Sister Justina: orphan train rider, Franciscan, reunion organizer
By Nikki Rajala
Twenty-two-month-old Edith toddled off the orphan train in Avon Nov. 19, 1913, directly into the first man she saw in the crowd. “I felt at home,” she said years later.
She was, and she also was the answer to the prayers of John and Mary Bieganek, both 45. On an application from the Sisters of Charity handed out by their priest, they had requested a blue-eyed, blond-haired girl, age 2.
The Bieganeks opened her coat and, with amazement, spotted “No. 41” inside, matching their “Notice of Arrival” document.
Edith is now Sister Justina Bieganek, a 98-year-old Franciscan sister at St. Francis Convent in Little Falls.
“I couldn’t wait for someone to find me,” she said. “When the sisters put me down, I started walking right up to that man. He looked inside my coat and picked me up.”
“Another little girl was also on the train. Rose, a year older, and I got acquainted on the train. We sat together and held hands all the way from New York to Minnesota.”
In a stroke of luck, Rose became Edith’s “cousin,” adopted by Stanley Katzmarek and his wife Constancia, Mary Bieganek’s blood sister.
Though Edith and Rose lived only four miles apart, they didn’t see each other often. But when their families occasionally shared a meal together, the two orphans continued their “cousinship.”
Blessed by three families
Sister Justina said, “I’m a product of three sets of parents — my birth parents, and then John and Mary Bieganek. When I was 5, Mary, dying of cancer, said to my four much older brothers, ‘Whoever marries first, take care of Edith.’ ”
When she was eight, her brother Joseph married Rose. “They inherited me, my third set of parents.”
The 18-year-old bride moved into their house.
“Rose had every talent and was an immaculate homemaker,” Sister Justina said. “Joseph was a businessman, gone a lot.”
Her father then remarried and moved across the road. Rose and Joseph Bieganek produced their own family with 13 children.
“We had bees so I grew up on bread and all the honey I wanted,” she said. “It was a good home with faith-filled people who made me feel like a true part of the family.”
Searching for identity
But outsiders’ comments caused her to wonder. She already recognized she was different — a blonde in a dark-haired family.
Then, starting school at age 8, a girl said Edith’s “mother” wasn’t really her mother, which confused her. Other people pointed at her, saying, “She’s one of those!”
Her family reassured her. Still Edith wanted to know who she was.
“I was a good snooper,” Sister Justina said. “Once when Joseph and Rose were gone I found papers in a drawer, papers that gave me answers.”
She’d found indenture papers that John and Mary Bieganek had received stating she was born in New York. That puzzled her — how did she end up in Minnesota if she was born in New York?
Though she hadn’t been a very good student — feeling different, not knowing who she was — and she had started school late because of taking another year off to help on the farm, she still asked Joseph if she could attend high school.
“He said I could go, but only to St. Francis High School in Little Falls. He wanted me to be safe in all respects,” she recalled.
At 17, she began high school, an outsider to many girls because she was older and not very sociable. Her pastor, Father Stan Goryczka, encouraged her to consider the convent.
“After the last day of school, I hadn’t yet gone home for the summer. Sister Gabriel Bloch, the head novice mistress, explained how it was to be a sister. I knew marriage wasn’t for me, so I thought about it. I joined St. Francis Convent the very next day.”
When she accepted the invitation and walked through the convent door at 2 p.m. June 2, 1929, she said, “I felt I was at home and became Sister Mary Justina.”
That same year, the orphan trains stopped running.
Of all her assignments, she enjoyed being a religious education teacher and her sacristy work the most. She also treasured her time at St. Francis Music Center and at St. Cloud Children’s Home.
‘I am a person’
Though Sister Justina found fulfillment in the sisterhood, the lack of information about her past troubled her. In 1969, with permission from her community, she went to the New York Foundling Hospital, then celebrating its 100th anniversary, to research her birth information.
She sat for hours, copying every single thing about herself: she was named Jeanne Edith Peterson; her father, sailor Magnus Peterson, had died six months before her birth; her mother, Rebecca Schmidt Peterson, was a Norwegian immigrant unable to care for her child, and she had brought her baby to the orphanage at 3 weeks old.
It was the most satisfying experience of her entire life, Sister Justina told her sisters when she returned to her convent. “I could now say ‘I am a person with a history.’ The birth certificate gave me identity. I had a real name, parents, a nationality. It was a thrill to see my mother’s signature.”
