‘Our hip, cool nun’

96-year-old Little Falls woman is one of the last Orphan Train survivors

Photo by Lisa Peterson De La Cueva.

She stood in the entryway of the Franciscan Sisters Convent in Little Falls. Sister Justina Bieganek looked like a statue in an expectant pose, as much a part of the vestibule as the ridges along the stone vaulted ceiling.

Then she broke the stillness with a giggle, and didn’t stop moving for the next five hours. She traipsed up a small flight of stairs, each sure step belying her 96 years. We landed in a private meeting room where she had laid out neat stacks of memorabilia on a Formica table, among them a three-ring binder labeled “Our Hip, Cool Nun.”

Before we began our interview, Sister Justina asked me to write down my name. “Oh!” she cried. She raised both hands over her mouth, her eyes crinkling in girlish pleasure. “Oh, congratulations! Oh, my dear!” Barely able to speak through her excitement, she cupped her hands around mine and nearly whispered, “Peterson was Edith’s name too!”

Edith Peterson was Sister Justina’s birth name. Little Edith was just 22 months old when she was plucked from a New York City orphanage. The number 41 was tucked under the hem of her toddler-sized dress, and she was put on a train bound for a sleepy Midwestern town.

It would be 57 years before Sister Justina found out her birth name and learned why her mother abandoned her in a basket outside an orphanage.

The birth of foster care
Edith Peterson was born on January 16, 1912, to a Norwegian immigrant mother. Her New York-born father, a seaman, died just before her birth and left Edith’s mother and older sibling without income. Three weeks after Edith was born, her mother found her way to the New York Foundling Hospital, where it was reputed the Sisters of Charity took in children. So many orphans were abandoned there that the nuns finally left a bassinet outside its doors with a sensor to alert them when a child arrived.

Nearly two years later, Edith Peterson became one of between 150,000 and 250,000 children (either orphans or whose parents could not care for them) who were shipped on trains from the East Coast to other parts of the United States. The “Orphan Trains,” which ran between 1854 and 1929, were one of the largest social welfare experiments in American history.

It was situations like Edith’s that worried Charles Loring Brace, a Calvinist minister in New York. By the mid 1800s, New York City was teeming with thousands of immigrant children who were forced to fend for themselves under squalid living conditions. So affected by what he saw, Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society, which began the Orphan Train experiment.

According to Stephanie Haiar, curator of the National Orphan Train Complex, 3,258 orphans came to Minnesota through the Children’s Aid Society between 1854 and 1910. The overall figure, she said, “is probably at least four or five thousand, if you figure in all the other organizations and the remaining 19 years of the program.”

Two new families
In 1913 John and Mary Bieganek, Polish-American farmers with eight grown male children, arrived at the train station in Avon, Minn., to pick up their mail-order orphan. John Bieganek later told Edith that she toddled off the train and walked straight into the arms of the farmer, who had in his hands a receipt with the number 41, the same number sewn into the hem of Edith’s dress.

Edith Peterson thus became Edith Bieganek, daughter of John and Mary. Sort of.

Along with the child, the Bieganeks received a document that read “Indenture.” The system of adoption and indenture was ambiguous for many Orphan Train riders because the program was in large part a response to an evolving social crisis.

The Bieganeks treated Edith like a daughter until two years later, when Mary died of cancer at age 49. She left 4-year-old Edith behind in a family of grown men who didn’t quite know how to care for her.

“These boys, they didn’t know what to do with me!” Sister Justina said. “[My brother] Walter took it upon himself to change my clothes and put me to bed, and just take care of me.”

While her brothers and father were affectionate, they didn’t provide much structure. In fact they didn’t think to enroll Edith in school until age 8, when her brother Joseph married a second-generation Polish woman who became Edith’s third and final mother.

“As parents they were absolutely impeccable,” Sister Justina said. “They were both good, good people. But you know, he was my brother, and now all of a sudden I had to call him ‘father,’ and I had to call her ‘mother.’ She insisted I not call her Rose.” The tension furthered when Rose spoke exclusively to her husband in Polish and forced Edith to learn the language too. Rose and Joseph eventually had 13 children, which forced Edith into a caretaker role. She became an expert babysitter whose parents depended on her to help raise the younger children.

At age 16 Edith left her home for a boarding school run by the Franciscan Sisters in Little Falls. She was immediately drawn to the order, structure and routine. As soon as she arrived, Sister Justina said, “I thought somehow, ‘I wish this were my home.'”

Four months after entering school Edith decided to become a Franciscan nun. A few years later she got her third name when she became Sister Justina Bieganek.

Finally, an identity
“I always had this nagging feeling of ‘Where is my mother? How come I don’t have a mother?’ I had a lot of [anger].”

In 1969 she went to the New York Foundling Hospital. Combing through hordes of microfiche files, she wrote down verbatim the information she found on her birth certificate and other documents; it was information that soothed her anger.

“You’re living in a vacuum because you don’t know who you are. After ’69 I started to breathe. I suddenly knew who I was,” she said. Sister Justina began to tell her story to journalists, historians, school groups and other Orphan Train riders.

She will do so again on Oct. 18 when the St. Francis Convent holds its 48th Annual Orphan Train Rider meeting. In past reunions, there have been as many as 40 participants and as few as six. As this year’s reunion approaches, many riders and family members know the drill. They come armed with photos and documents and swap stories while an occasional historian or writer tags along.

“When we get to our reunions, people tell stories of being viewed, which was very traumatic,” Sister Justina explained. “Sometimes an adult would come up to an orphan and reach their hands into their mouth and check their teeth. … So [the riders] will tell stories about that …”

As she spoke, she flipped through her photo album. She picked out a picture taken at an Orphan Train reunion of herself and another rider from Woodbury. The picture of the two elderly women has a label with tidy typewriter font taped to the back in yellowed scotch tape.

It reads, “Ann Shrankler came to visit me in 2004. She told me, ‘Now I can die in peace! I met one other orphan who shared my experience as an orphan. And now you are my sister.'”

Sister Justina looked up from the picture and smiled while shrugging her shoulders. “There were many of us, and then there were fewer of us, and soon there will be none.”

About the Orphan Trains
An estimated 150,000 to 250,000 children were transported across the U.S. via “Orphan Trains” to new families between 1854 and 1929. Domestic abuse, industrialization and the large influx of immigrants contributed to the need to find homes for children. The system is still considered by many as the forerunner of modern foster care.

It was a controversial system. Some children found loving homes-others were used as cheap labor. The children were transported by train and paraded in front of potential families, where they were inspected as specimens-their teeth checked and muscle tone prodded. Some families wanted to adopt only one or two children, so siblings were often separated. Some of the children were passed from family to family, and it was not uncommon for them to run away from abusive families.

Laws to regulate interstate placement of children began to appear in 1887, although the Orphan Trains continued to run up until the Great Depression. Its peak years were from 1890 to 1900, with the program gradually tapering off after that. A variety of factors contributed to the end of the program, including the Great Depression, improved living conditions in New York City and refusal by the Midwestern states to accept children. Partly as a result of the Orphan Trains, today’s foster care system emphasizes the placement of siblings together with biological families, or at least in the same area.

The nonprofit National Orphan Train Complex, Inc., maintains a physical museum in Concordia, Kansas, and provides educational resources and a speaker’s bureau. Find its rich array of resources online at www.orphantraindepot.com.