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As two of his men are about to destroy the sidewalk outside St. Louis' rundown News Boys' Home and Protectorate, contractor Fred Carver asks that a piece of the sidewalk containing two sets of footprints be preserved. Fred explains to his workers that one set of footprints was made by him as a small boy, and the other belonged to Father Peter J. Dunne, the founder of the Home. Fred then recalls how Father Dunne became the "patron saint" of newsboys everywhere: In the winter of 1905, orphan newsboys huddle together in the cold while waiting for newspapers to sell. During a grueling morning of work, two boys, Jimmy and Tony, go to see Father Dunne and tell him that Chip, another orphan newsboy, is sick. Concerned, Father Dunne asks Jimmy and Tony to take him to Chip's home, which turns out to be an unheated packing case. Father Dunne takes the ailing Chip to his sister Kate's house and calls a doctor. After the doctor prescribes bed rest for all three boys, Father Dunne convinces his reluctant brother-in-law, Emmett Mulvey, to sacrifice his only bed to the children. Father Dunne then informs his superior, Archbishop John Joseph Glennon, about the conditions under which the boys live and asks for help in creating a Home for them. Although the archbishop pledges to support Father Dunne's efforts, he also makes clear that the Catholic Church cannot donate any money to the cause. With that in mind, Father Dunne rents a shabby townhouse with help from lawyer Tom Lee and slowly begins to turn it into a home for Jimmy, Tony, Chip and two other boys. To supply the quickly expanding Home, the smooth-talking Father Dunne then cajoles various merchants into donating their goods to his cause. Father Dunne even talks Michael O'Donnell, a sour-faced businessman from Northern Ireland, into lending the Home his pony and cart, which some newsboys had earlier tried to steal. When one of the young thieves, Matt Davis, throws a brick through the Home's front window in order to "get in," Father Dunne welcomes him without question. Disturbed by the violence perpetrated on his boys by their older competitors, Father Dunne confronts Colpeck, the head of the Herald Sun 's circulation department, and his thug, "Gorilla" Blake. Although he is not intimidated by Colpeck and Blake, Father Dunne is unable to dissuade them from their strong-arm tactics. Taking Father Dunne's sermon on unity to heart, Matt, whose abusive, alcoholic father Steve has tried unsuccessfully to reclaim him, then organizes the boys into a group and uses O'Donnell's horse and cart to peddle their papers. Matt's strategy works at first, but Blake eventually orders several thugs to break up the group. During the ensuing mêlée, the horse is fatally injured and Jimmy's leg is crushed under the cart. After the guilt-ridden Matt runs away, Father Dunne asks O'Donnell, who owns the Herald building, to threaten the paper with eviction, and O'Donnell happily intimidates Colpeck into reforming. Months later, a still recuperating Jimmy beseeches Father Dunne to find Matt, and the priest agrees to search for him. Father Dunne locates Matt at his father's house, but is unable to break Steve's violent hold on the boy. Later, in an attempt to raise money to build a bigger Home, the priest hosts a "VIP" dinner. Because Father Dunne delivered the invitations at the last minute, however, only O'Donnell and Tom attend the function. Once again, O'Donnell comes to the priest's aid by offering to form a board of directors and use his financial clout to influence his peers. After the spacious, well-equipped new Home is built, a nattily dressed Matt returns for a visit. Although he claims to be doing well, Matt is nearly caught breaking into a store and runs to Father Dunne for help. Father Dunne encourages Matt to turn himself in, but a frightened Matt, imagining that the policeman in front of him is his drunken father, pulls a gun and shoots the officer. After Matt is sentenced to die, Father Dunne visits him in jail and listens to his pleas for mercy. Moved by the boy's words, the priest asks the governor to stop the impending execution, but the governor insists that justice be served. Although saddened by Matt's death, Father Dunne is comforted by the group of grateful boys who greet him later at the Home's door.