Connecting with other orphan train riders
Riders of the orphan trains organized reunions starting in 1960, and some urged her to come. At the 11th gathering, in 1971, Sister Justina finally did.
“It was very healing, and I wondered why I hadn’t attended earlier. I invited them to St. Francis, and reunions since then have often been here,” she said.
Sister Justina sees orphan trains as a blessing, saving the life of each child and giving them the chance to grow up in a decent atmosphere instead of in New York, overcrowded with poor immigrants struggling to survive.
Her personal mission has become encouraging orphan gatherings and stories so the history can be told. For her work, Sister Justina was presented a proclamation by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who declared June 19, 2010, as Orphan Train Riders Recognition Day.
What had once been a stigma in her life has become the mission she is most proud of.
Orphan trains had noble purpose, but riders often faced tough lives
By Nikki Rajala
Orphan trains from 1854 through 1929 transported more than 200,000 children from poverty in New York to places across the United States. This social experiment was the largest mass migration of children in the world.
Yet it doesn’t even rate one sentence in most history books, and that’s disgraceful, said Franciscan Sister Justina Bieganek of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls on her DVD “An Orphan Train Story.” As an orphan train rider to Avon before she was 2.
According to “The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America” by Marilyn Irvin Holt, conditions for children in New York in the 1850s and later were often dire: The city was unprepared for massive immigration, and disease was rampant in crowded tenement housing with nonexistent sanitation. The death of one parent often pushed children to the streets, searching garbage for food and sleeping in doorways, cardboard boxes or parks. Thousands of vagrant children turned to crime.
Charles Loring Brace, founder of the New York Children’s Aid Society in 1853, envisioned “placing out” destitute older children across the United States, where they might have fresh air, decent food and loving families, or at least the opportunity to work and develop skills to support themselves.
In 1869, the Sisters of Charity founded the New York Foundling Hospital to save younger children from birth to age six, but it became overcrowded by 1873.
Their indenture system offered opportunities for prospective parents to specify age, gender and other characteristics of a child but also required parents to clothe, educate and provide for the child until the age of 18. The New York Foundling Hospital and the Children’s Aid Society were the two largest agencies placing out children to the West.
For 75 years, many found loving homes and contributed to society as productive citizens. One even became North Dakota’s second governor.
But it wasn’t always a good experience. Some felt ripped from the life they knew and were forced into a life of secrecy, shame and punishing hard work.
Trains stopped in towns and orphans were publicly inspected for suitability — prodded and poked to determine their age, health and strength, much like a slave auction. Children were often separated from siblings and friends.
An orphan’s life was not easy, Sister Justina said. Pointed out as “one of those,” and thus denied playmates, orphan train children often felt anger, resentment and loneliness. Secrecy caused many to believe they were the only orphan in the world. Many orphans would be troubled throughout their lives not knowing their real name, nationality, mother or father, birth date and a host of other things.
Many, like Sister Justina, were never legally adopted — her family considered her indenture papers as adoption papers, but when she needed a passport to travel to the Holy Land, she found her name was not legally Bieganek. Further identity difficulties arose with Social Security.
The last orphan train placed out children in 1929. By that time, better social programs were developed by the Children’s Aid Society, New York Foundling Hospital and other agencies to take care of orphaned children.
Reunion draws seven train riders to Little Falls
By Nikki Rajala
Though orphans often felt a stigma growing up not being a part of blood families, they were stars at the 50th reunion of Orphan Train Riders of New York Oct. 2 at St. Francis Center in Little Falls.
The reunion drew seven riders, including one from Phoenix, Ariz., and 150 family members, friends and others. Some 11 riders remain in Minnesota, all in their 90s.
The day’s highlight was the “orations” of six riders, who shared their life stories, posed for photos and autographed books.
Pippa White of Lincoln, Neb., performed “The Story of the Orphan Train,” a one-woman presentation depicting the diverse experiences of eight riders and a mother whose child became an orphan train rider.
Rep. James Oberstar, a Minnesota congressman and adoptive parent, said today’s social welfare system — including child labor laws, school lunch programs and adoption practices — owes a debt of gratitude to the experiences of orphan train riders.
A representative from New York Foundling, Stephanie Sherga, described current agency services and encouraged attendees to contact her for records and research assistance.
Participants chatted with orphan train riders and their descendents, perused scrapbooks, scanned lists of names, identified people on photos and snapped dozens more. The reunion ended with a pictorial history of orphan train history by Joyce LaVoie.