared for, that my mother had been only 14 years old, that her name was Caterina Macciotta and that she was from Alghero, Sardinia, Italy.”

He made copies of the file, something he would not have been able to do in most states in America. But he kept two of the original forms and replaced them with copies. One was the adoption agreement form his birth mother signed; the other was the form his grandmother, Vittoria, signed, requesting that he be baptized Catholic and named Pietro. He could not stop staring at his mother’s signature, her handwriting. He touched it, feeling closer to her.

That night Patrick went to find the maternity clinic where he was born, as the address in London where he was born was in his file. He started at the far end of Welbeck Street, searching for the house number. When he got to #27, he rang the bell and asked a worker if this clinic had once been a maternity home. Yes, it had.

It began to rain. Patrick walked across the street and stood there looking up at the window, his spirit filled with a feeling of wonder at the thought that his mother had given birth to him in this very place. He stood there for half an hour, soaking it all in as the rain fell.

Pieces of the Puzzle

In a thoughtful mood, he walked back to his hotel and stopped at a bookstore to see if they had maps of Sardinia. He selected two and, as he was opening one, he felt a tap on his shoulder. Patrick turned and a young man said to him with an Italian accent, “You really need to go there. It’s a beautiful place.”

“I am from the U.S., but my family is from there. I hope to go someday,” Patrick said.

“What town are they from?” the young man asked. Patrick hesitated, not knowing how much to say. “Alghero. My people are from Alghero.”

The young man stared at him and said, “But I am from Alghero, too. Now, you must go.”

Patrick agreed to meet this man, Stefano, the next evening for dinner at his London hotel. They never made it to the restaurant, but spent the evening looking at the documents in Patrick’s file. Stefano revealed he had a friend in Alghero who worked at a hotel which turns out was owned by Caterina’s family.

He promised confidentiality and, over the next years, sent Patrick information about the town and his family that was public knowledge. Caterina had married Luciano Bebbere, a successful architect in the city, and they had two daughters—Daniela and Lara.

The Good Sister Mary Joan

When Patrick returned to the United States, he was changed, but as he told his wife, he needed to know more. Patrick began searching and posting online for information about his birth mother’s family. Two women, Darlene Farmer and Anna Smith, both amateur genealogists, responded.

Providentially, they worked across the street from Patrick just outside of Washington, D.C. Darlene and Anna counseled Patrick on how to request civil records from Italy, providing him with sample letters. With their help, Patrick was able to obtain birth, marriage and death certificates for his mother’s family going back two generations. His file was growing.

As 1995 proceeded, Patrick felt ready to contact someone in Italy. He decided that the best way to proceed would be through the local parish in Alghero, but he didn’t quite know how to do that.

In August 1995, Patrick went to the Pauline Books & Media Center in Alexandria, Virginia, to purchase a miraculous medal for his dad. The nun, Sister Mary Joan Baldino, who was working the register, saw Patrick’s last name on his personal check. As she wrapped the medal, she asked Patrick if he was Italian. He said yes. He asked if she was, too.

“Yes, I am from Sardinia,” she responded. Patrick’s heart almost stopped. Then, slowly, he said, “My family is from Sardinia. And if you are, too, then I have a story to tell you. I’ll be back.”

“You’d better come soon,” she said. “I am leaving in two days. I am not even supposed to be here; I am just taking the place of a sick sister.”

Patrick returned a day or so later and over lunch told his story to Sister Mary Joan. She offered to write to the parish priest in Alghero to try to find out more about his mother and family. He was very pleased for the gracious offer and agreed. She wrote to the priest, but never got a response.

Sister Mary Joan and Patrick stayed in touch. She was due to go to Sardinia for a family visit during the summer of 1997 and asked Patrick if she should try to talk to the pastor while she was there. He agreed and wrote a letter to his mother should Sister Mary Joan locate her.

Sister Mary Joan made an appointment with the pastor, an older man who was nearing retirement age. When he came into the office, he informed her that he had just come from the bishop to whom he had turned for advice.

“Yes, I got your letter,” he said. “But there are too many secrets and confidences. I cannot tell you anything. Besides, I am related to the father of the child.”

Disappointed, Sister Mary Joan returned to the U.S. and told Patrick the news. Patrick continued to add to his file, learning names, addresses and telephone numbers from Stefano and public records. He also added a recent photo of a mature Caterina, taken at a social event by friends of Sister Mary Joan in Alghero.

Piercing Blue Eyes

Sister Mary Joan was due to make a visit home in September 2000. She and Patrick had stayed in touch; she had even visited his and Trisann’s home in Virginia. Patrick and his family had visited her at the convent in New York where she had been recently assigned.

