St. Paul Pioneer Press (MN)
BLESS OUR HOME//ST. JOSEPH'S
ORPHANAGE, RUN BY BENEDICTINE NUNS
FOR MORE THAN 100 YEARS, FINALLY
CLOSED ITS DOORS IN THE 1960S. BUT
THOSE WHO GREW UP THERE REMEMBER
July 16, 1994
Edition: Metro Final
BYLINE: Don Boxmeyer, Staff Columnist
Illustration: 4 Photos: Pioneer Press Photos
1) Sister Malvina drove her charges around the grounds of St. Joseph's orphanage in June of 1954. A local man gave the ponies - Kelly and Cuba - and cart to the orphanage.
2) 2) The red brick orphanage was five stories tall, with a high gabled front decorated with dormers. The structure gave offan aura of invulnerability, and was the only home many orphans knew.
3) The sisters and children worked in the firleds together to gather potatoes in this photo taken in 1950.
4) Dorothy Hodges
While I was growing up on the West End of St. Paul, I'd often go up the hill to my grandfather's home in Highland Park, right across Warwick Street from the mysterious, big, red-brick palace full of young children. Whoever lived in that castle, I thought, had to be the luckiest kids in the world. They had horses to ride, and orchards, stone barns and huge fields to play in.
At about the same time, one of the kids who lived in that castle was looking out of her world. How lucky the kids were on the outside, Paula Gonzalez thought. They actually had real homes to live in, with their mothers and fathers right there with them.
"I'd look across the street and think, 'Oh, gee, if only I could be there,"" Paula recalls, almost five decades later. She lived at St. Joseph's Orphanage at Randolph and Warwick from 1941 to 1949, along with her two sisters and brother. More than 3,500 children would live at "St. Joe's" in an era when the orphanage was the only refuge for children from bad, broken or no homes.
Many non-Catholic children lived there over a period of years and many children who were not even orphans. There were children whose mothers were sick with TB, with cancer, and whose fathers could not care for them. The Gonzalez kids were not orphans. Their mother had died and their father went away to World War II, leaving them in the care of the orphanage.
"It was the only home I knew," says Paula. "I went there when I was only 1 ½ years old, and I called the nuns "Mommy."
There was Sister Evangeline, after whom Paula would name her daughter, and Sister Marsha, who taught first grade at St. Joe's and was "really sweet." There was Sister Mercedes, a tiny, dark-haired woman, and Sister Mabel, the nun who "I got my lickings from. She was tough."
The Sisters of St. Benedict cared for orphaned and neglected children of St. Paul for 112 years, at St. Joseph's Orphanages in both St. Paul and in south Minneapolis. This year, the Catholic Charities honored the sisters for their work, which had its roots with the Assumption parish in 1869 as the "direct result of the vicissitudes of pioneer life, several Indian massacres, the Civil War and epidemics which deprived children of parental care," according to a history of the orphanages written by Sr. Claire Lynch, the first principal of Archbishop Brady High School.
The need in St. Paul for a large orphanage outgrew several smaller downtown locations, and St. Joseph's in Highland Park was completed on a 47-acre tract of open land in 1900, a tract the orphanage would later share with Cretin High School. The orphanage was a baronial five-story fortress with a high gabled front decorated with dormers, blind arcades and a squat central pinnacle atop which was a modest cross. A wide concrete stairway led to the columned portico at second-floor level, giving the structure an aura of invulnerability and dour fortitude. The building was the epitome of 19th century institutional severity. "It was just like a palace to me," says Dorothy Hodges of Inver Grove Heights, who went to live there in 1940 with her five brothers and sisters when the marriage of their parents dissolved. Dorothy would live at St. Joseph's until she was 11, about the maximum age for children at the home.
Dorothy never felt that she was missing anything in life, not even her own special day. Everyone's birthday was celebrated on the same day, and there'd be a cupcake on each dinner plate along with one nickel.
"The orphanage taught us how to work, how to worship. It taught us discipline, and for my brothers and sisters and me, it was for the best at the time. When I'd tell my children about how tough things could be in the orphanage, they'd roll their eyes and say things just aren't like that in the modern world."
