An air of reverence surrounds Alice Bernard as she enters the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum in Opelousas. Escorted by her daughter, Connie, and son, Ryan, she walks slowly and gracefully into the building’s reception area where a small crowd gathers to greet her. She looks up and smiles, her eyes twinkling. In that moment, arms are extended and kisses are exchanged. It’s as if Lady Liberty herself has entered the building, and in many ways she has.
More than 90 guests from around Acadiana have converged on the museum for its annual reunion of Orphan Train rider descendants. In the hours ahead, the guests will pay tribute to their parents, grandparents and extended family members who came to Louisiana as orphans from the New York Foundling Hospital, some more than a century ago. Bernard is their guest of honor – and for good reason, too. At 95 she is believed to be the last surviving Orphan Train rider, our country’s final link to thousands of children who made the 1,400-mile railroad journey that many believe was the birth of adoption in America.
“My adoptive mother was strict, very strict,” Bernard recalls. “I was taken in as a servant until I was 14, and then my daddy, who was very loving, adopted me. If my adoptive parents had died before I was 14, I don’t know what would’ve happened to me.”
From 1873 to 1929 the Foundling Hospital’s administrators, the Sisters of Charity and the Children’s Aid Society brought orphaned children from New York City by train to Louisiana and beyond where they would be placed with Catholic foster parents who were married. Most Orphan Train riders were between 3 and 6 years old and typically the children of European immigrants; few ever knew their birthparents.
A Childhood of Challenges
Foster parents who brought Orphan Train children into their homes had to promise the Foundling Hospital to give their new children at least a sixth grade education. When most orphans were not in school, however, they worked in their foster homes as indentured servants. Bernard, who came to Opelousas in 1919 at the age of 2, was one of the few Orphan Train riders who went from being an indentured servant to a legally adopted member of the family. With a laugh, she recalls having to clean the house every morning before she left for school, which invariably made her late for class.
Despite their indentured status in their foster homes, the orphans were not without advocates. Each year either a nun from the Sisters of Charity or an agent appointed by the Foundling Hospital paid a visit to the foster homes to check in on the orphans, a practice that continued until the orphan was between 13 and 21 years old.
“Before the Orphan Train system, orphaned children were never checked on,” says Harold Dupre, president of the Louisiana Orphan Train Society and son of Orphan Train rider George Thompson. “If you did well, good for you; if you didn’t, that was too bad. There were three trains that dropped children off here in Opelousas in 1907, and the last brought two of those children back to the Foundling Hospital because the agents believed they were not being treated properly by their foster parents.”
Bernard remembers these visits well.
“Every year until I was legally adopted, there was a woman, a social worker, who would come to the house to check on me to see how I was doing,” she recalls. “This was in the 1920s when they wore long dresses. She would make like she was going to take me away, and I would hold onto my adoptive mother’s dress. I was about 9 years old. I didn’t want to leave.”
In Louisiana, many orphans found it difficult to adjust to Acadiana’s French-speaking culture and rural setting. At first, none of them understood the language, and few, if any, had ever been on a farm. Some orphans were frightened by the farm animals.
But the challenges the orphans faced at home were minor compared to those they met in the schoolyard. Margaret Briley, daughter of Orphan Train rider John Brown, says being an adopted child in early-20th-century Louisiana was “a hush-hush deal.”
“Being from New York was a big stigma in those years,” Briley says. “When the orphaned children from New York went to school, they were laughed at. They were told: ‘Your mother gave you away like a cat or a dog. Y’all from New York, and we can’t play with you Yankees.’ Some of the Orphan Train riders had rough lives; some had good lives – not that they were mistreated by their foster parents, but things were tough for them at times.”
The Bittersweet Search for Identity
For many Orphan Train riders, the tough times did not end in childhood. Most of them entered adulthood with unanswered questions about their own identities and the primal need to discover information about their birthparents. Many orphans wrote to the Foundling Hospital to get their birth records, but their requests were often rejected. Instead, hospital officials in effect told their former orphans to forget about their pasts and to be happy with the lives they were given.
Still, many orphans persisted in tracking down their birthparents; some even succeeded. In 1962, the Foundling Hospital sent John Brown his birth certificate and baptismal certificate, which contained the name of his mother, Mary Brown, and his father, Nicholas Schmidt. It was a rare stroke of luck. Most Orphan Train riders went to their graves knowing little to nothing about who they were. Florella Inhern, secretary, treasurer and archivist of the Louisiana Orphan Train Society, says her father-in-law, Aloysius Inhern Sr., wrote to the Foundling Hospital many times in his adulthood to inquire if he was a United States citizen and to get the names of his birthparents. None of his letters was answered. He did not know the name of his birth mother until the day before he died at the age of 82.
“My father-in-law was in a coma,” Florella Inhern recalls. “They say the hearing is the last thing you lose before you die. His daughter was living at the time, and she received the document that had the name of his birth mother, Margaret Brown. When she told him, the tears ran down his cheek. So he went to heaven knowing the name of his mother.”
At the time of his arrival in Louisiana, Aloysius Inhern’s foster parents, Mark and Elena Vidrine, had been married for 10 years with no children. After they took young Aloysius into their home, they had five sons.
Members of Acadiana Society
The challenges the Orphan Train riders faced throughout their lives were many. Most of the orphans overcame them. Like all successful people, they put the past behind them and carried on, often in extraordinary ways.
Frank Lipari was the quintessential self-made man. An Orphan Train rider who came to Opelousas in 1907 at the age of 2, Lipari quit school in the sixth grade, got a job as a newsboy and never looked back.
“My father was a go-getter,” says Lucien Lipari, a board member of the Louisiana Orphan Train Society. “He didn’t speak pretty English and all that. But he got to know people, and they got to know him.”
After working jobs as a delivery boy at the Railway Express Agency and then as a candy-maker, Lipari got a job as an insurance salesman for Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. in Opelousas and remained with the firm for 42 years. Lipari worked his own hours; made many important friends and contacts; and used his spare time to organize Opelousas’ first Cub Scout Troop, its first Sea Scout Troop (a boating arm of the Boy Scouts) and the town’s first softball league.
A devout Catholic, Lipari also raised money to build a chapel hospital at St. Landry’s Church in Opelousas and became the town’s first Italian-American to be admitted to its Knights of Columbus Council. Lipari spent 10 years as the council’s treasurer after which he was appointed grand knight. Soon thereafter, his fellow knights appointed him district deputy, a role that enabled him to establish local Knights of Columbus councils around Acadiana. For his efforts, Lipari was named state council secretary of the Knights of Columbus. In 1953, Pope Pius the XII appointed Lipari a knight of St. Gregory.
The Orphan Train system ended in 1929 after a federal law was passed prohibiting the interstate placement of children in foster homes. By that time, a more modern form of adoption had taken root in America. Dupre says the orphans who were adopted in the years following the demise of the Orphan Train system probably fared better, too.
“An estimated 300,000 children were sent out West,” Dupre says. “In fact, every state in the nation received some orphans. You won’t find anything about these orphans in the history books. It’s not there; it’s a lost part of history.”
Members of the Louisiana Orphan Train Society can get guidance in obtaining records and information from the New York Foundling (www.nyfoundling.org).