She asked Patrick if she should try again to contact his mother—this time directly. He edited his letter to his mother, and Sister Mary Joan set off on her trip. A friend drove an anxious but determined
Sister Mary Joan to Caterina’s home. She rang the bell and a young woman answered through the speakerphone. Caterina was away but would return that evening. At the appointed time, Sister called and Caterina came to the phone. Sister Mary Joan introduced herself as a Daughter of St. Paul from the United States.

“I would like to meet with you because I bring a message from a mutual friend in the United States,” she said.

Annoyed, Caterina threatened to hang up. Fearful that there might not be another opportunity, Sister Mary Joan said, “I have with me documents that state that, on November 14, 1960, Caterina Macciotta gave birth to a baby boy in London.”

Caterina responded, “What? I do not have a son! Who are you? What do you want?”

Sister Mary Joan admitted that there could be an error. She left her number and hung up. The next morning Caterina called to set up a meeting at the home of Sister Mary Joan’s sister for the following Monday.

“My husband will drive me,” Caterina said. Caterina arrived on time, but alone. Sister Mary Joan opened the envelope and showed a photo of her and Patrick together. There could be no doubt to Caterina because Patrick’s startling blue eyes were identical to those of his father whom she had eventually married.

“But, he’s alive? My mother told me he had died! For 40 years I have spoken of this to no one!” Caterina paused, staring at the photo.

“But what will I tell my two daughters? The shame I brought on my family!”

She stared at the photo and asked if she could keep it. Caterina was obviously stunned. Sister Mary Joan gave her the letter that Patrick had written to her and the other documents he had enclosed. Then she left.

Caterina later told Sister Mary Joan that she walked down the hill to where her husband, Lucio, was waiting in the car. She showed him the photo of Patrick and he saw his own eyes staring back at him. They cried together for an hour for what might have been.

Guardian Angels

After returning from Sardinia, Sister Mary Joan called Patrick and told him the news. He anxiously awaited word when a letter, dated October 2, 2000, arrived from Caterina. She wrote of carrying him in her heart all these years, believing he had died at birth.

Caterina wrote that she was still astonished at the news that he existed. She had been young and frightened and had signed everything she was told to sign. She wondered, though, how he could have died because she felt him kicking inside her so strongly. She and Lucio told his sisters, Daniela and Lara, about him. Caterina admitted the physical resemblance, especially Patrick’s blue eyes that are just like Lucio’s.

It took Lucio longer to write but, on November 25, 2000, he sent an e-mail. Like Caterina, he wrote about the beautiful island of Sardinia and the sparkling sea that surrounds it. He spoke of his confusion, wondering why Caterina’s parents didn’t tell them the truth, especially after he and Caterina married.

He mentioned the “guardian angels” who helped Patrick find them, and expressed gratitude that Vittoria, Caterina’s mother, had asked that he be baptized as this probably helped his adoptive parents choose him. Lucio wrote that he had grateful thoughts for Patrick’s adoptive parents who raised him so well. Lucio, too, noted that Patrick has his eyes.

One thing that impressed Patrick was that he now understood his love of the sea: It was in his genes.

Mi Famiglia

In 2001, Caterina and Lucio invited Patrick and his family to Sardinia to visit. Patrick learned that his parents had grown up next door to each other their whole lives. Then, when Lucio was 16 and Caterina 13, things got romantic. No one noticed that Caterina was pregnant and, when the young people told their parents, eight months into the pregnancy, their world stopped. Caterina was whisked away to London to have the baby. Her mother told her the baby had died.

Caterina, Lucio and their family visited Patrick and his family in the United States and met his adoptive mother. (Niel, Patrick’s adoptive father, died in 2005.) Both Caterina and Lucio’s English has improved and they, along with Daniela and Lara and other relatives, communicate with Patrick and his family regularly through e-mail and by phone. Patrick visits his birth family periodically as well.

Indeed, the son his parents believed had died was alive and found his way home.

WebPlus: Still Searching by Stephanie Flores-Koulish, Ph.D.

My Colombian birth mother put me up for adoption as an infant in the 1960s. I was raised in Maryland by a working-class family with a white mother and a Mexican-American father. As with virtually all adoptions in those days, it was closed and secret. By virtue of this, I forever lost a sense of ownership over my own biology, my true identity.

After giving birth to my own first child eight years ago, I petitioned the courts to open my records. I wanted to know who my birth mother was, to look into her eyes, to let her know that I was leading a happy, contented life as a college professor with a doctorate and a beautiful family of my own.

Months later, the social worker at the Cat
olic Charities in Washington, D.C., called to tell me that she had spoken with my birth mother and she wanted no contact with me. My heart sank. Nearly 70 years old, and she still held tight to this secret.

I was invited to write a letter for my file in case she would change her mind, but I hesitated. In so many ways, the deep pain of loss for me is a huge part of the hopeful aspects of adoption narratives often left out of conversations.

What could have been may never be.