Look up the term "orphan train" in five encyclopedias, and you can draw five blanks. It's one of the great, little-told stories of American history: the vast westward diaspora, from 1854 to 1929, of homeless children from the big cities of the Northeast, most of them the offspring of poor European immigrants.
Mesa Youththeatre, a company not known for shirking difficult subjects, seeks to fill this gap in historical awareness. Not only is the troupe producing Orphan Train, by the late, much-admired children's dramatist Aurand Harris, it's also providing the opportunity to hear the story from someone who actually lived it.
Eighty-six-year-old Sister Justina Bieganek, who rode the orphan train from her native New York to her adoptive home of Minnesota at the age of 2, will speak about her life after the play's opening performance at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 24; and again following the performance at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, April 25. Born Edith Peterson in New York City to a 28-year-old father who died before she was born and a 26-year-old Norwegian-immigrant mother who couldn't care for her, Sister Justina was given up--along with a sibling she has never identified--to the New York Foundling Hospital in February of 1912.
Since 1873, the overburdened hospital had been sending children on blind adoptions to other parts of the country. It was following the example of the Childrens' Aid Society, which had instituted a similar program in 1853, as a response to the explosion of homeless children in the urban East brought about by the immigration boom in the mid-19th century.
"It was crude and wholesome at the same time," says Sister Justina, by phone from the gym of her convent. "The kiddies were in slums. Thieving, killing, prostitution, name it. So the best they could think of was just, 'get 'em out of the slums.' And statistics show the greatest number of them became creditable members of society."
By 1910, the orphan trains had taken kids to nearly every state in the U.S.--only Alaska, Hawaii and Arizona, then territories, had received none by that year. The largest number of the roughly 200,000 children went to the agricultural Midwest, however, and it's not hard to guess why: In return for taking in an orphan--and promising, in the case of the Foundling Hospital, to raise the child as Catholic--a family received, through a "certificate of indenture," a salary-free farm hand.
As Sister Justina, who has spent years researching the trains, puts it: "So they wouldn't be on the streets, they were parceled out as farm labor, or to businessmen." The applications which prospective parents filled out were remarkably like mail-order forms, with spaces to indicate the preferred sex, age, and eye and hair color of their child.
The children were given numbered badges and loaded into trains. When they reached their destinations, they would be met by parents carrying signs with the same number; if the parents were no-shows, they were often simply turned over to anyone who agreed to care for them. Although plenty of the orphan-train riders met with predictable exploitation, there were many happy endings--good, loving homes--as well.
Sister Justina's was one of these--her badge, which bore the number 41, corresponded to that held by a Polish-American farm family in Avon, Minnesota. She grew up on the honey the farm produced, and although other children occasionally teased her by calling her a sierota (orphan), she seems never to have met with any serious unkindness.
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In her teens, she went to a boarding school in Little Falls run by Franciscan nuns, and in 1929, at the age of 17, she joined that order. The same year, the orphan trains stopped running. It wasn't until 1969 that she returned to the Foundling Hospital--which by then had merged with St. Vincent's (the building has since been purchased by Donald Trump)--to find her history.
She has never learned the identity of her sibling--"I'll meet him or her Up There"--but she did learn enough about her parents to set her heart at ease. "That was my most satisfying moment," she says. "I think I began to live in 1969, end of May. Before that I spent my life wondering who the heck I was."
--M. V. Moorhead
Orphan Train is performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 24; 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 25; and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 26, at Mesa Arts Center. Tickets are $7, $5 for those under 18. The run continues through Sunday, May 3. Sister Justina Bieganek will speak at 8:45 p.m. Friday, April 24, and at 6 p.m. Saturday, April 25. Admission to the Sister's talks is free. 155 North Center. 644-2560.