Orphan Trains: Minnesota


A carload of babies for adoption by Catholic families in the West was sent out last week from an Orphan Asylum conducted by the Sisters of Charity in New York.  Forty-five of the sixty-five babies found foster parents in Minnesota.  The ease in which suitable orphans speaks volumes for the charity of our people.  It shows that there are many Catholic families in the state willing to adopt children, and give them all the  advantages of a home.
While we have no intention of discouraging those who may be planning to take a child from the Orphans Home, we suggest that, before communicating with those in charge, they assure themselves that they cannot be supplied with one nearer home.
In St Paul and Minneapolis, for example, there are three orphan asylums conducted by Sisters, and in other towns of the state there are Catholic children who have been deprived of their natural guardians.  Very often it happens that these institutions have boys and girls for whom suitable homes in Catholic families are desired and there is no reason why preference should not be given to them by the Catholics of Minnesota and of the Northwest.  Even if the dioceasan orphanages cannot supply the demand made upon them by families anxious to adopt children, it does not necessarily follow that applications must be made to orphanages in the East.
Frequently priests and others who are interested in social work know of children for whom suitable homes are desired, and they would be glad to get in touch with people who may wish to adopt a child.   If your pastor cannot help you in this matter, why not make an application to the City Missionary of St Paul or Minneapolis who may be
able to help you in this matter. Write to the Rev. L.F. Ryan, 239 Selby Avenue
St Paul, Minnesota or to the Rev. M.A. McGrath, 1623 Laurel Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota – who will gladly aid you in your laudable and charitable purpose.

St Cloud Visitor
Sept 27, 1979
Peterson, the child of a Norwegian mother and came to Minnesota in an
Orphan Train in 1912, the year she was born.  Her new parents were Mary and
John Bieganek of Polish descent.  They brought her into their home as their ninth
child, but her new mother These Minnesota Reunions began through the efforts of two orphans: Mrs Mary Buscher of Breckenridge and Mrs. J.B. Lenzmeier of Wahpeton North Dakota, who discovered each other Sister Justina was born Edith Peterson, the child of a Norwegian mother and came to Minnesota in an Orphan Train in 1912,
the year she was born.  Her new parents were Mary and John Bieganek of Polish
descent.  They brought her into their home as their ninth child, but her new mother These Minnesota Reunions began through the efforts of two orphans:
Mrs Mary Buscher of Breckenridge and Mrs. J.B. Lenzmeier of Wahpeton North
Dakota, who discovered each other through an article in a local newspaper.
They were able to make contact with a few others and to begin the yearly meetings which have grown each year as more of the orphans become aware of the organization.
Guy DeLeo came for the first time this year, only learning about the group a
week before the reunion.  Many want to get together more often than once a year.
Mrs. Carmella Keaveny, the parish housekeeper for Father Robert Schmainda in Tintah, Minn., has invited the orphans to come to Tintah on October 28 for a day together, which will begin with 10:30 Mass.  She will be assisted by Father Schmainda’s mother from Avon Minn., who is also an orphan from New York Foundling Hospital.  All “Orphan
Train” orphans are invited to attend whether or not they have ever been to a meeting before.

