New exhibit focuses on little-known history of five religious sisters

December 4, 2009 by

Muriel Anderson, curator of the National Orphan Train Museum and Complex in Concordia, sorts through materials for the upcoming From Orphan Trains to Convents exhibit.

Muriel Anderson, curator of the National Orphan Train Museum and Complex in Concordia, sorts through materials for the upcoming 'From Orphan Trains to Convents' exhibit.

As the 19th century ended, five tiny orphan girls were loaded on trains in New York City bound for new families and new lives in the still-wide-open mid section of America.

The toddlers — none older than 2 — were not related; their only connection was that they were among the smallest victims of the poverty, mass immigration, inadequate housing and financial depression that plagued the teeming streets of New York.

They became connected in history as five among an estimated 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children who were placed on “Orphan Trains” in New York and shipped to adoptive families in towns along the railroad lines.

They remained connected in life as Orphan Train riders who entered religious life — two as Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia.

On Saturday, Dec. 12, the National Orphan Train Museum is hosting an open house to unveil its newest exhibit, “From Orphan Trains to Convents: Five Stories of Religious Women.” The open house is from 6 to 8 p.m., and those planning to attend are asked to RSVP to 785-243-4471.

The museum is part of the National Orphan Train Complex at 300 Washington St. in Concordia, and is open Tuesday through Saturday. The center is dedicated to the preservation of the stories and artifacts of those who were part of the Orphan Train Movement from 1854-1929.

The stories include those of the five little girls who were eventually to become Sisters Roberta Dreiling, Eva Marie Vale, Mary Delphine DuVal, Mary James Fabacher and Justina Bieganek.

Sister Roberta Dreiling

Sister Roberta Dreiling

Museum curator Muriel Anderson is creating an exhibit that includes their life stories as well as family mementoes, religious items and personal keepsakes.

Those mementos include an eighth-grade photo of Sister Mary Delphine DuVal, who was the earliest Orphan Train rider of the five. She was born in 1898 in New York and put on a train to Little Rock, Ark., by the New York Foundling Hospital when she was 2, in 1900. She eventually joined the Sisters of Mercy in Little Rock and remained there until her death in 1990.

Genevieve Dreiling — who would become a Sister of St. Joseph of Concordia and take the religious name of Sister Roberta — was born in New York in 1899. Like the other Orphan Train sisters, she was placed in the care of the New York Foundling Hospital and eventually put on a train west. She was just over 2 years old when she arrived in Victoria, Kan., to be adopted by a Catholic family there.

Sister Eva Marie Vale

Sister Eva Marie Vale

In 1917, she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph and served in numerous missions until her death in 1995.

Gertrude Vale — who would also become a Sister of St. Joseph of Concordia and would take the religious name of Sister Eva Marie — was born in 1900. She was barely over a year old when she was sent to a family in Schoenchen, Kan. She remained with that family until she was 9, when they decided to return her to the orphanage in New York.

But a priest in Tipton, Kan., stepped in and asked his housekeeper to care for the girl. A year later, the housekeeper’s sister, who lived in Walker, Kan., adopted Gertrude into their family. She remained there until she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1921. Sister Eva Marie died at the Nazareth Motherhouse in 1982.

A silver rosary belonging to Sister Mary Delphine DuVal is part of the new exhibit.

A silver rosary belonging to Sister Mary Delphine DuVal is part of the new exhibit.

Sister Mary James Fabacher was born in 1907 in New York and was sent on the Orphan Train to New Orleans in 1909. It was there that she eventually entered the Dominican Sisters of Peace. Sister Mary James died in 2006.

Sister Justina Bieganek was the last of the five to ride the Orphan Trains and the only one still surviving. She was born early in 1912 and was sent at the end of 1913, when she was not yet 2, to Little Falls, Minn., where she would eventually enter the Franciscan Sisters. Sister Justina celebrated her 80th anniversary as a Franciscan Sister earlier this year, and will celebrate her 98th birthday in January 2010.

