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A train ticket to a new life

Orphan Train came to St. Cloud in 1913.

Baby Day Today read a front page headline in the St. Cloud Daily Journal dated November 19, 1913. The article went on to say that twenty children from a New York orphanage had arrived on a train from New York and had been distributed to city residents that morning. Little Edith Peterson was only 22 months old when she arrived in St. Cloud that morning. Officials from the New York Foundling Hospital, run by Sisters of Charity, had put Edith on the Orphan Train to the Midwest so that she could be adopted by a family and have a chance for a better future. Edith, who years later became Sister Justina, has no memory of the train ride from New York to Minnesota but she was told that when she got off the train that she walked right toward John Bieganek, her new father. John and his wife, Mary, had requested a blond, blue-eyed, two-year old girl. At the February Breakfast Club event sponsored by Stearns History Museum in St. Cloud, Bill Morgan spoke to his audience about the Orphan Train Movement. Morgan, of Sartell, is a retired SCSU history and American Studies professor and he has done extensive research on the Orphan Train Movement. During that period, over 200,000 children living in orphanages or on New York City streets were put on trains and sent to communities all over the country where they might meet families eager to adopt them. Morgan has met Sister Justina Bieganek, who resides in Little Falls, and has heard the story of how she became a part of the family from Avon. The Bieganeks were farmers and they had already raised eight children when they made arrangements with the New York Foundling Hospital to bring Edith into their home. When Edith began grade school, some classmates told her that John and Mary were not her parents, according to information from The National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas. When Edith asked her mother for an explanation, she said, “I’m your mother.” Edith realized that this was a forbidden topic. In recalling the occasion later, Sister Justina said, “They were so good to me. But when you don’t know who you are, you know you’re different.” When her mother, Mary, died and her dad moved to another town, their oldest son Joseph, and his new wife, Rose, became Edith’s adoptive parents.  Edith, then eight, was a flower girl in their wedding.  Joseph and Rose had 13 children and Edith spent a lot of her childhood caring for babies and cooking and cleaning. After finishing eighth grade, Edith worked on the farm for a year before she began attending St. Francis High School in Little Falls, a boarding school run by the Franciscan Sisters. At age 17, Edith joined the convent and became Sister Justina. On a trip to New York City in 1969, Sister Justina was able to look through  records and learn more about her past.  She discovered that she was born January 16, 1912. She learned that her father, Magnus Peterson, had died a few months before her birth and that her mother, Rebecca, was not able to care for her. According to the records from the New York Foundling Orphanage, Sister Justina also had an older sibling. She does not know what happened to her sibling or her mother but believes her mother may have returned to Norway. Sister Justina told Andrea Warren, author of We Rode the Orphan Trains, that she found an inner peace while looking through her early records. At the National Orphan Train Complex, where her story is told, Sister Justina said, “I was grateful to find out the little I did. It was more than I knew for fifty years. People are wounded when they don’t know who they are. My personal healing came when I made a trip to New York. I started to live in 1969.” Orphan Train Riders began in 1854 and continued until a federal law prohibited it in 1929. In the mid 1800s, a large number of immigrants entered the United States. Many of them struggled to find jobs. They endured overcrowded housing and shortages of food. Many families were barely surviving and they could not care for their children. When the Orphan Train Movement began, there may have been as many as 30,000 abandoned children living on the streets of New York City. Two charitable organizations began the practice of sending orphaned, abandoned and homeless children on the trains to new families and new homes across the United States and Canada. One organization, Children’s Aid Society, was begun by Rev. Charles Brace, who believed children belong in secure, loving homes. They sent children over the age of 6 on the Orphan Train in search of new homes. In his presentation, Morgan said that before each Orphan Train journey, each child got a bath, a haircut and two sets of new clothes. The children weren’t able to bring any memento of their past with them.  When a train left New York City, adoption ads were placed in newspapers along the route so that families interested in the orphans could show up at their local train station to see them. At the end of the journey, the children were lined up on a platform so that townspeople could look them over.  It was like an auction. Children that were not selected got back on the train. The New York Foundling Hospital, operated by Sisters of Charity, was another organization that began sending even younger children on trains to families who wanted to adopt them. Sister Justina came to Minnesota on one of these “baby trains,” which they were often called. The Foundling Hospital operated differently from Children’s Aid Society. They made arrangements with families in advance by having priests ask families in their congregation if they were willing to adopt. These families could request a child of a specific age and gender, and with their preference for hair and eye color. It has been estimated that as many as 250,000 children were “placed out” during the Orphan Train Movement, which today, is seen as the beginning of foster care in the United States and also, children’s protection rights. Many of the children, like Sister Justina, went to homes where they were treated lovingly by their new family. Unfortunately, some went to families where they were considered to be cheap labor— a maid, a mother’s helper or extra help on the farm. Morgan spoke of how traumatic it was if siblings were separated from one another or if a child was not chosen and had to get back on the train and return to the orphanage. Roger and Maureen Barthelemy of St. Cloud brought a treasured piece of the past with them to Morgan’s presentation at the Stearns History Museum. Roger’s father, Ralph (Madison) Barthelemy, came to the Foley/Duelm area on the Orphan Train in 1914. Ralph was 2 ½ years old at the time and he rarely spoke of having been on the Orphan Train. He was adopted by a “great family”, according to his son. The Barthelemys have framed the white dress which Ralph wore on the Orphan train and the photograph of the young boy. The display hangs in their home. Sister Justina recently turned 100 years old and she no longer gives interviews, according to Deanna Boone, Director of Community Relations with Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls.  “She still works every day at St. Francis Music Center, just as she always has,” Boone said. Sister Justina helped to organize the annual Minnesota Reunion of Orphan Train Riders, which held their 51st reunion last fall. They and their descendants meet each fall at St. Francis Center in Little Falls. “All Orphan Train Riders are my brothers and sisters,” she has said.  “We are a family.” Morgan attended the 51st reunion last fall and spent some time with Sister Justina.  Having spent so much time researching the Orphan Train Movement, he has learned a few things. “I have learned that your attitude is important in life,” Morgan said. “And Sister Justina has a superior attitude.”

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