Helen Schmainda is the orphan and mother of
Father Schmainda

By Anna Remper – Daily News Intern – Daily News, Wahpeton, ND  August 3, 2009
A train whistle blowing to most people may be a disturbance, but for a rider on the
Orphan Train it can resurface personal memories.
Jeanne Putnam, an aftercare coordinator at Joseph Vertin and Sons Funeral
Home, said whenever her mother heard a train whistle, she  felt like she had to
get on the train.  Putnam’s mother, Carmella Keaveny, nee Schend, was a rider
on the Orphan Train.
“We were talking about adoption one day at work and I brought up the Orphan
Train and almost no one had heard of it,” Putnam said.
Countless trains carried orphaned children from New York and Boston across
forty-seven states and Canada between the years of 1854 and 1929.  An
estimated 200,000 orphans were “placed out” during the Orphan Train Movement.
Carmella Keaveny was born Carmela Caputo to a 30-year-old Italian immigrant
in New York City in 1912. The actual date of her birth was never clarified, some
documents read April 6 and others read April 16, said Putnam.
“She never knew which day was her birthday so we had two birthdays for her,”
Putnam said.
Carmella’s biological mother left her in the care of what is known as the New
York Foundling Hospital (NYFH), just ten days after birth.  The Sisters of Charity of
St. Vincent ran the NYFH and placed the children into Catholic families.
It was customary for a priest from the NYFH to visit Catholic communities before
the arrival of the train and scout the interest of families adopting another child.  In
1914 a NYFH priest visited St. Gall’s Catholic Church in Tintah, Minn and was put
in contact with a couple, Peter and Mary Schend, who had lost their baby not long
after their marriage.  When Carmella arrived on June 14, 1914, it became an
occasion for the whole town.
“The whole town was at the train station for my mother’s arrival.  She was
two-and-a-half years old when she made the journey from New York to Tintah,”
Putnam said.  ‘She was so sick when she arrived.  She had contracted
pneumonia on the train.”
One of the first members of the community who came to congratulate the
Schend’s was  Ellen Keaveny, who later became Carmella’s mother-in-law.
Although Carmella was placed in the Schend home in 1914 she wasn’t legally
adopted until Dec. 9, 1922, said Putnam.  An agent from the NYFH would perform
follow up visits to check on the family to ensure the welfare of the placed child.
“There were so many children on the trains, it’s hard to believe all of these visits
happened,” Putnam said.
Carmella began her education at the local Catholic school and went on to be a
teacher.  Not all of the children were placed in homes that were concerned about
“My mother knew she was fortunate to be in such a loving home.   Some of the
older children were selected by families because they could work on the farm,”
Putnam said.
Later; Carmella with the help of two other Orphan Train survivors, Mary Buscher
and Marie Lenzmeier, started the Orphan Train Reunion. The event still goes on
today in Little Falls, Minn. “We go every year, the children of the survivors are
taking over the reunions.”
One fellow survivor, 96 year old Sister Justina Bieganek, annually hosts the
In 1933 Carmella married Ray Keaveny and continued to live in Tinah.
Carmella Keaveny’s memories of the Orphan Train are also documented in a
book, “By Train They Came”, by Charlotte Endorf and Sarah M. Endorf.

Star Tribune July 31, 1994 | Variety

Desperate families put kids on Orphan Trains
Q: I understand that for several years trains from New York carrying orphans would stop at various Minnesota towns where couples would pick out children to take home and raise.  I was told that the term “up for adoption” came from the practice of putting the children up on the station platform for the prospective parents to view.  Why did this happen?  Who ran these  trains and what happened to these adopted children?
A: The Orphan Trains, as they were called, ran from 1854 to 1929.

One of those Orphan Train riders, now a nun at St Francis Convent in Little Falls, Sister Justina Bieganek, O.S.B., writes of this time and provided the following story.
Conflict in Europe in the mid-1800’s caused many families to come to the United States.  Lax immigration laws allowed people to pour into New York, where there was a lack of adequate housing, few jobs, poor medical care and no family to help. Many families were in desperate situations.  Times were hard, food sparse and communication among nationalities difficult.  Crime was uncontrollable. When disease, hunger, overwork, and later World War I, took their toll on these new Americans, many children became  orphans and went to the streets. One report estimates that 10,000 homeless children roamed the streets of New York in the late 1800’s. In 1853, Charles Brace, a minister and social work in New York, co founded the Children’s Aid Society, hoping to take children off the streets and into homes out West.
Children filled train coaches, which took them to wherever anyone would accept them.  No previous arrangements were made, so children weren’t guaranteed a home by the end of this journey.
The selection of a child was not a legal adoption.  Instead, it was a non-legal agreement that the child would work in exchange for an upbringing in a family environment until he or she was of age.  In that way, people in Minnesota and other Midwestern states, became the sponsors, employers and foster parents of this homeless throng.
Infants were special cases.  The Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who ran a hospital and orphanage for abandoned infants, chartered several baby trains.
During this time, infants were abandoned everywhere – in alleys,  church pews or doorsteps.  The fortunate ones ended up in warehouse-like orphanages.   In one year,  more than 200 foundlings and 100 dead infants were discovered on New York pavements.
Notes were found pinned on some of the babies, for example, “This is the child of Mrs. Sheridan, who was murdered by her husband,” but most abandoned infants had nothing to identify them.
There was a placement program for infants.  Numbers were assigned to willing parents, and when the trains arrived, the nurses on board would bring the babies, who had corresponding numbers stitched to their clothes, out on the platform where numbers were matched.  The clergy arranged these “adoptions.”
How each child fared in the new environment depended on many factors, including the attitude of the adoptive families and the child’s ability to adjust.
Some children were treated like slaves or pariahs, but others were given love and were made family members.
Scholars have concluded that the outcome for most of the children was better than if they had stayed in New York.  Their findings show that about 87 percent fared well, 8 percent were returned and 5 percent were arrested, ran away or died.
Eventually, federal and state governments intervened with compulsory education, child labor restrictions and foster care.  The last Orphan Train made its run in 1929.
Since then, the one-time orphans have organized yearly reunions in Minnesota.  This year’s OrphanTrain Reunion will be Sept 8 and 9 at the Holiday Inn in Alexandria.  For more information, call Bieganek at 218-632-2981 or Mary Buscher in Breckenridge, Minn, 1-218-643-4926.

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