These five toddlers, like thousands of others, had become the wards of two aid organizations in New York City.

The earliest group was the Children’s Aid Society, which had been formed in 1853 to help care for neglected children. Those in the care of Children’s Aid would be taken in small groups of 10 to 40, under the supervision of at least one “western” agent, to selected stops along the rail line.

A 1912 photograph shows Genevieve Dreiling (right), who will become Sister Roberta, posing with a cousin in Victoria, Kan.

A 1912 photograph shows Genevieve Dreiling (right), who will become Sister Roberta, posing with a cousin in Victoria, Kan.

The agents would plan a route, send flyers to towns along the way, and arrange for a “screening committee” in towns where the children might get new homes. The committee then helped in finding parents and placing the children who arrived.

The second organization grew out of St. Peter’s Convent, which served the oldest Roman Catholic parish in New York City. In 1869, the Sisters of Charity needed more space for abandoned children than their convent provided, so with the bishop’s blessing, they opened the New York Foundling Hospital.

All five of the little girls who became sisters were in the care of the Foundling Hospital.

Instead of hired agents or local screening committees, the Foundling Hospital worked with priests along the railroad routes to match abandoned children with Catholic families.

When the Orphan Train Movement began in 1854, it was estimated that 30,000 abandoned children were living on the streets of New York City. By the time the last Orphan Train delivered children to waiting families in 1929, this period of mass relocation of children was widely recognized as the beginning of documented foster care in America.


5 Responses to “New exhibit focuses on little-known history of five religious sisters”

  1. Elizabeth (Betsy) Gasperich-Miller on April 24th, 2014 10:44 am

    Sister Eva Marie was a SAINT in my time and all time! She was a gentle, caring, loving, angelic spirit……who truly lived the gospel… love thy neighbor…….She helped many of us younger members of the community with her smile, her loving, caring way about her………Thanks, dear Sister Eva Marie……what a positive, enriching spirit you were and continue to be………..Thanks for all those gentle, caring ways. Thanks for taking us under your wing and showing what religious life was all about! How grateful I am for knowing you and having you in my life!

  2. Libby on October 22nd, 2013 9:26 pm

    My grandmother was on the orphan train and was sent to st. Joseph convent in New Orleans in 1909. We believe her name was Mary Bryan (not sure of last name spelling) but was then named Elsie ( which we are not sure when or who changed her name) if u have any Information on a Mary Ann Bryan please send me a message. Thanks

  3. Elaine V. Shaw-Cote, OP on December 10th, 2009 7:04 pm

    Sister Mary Raphael Geyger, OP was professed in August, 1937 as a Dominican Sister of St. Catharine, KY. It was said that she was an train orphan child from Nebraska. I remember her from the 1960s as a gracious and kind woman, rather serene in appearance and personality.
    Thank you for sharing these beautiful stories.
    S. Elaine

  4. Christine Doman,CSJ on December 7th, 2009 10:51 pm

    Heart warming beautiful stories of 5 brave little women who became saints of loving and gifted lives as religious women. May all the families who loved and cared for them in the early years receive their rewards in heaven as they greet them again. Both Sister Roberta and Eva Marie were gentle and caring persons. S. Roberta as a nurse and S. Eva Marie as a gardener and humble friend to each of us who knew her.
    Thanks for those who did the research for us to enjoy and admire these remarkable women.
    Christine Doman, CSJ

  5. Sr. Beth Stover Class of '64 on December 4th, 2009 11:52 am

    Sister Roberta and Sister Eva Marie were dedicated Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia and gave their consecrated lives in service of the “dear neighbor”. Eva Marie added grandeur and beauty to the Motherhouse grounds with her “green thumb” for plants and vegetables. She was truly a contempletive in prayer even though she expressed it as “not being able to keep my mind on my prayers”!
    Thank you for this inspirational piece.

Feel free to leave a comment...