Girls and boys were segregated in the building, sleeping on different floors, playing in separate play areas, working at their chores apart and even eating at different ends of the dining hall. Paula says she and her sisters got to see their brother, Victor, only in passing at mealtime.
Playrooms, classrooms, dining rooms, the chapel, the nuns' living quarters and the girls' dormitory occupied the lower floors, and the boys' dormitory was in the attic, or the fifth floor, in a space that was bleak and barren. During thunderstorms, the sisters would get the boys out of bed and have then kneel in a circle around a lighted candle to pray the Rosary, which was an unforgettable experience, some children recalled. And the sisters, ever frugal, would keep the wax that dripped from the candles, melt it, and the children would use it to wax the floors.
The population at the home went as high as 283 children in 1923, and sisters literally operated the place on a shoestring - the annual operating budget never exceeded $36,000 - because most of the food was raised or grown in the fields surrounding the orphanage. Vegetables picked in summer and fall were canned or buried in wet sand and used all winter.
"We'd go out in the fields and pick corn, tomatoes, onions and dig potatoes," Paula recalls. "We had an orchard and always had a big box of apples in our classrooms. Whenever we went out for recess, we had to eat at least three apples. Sometimes they'd be a little shriveled up, but we ate as many as we were told to eat."
The orphanage raised chickens, and even had a dairy herd until the early 1930s, when the neighbors began complaining about livestock noise and odors. A team of cart-pulling ponies given as a gift, however, were kept at the orphanage for many years.
The sister orphanage in south Minneapolis operated much the same way, and two of the inhabitants of that institution were brothers Frank and Pat Marcogliese, who are now in their 80s and live in St. Paul. When they were children living on the Levee in St. Paul, their mother became ill and was hospitalized at St. Peter. Their father could not care for them, so they wound up in the Minneapolis orphanage.
Pat was only 6 years old and remembers that, even at that age, he was expected to help in the fields by pulling weeds or picking bugs off potato plants. When the orphanage's chickens were laying, the kids each got one Sunday morning egg, hard-boiled. But usually the morning meal was "mush," Pat recalls.
"The nuns would lick you if you didn't eat the mush, but I couldn't eat it and wouldn't eat it, so I got licked. Finally, they got tired of licking me and let me alone. I was a terrible kid, just awful, and I deserved every single licking I got."
The routine was much the same in St. Paul, Paula says. Oatmeal (into which was mixed cod liver oil) for breakfast all year long, and maybe once or twice a year the kids got an egg.
"This sounds strange, but I was happy when I was there," says Paula. "and I didn't want to leave. It was my home, and once, after our father came home from war, we did leave for a short time, but because where we lived wasn't so nice, we went back to the orphanage.
"We didn't think we were missing out on too much by being in an orphanage. We actually had more opportunities than other kids to go places and see things. We went to Highland pool to swim, we went on picnics, to Excelsior amusement park. We went to see Gene Autry once and to the Ice Capades. We really had it all, much more than if we had not been there."
When she was 11 years old, Paula was released from the orphanage and went to live with her father permanently. She wanted to go to a Catholic school, but he couldn't afford to send her there, so she went to a public school, where she felt lost and confused. The adjustment for Paula was long and difficult.
At its busiest, almost 300 children lived at the orphanage, but by 1960, only 54 children were left there. Society by then had found alternatives to orphanages as long-term refuges for children. Foster homes were becoming more popular.
(Interestingly enough, the foster home system is being reconsidered in some places as reports of child abuse escalate. The archaic orphanage concept, experts such as medical ethicist Dr. Arthur Caplan have recently suggested, may not be as terrible as once thought).
There'd also been a fire at St. Joseph's Orphanage in 1955, and the city came down hard on several hazards which would have been extremely expensive to correct. The decision was made to close the institution, and the building that had been home to more than 3,500 children was demolished in 1960. An apartment building and Derham Hall High School were built on the land.
Years later, Paula's last name would become Murphy, and marriage would change Dorothy's last name from Auge to Hodges, and the two girls who grew up together in an orphanage would go to high school together. They now work together at the Gillette company in St. Paul.
"I only wish that the building would still be there," says Dorothy, "so that I could have shown it to my children. The only thing that makes me sorry about where I grew up is that it's no longer there."
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