Mr. Al, a 100-year-old live oak
(see related story, pg. 12)
Between the years 1854 and 1929, as a means to eliminate overcrowding at the Catholic-run New York Foundling Hospital, more than 150,000 orphans were sent via train across the United States. Accompanied by nuns and with numbers pinned to their clothes, the orphans traveled to new adoptive homes without an inkling of what lay ahead of them. Approximately 2,000 of these children wound up in Evangeline and St. Landry parishes. The adoption program, initiated by the hospital that was run by Elizabeth Seton’s Sisters of Charity, eventually became known as the Orphan Train. It was the first foster care program in the United States.
According to a report by William Johnson in the (Opelousas) Daily Word, the overcrowding in the hospital was a direct result of the influx of poverty-stricken immigrants pouring into the Big Apple. The deluge of orphaned children occurred during a time period that included Ireland’s Great Potato Famine and the Civil War and lasted all the way through to the Depression. Records from the National Orphan Train Society indicate that many of the children were sent to rural families simply to work as farmhands. Those sent to Louisiana received the characteristic beneficence of the Bayou State — all were adopted and became official members of the family. The Archbishop of New Orleans coordinated their arrival in Louisiana.
Local Orphan Train Society President Harold Dupre told the Daily Word that Father John Engberink, who was a priest at St. Landry Catholic Church when the orphans first began to arrive, called upon his flock to receive the orphans in charity.
“Our orphans were pre-placed, the parents pre-screened,” said Dupre.
In Louisiana, the children were apparently placed in loving homes.
For several years, the society has been fighting to establish a local chapter of the Orphan Train Museum. Flo Inhern, society historian, has been a staunch fighter to achieve this end. According to Inhern, one of her husband’s ancestors was a train orphan, and though she doesn’t know exactly how many children came to Louisiana, she has found records of at least 100.
Dupre, Inhern and other society members recently saw the successful culmination of a long campaign: the establishment of an Orphan Train Society museum in the Opelousas area will take place in the not-so-distant future.
“We have been working towards this day for seven years, through three mayors,” Inhern reported to the Daily Word.
As outlined in the recently signed lease agreement between the city and the society, the Orphan Train Society will pay $1 a year for the use of the old Union Pacific Depot in Le Vieux Village. Through the combined funding of $400,000 from the Department of Transportation and Development with $100,000 from the Department of Natural Resources, Opelousas has the green light to refurbish the old depot that will house multitudes of artifacts and collections. The collections will tell the poignant, heartbreaking story of the helpless and frightened. Through the kindness of Louisianians, some of them luckily found a soft place in which to fall.
Saving Mr. Al
According to Linda Meaux of the Acadiana Gazette, members of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development were all “axe-ing” for Mr. Al in Iberia Parish last autumn. Mr. Al, an exquisite 100-year-old live oak that spreads its branches in arboreal wonder near the U.S. Highway 90 right of way in Iberia Parish, was slated to be felled by the DOTD. Several –– nay, hundreds –– of outraged citizens banded together, all for the love of Mr. Al: Mayor Hilda Curry, Wild Birds Unlimited, Bob’s Tree Preservation, civic groups; heck, even the Girl Scouts of Lafayette staged an unending protest against the tree’s destruction. Unrepresented in their chagrin, but no less overlooked, were the countless squirrels, mockingbirds and other critters who frolicked, took sustenance and sang amid the gnarled beauty of Mr. Al’s leafy branches. New Iberia’s Optimist’s Club sent petitions to Gov. Jindal begging for any alternative that would keep Mr. Al standing.
Kelli Peltier, who lives near the tree, started the movement when she learned it was to be destroyed for the construction of a service road. The tree had recently been inducted into the Live Oak Society by grace of a trunk circumference of 20 feet and a tree canopy that casts graceful shadows for more 104 feet. It was named in honor of Peltier’s grandfather, Al Jolet.
DOTD proved that it, in fact, had no axe to grind. Gordon E. Nelson, assistant secretary of operations, announced the following: “… to save the tree, we will leave the oak tree as it is and construct a cul-de-sac at the end of the service road and leave the tree in the middle … and not disturb the tree.”
Optimist Club President Susan Hester Edmunds thanked the DOTD for relenting. She described trees as “partners in protecting us from hurricane winds and creating a beautiful and unique landscape that draws in people from all over the world.”
Adds Peltier, “I’m amazed to see the amount of people that will stand up for a tree!”