Bishop Vincke blesses sign memorializing St. Joseph Orphanage

April 30, 2019 by

The St. Andrew Parish Hall in Abilene was the site of an amazing family reunion as former orphans, “townies,” and sisters, as well as families and loved ones, reunited in Abilene to share fond memories of their times at the St. Joseph Home and Orphanage.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia ran the facility for 43 years, from when they opened it in 1915 until it closed in 1958. The building, on the north edge of Abilene, just off Buckeye Avenue, was demolished in 1959.

The reunion took place Saturday, April 27. After taking time to review the many historical documents and items on display — including an old milk cap from the St. Joseph Orphanage Dairy — and greet friends, old and new, a DVD showing many old photos from the orphanage was shown.

Gasps of recognition and laughter filled the room as former orphans and townies alike recognized photos of themselves, or old friends and instructors.

Following the presentation, it was time for sharing. Many residents and family members shared what the orphanage meant to them growing up. There were a variety of fun stories about the competitiveness of working in the dairy barn, as well as various pranks and fun the kids would have when the sisters weren’t looking. There also were serious stories about what the time there meant to them, how they felt about the sisters, and the things they learned — not always from the classroom.

In attendance were five of Harold Scanlan’s six children. They worked with their dad at St Joseph Dairy and knew many of those in attendance. Milking the cows three times a day, washing the bottles and checking the caps were some of the many duties they had working side-by-side with the residents at the home.

Hank Royer, a “townie”— which was a kid who attended classes at the orphanage school but didn’t live there — brought along about 15 copies of 80 pages of historical orphanage documents to share. He said he attended there from 1954-58.

“It was not a free ride,” he said. “They worked.”

“It was a great learning experience for me,” he said. “It still sticks to me to this day. We can make a difference in people’s lives. It is something we need to do.”

John Smith, another townie, remembered riding his Shetland pony to attend class. “Mr. Scanlan would let us bed them down in the barn. And later I moved up to a horse,” he said. “I thank the nuns for the education I received.”

Wilfred Vargas, a former orphan resident, attended the reunion for the first time. He was the oldest living resident to attend. His nephew brought him up from Tulsa, Okla.

“That orphanage never left me,” Vargas said. “I miss those old days … all the kids. The fun we had, the skinny dipping … it was a beautiful life. A hard life, but it was a part of growing up.”

“When they would give us clothes, we thought of it as a gift,” Vargas said. “We appreciated every thing we got.”

He finished talking to the group about his memories with tears in his eyes as he said, “I love you all.”

Vargas spent quite a bit of time catching up with three-time attendee and former orphan Alvin Veesart and his wife. Both men were there in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Nona (Smith) Mendoza lived at the Home with her sisters, Leah and Laura. She was quiet in sharing but excited to see her first communion picture that day and pictures of her older sisters. The Smiths were there in the late 1940s early 50s.

Her husband, Gil, mentioned that one thing she really remembers and cherishes is the grotto.  “She loved that grotto,” he said.

Steven Hanson has attended each of the three reunions and is one of the younger residents along with Mike Weaver and Linda Vogan who attended for the first time. These three lived there and attended school in the 1950s.

Also in attendance was author Terry Needham, who wrote “When I Was a Child,” a book about his mother and uncles — Geraldine Pfeifer and her brothers Louis and Marcel — who lived at the orphanage.

“I spent 10 years researching it,” Needham said. He has since adapted it as a screenplay.

Another person remembered by many was Louis Truly. Louis grew up at the orphanage and lived there for many years.

Following the sharing of memories, volunteers served a lunch of Brookville Hotel chicken.

Then it was time for the final event of the day, presided over by Bishop Gerald Vincke: The blessing and dedication of the St. Joseph Orphanage and Home memorial sign at Mt. St. Joseph Cemetery.

The location of the sign on the cemetery property was to make sure that it was in a place that would always be under the ownership of the parish, Sister Carolyn Juenemann explained. The site directly overlooks the old orphanage property.

“We could never have done this without the help of Brian and Tom Whitehair,” said Sister Carolyn. “They are on the cemetery committee of St. Andrew’s Parish, which graciously permitted us to install the sign on their land.”

Despite the gusty wind, the majority of the group drove in a caravan to the cemetery to watch the blessing and unveiling of the sign.

“My brothers and sisters, as we begin to celebrate this rite in praise of God on the occasion of the unveiling of this beautiful image of the St. Joseph Orphanage and Academy, we must be properly disposed and have a clear appreciation of the meaning of this celebration,” said Bishop Vincke to the crowd gathered around the still-veiled sign despite the gusty winds. “When the Church blesses an object and presents it as a memorial to a significant ministry in the life of the Church, it does so for several reasons; That when we look at this memorial of St. Joseph Orphanage and Academy we will be motivated to seek the eternal life that is to come; that we will learn the way that will enable us to more faithfully follow Christ and to work toward achieving the goals of His Kingdom by serving His people.”

“This memorial sign can also serve as a reminder to use of the many persons who served in the ministry of education and loving care that took place here as well the many children and elderly who were the beneficiaries,” Bishop Vincke said. “May it also be a reminder of the many benefactors who made this all possible, especially the Diocese of Salina and the Sisters of St. Joseph.

Jean Scanlan, the artist who drew the design for the sign, unveiled it to the crowd. The sign was manufactured by Rawhide Iron Works of Norton, Kan.

This is the third reunion of the St. Joseph Orphanage, the previous ones being in 2010 and 2016.

“The first year we had 19 orphans that came, and maybe 7 townies,” said Sister Jan McCormick. “And since then we’ve lost 8 of those from the very first reunion.”

Sisters Jan, Carolyn, and Mary Lou Roberts all work on the committee to keep the reunion and memories of the orphanage alive.

For more information about the St. Joseph Orphanage, visit their Facebook page www.facebook.com/stjosephorphanage.abilene.

 

Comments

Feel free to leave a comment...