The youngest of Jane Cryan’s five children was 4 and the oldest was 10 when a social worker called to ask if she would open her home to her first foster child, a 15-month-old boy.
“I excitedly agreed, expecting to receive a bouncing, healthy little fellow,’’ Mrs. Cryan wrote in “My People,’’ an essay about being a foster parent.
“Imagine my dismay the following morning when Lenny arrived. He was scrawny, sallow-skinned, and so weak he couldn’t even sit up. His large, somber brown eyes, peeping wistfully from beneath the hood of his cocoa colored snowsuit, did something to me. My heart softened to him and my motherly instinct told me he needed all the love and care I could provide.’’
That motherly love turned out to be boundless as she and her family hosted an estimated 150 foster children during more than 30 years, beginning in the 1950s.
Mrs. Cryan, an Irish immigrant who was no stranger in her own childhood to sleeping in a room filled with beds, bunks, and cots, died of pneumonia Tuesday in the Westford House nursing home in Westford. She was 94 and previously lived in West Chelmsford for decades.
“I think the thing that made her so special was that anybody could take in foster children, but she had incredible patience and a strong faith,’’ said her daughter Kathy Cryan-Hicks of West Chelmsford. “This time of year at Lent, she’d have us all on our knees saying the Rosary.’’
Supplementing prayer with the kind of organizational skills that would be the envy of any parent, Mrs. Cryan kept order amid the inevitable upheaval that comes with having enough children underfoot to field a baseball team - and then some.
“I just remember growing up in a house with 12 to 14 kids at a time,’’ her daughter said. “Sometimes it would drop down to eight. You’d think it would be chaotic, but it really wasn’t. I think now, ‘How did she keep that house clean and neat?’ ’’
The Cryans partitioned their living room and family room into bedrooms, though everyone shared the single bathroom.
Some foster children stayed a few days, while others were part of the family for months or years. The Cryans also hosted children from New York City through the Fresh Air Fund.
“There was never a dull moment - or a quiet one,’’ Mrs. Cryan told the Globe in 2007 when her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and many former foster children gathered for her 90th birthday.
Born in County Mayo, Ireland, Jane Elizabeth Matthews grew up in a cottage in Belcarra.
Her father was a farmer and a gifted storyteller. When the children returned from school, her mother greeted them with “tall glasses of cool milk and her freshly baked Irish bread with raisins and caraway seeds waiting for us to devour,’’ Mrs. Cryan wrote in a draft of a memoir. “Everything tasted so good to us.’’
Three of her aunts lived in the United States, and her parents came over when Mrs. Cryan was a child.
The family settled first with relatives in Lowell, and on Mrs. Cryan’s first day of school, “the kids seemed to cluster around me and wanted to be my partner in line,’’ she wrote in “Before I Forget,’’ her memoir. “I guess my Irish brogue fascinated them.’’
When she was in her early 20s, she met Jack Cryan while walking to work one day.
“He noticed me and a neighbor introduced us,’’ she told the Globe in 2007.
Little more than a year later, she wrote in her memoir, “Jack bought me a watch for Christmas of 1939 and he bought me an engagement ring in the spring of 1940. We got married on October 12, 1940.’’
About a decade later, they moved into a white clapboard house in West Chelmsford.
When they became foster parents in 1954, the Cryans did not anticipate how many children would pass through their doors, but after growing accustomed to Lenny, “we went from there, one after another,’’ she told the Globe.
The Cryans stopped hosting foster children when Mr. Cryan became ill. He died in 1987.
“She deserves sainthood for taking in that many foster children, with five of her own,’’ Alice da Silva, one of the foster children who lived with the Cryans, told the Globe in 2007.
“I was very fortunate that Mr. and Mrs. Cryan came along when they did,’’ she said. “Even as a 17-year-old, it was scary not knowing where you were going to end up. They had huge hearts and lots of love.’’
In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Cryan leaves two other daughters, Mary Jane Cryan Pancani of Vetralla, Italy, and Sheila Morris of Branson, Mo.; two sons, Thomas of Denver and John of Pepperell; two sisters, Mary Flanagan of Lowell and Katherine Matthews of Hathorne; 18 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 11:30 a.m. today in St. John the Evangelist Church in Chelmsford. Burial will be in West Chelmsford Cemetery.
In her essay “My People,’’ Mrs. Cryan noted that “caring for foster children is no easy matter. They require as much care, if not more, as your own children. They require more patience and understanding as they feel more insecure and unloved than your own children. They desperately need love, a chance for a happy childhood, and they want to live normally as other children do.’’
And though her children and foster children marveled at her ability to keep her home orderly, Mrs. Cryan’s own view was wry and realistic.
“Housework never seems to get done, especially the dusting,’’ she wrote. “There are cobwebs in the corners and dust on the cobwebs, but there will come a day when they are all grown up, then we know there will be plenty of time for such unimportant things as dusting. Right now, there are more rewarding duties to attend to.’’