‘Orphans,’ ‘townies’ gather to reminisce about Abilene orphanage

June 25, 2016 by


Rita Dussault Hisey, who today lives in Fort Worth, Texas, shares stories about coming to the Home in 1935 with her sister Mary Agnes.


ABILENE, Kan. — Although fewer in number, the stories Saturday spanned almost the entire 71-year history of what became known as St. Joseph Home and Orphanage.

Steve Howe of Salina came to the gathering at St. Andrew Parish Hall to see if he could learn more about Mount St. Joseph Academy, where his grandmother had been a student in 1893, just six years after the Sisters of St. Joseph opened the girls school on land north of the city.

Hank Royer and Steve Hanson were there when it closed in 1958 — Hank as a fourth-grader attending the “day school” as a “townie” and Steve as one of the last orphans for whom St. Joseph Home was actually a home.


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Royer, who still lives in Abilene, and Hanson, who today lives in Manhattan, were both in attendance in 2010 for the first St. Joseph Home Reunion, which drew nearly 140 orphans, day students, family members and Sisters of St. Joseph for a daylong remembrance at the Abilene Catholic church.

This second reunion attracted only about 20 orphans, day students and family members — as well as about 15 Sisters — but their stories and memories filled the parish hall with just as much warmth.

Sister Jan McCormick, who led the organizing effort for both events, noted that seven of the orphans who came to the 2010 event have since died — and Saturday’s activities included a memorial service recognizing them.

“What I learned last time is that this is a family,” she said as the reunion began. “It’s a family of St. Joseph Home.”

Its history began in 1887, when the fledging Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia came to the bustling cattle town of Abilene to establish Mount St. Joseph Academy as a school for girls, on what is now Buckeye Avenue. But at almost the same time, the original Diocese of Leavenworth — which encompassed the entire state of Kansas — was being divided up into four dioceses, putting the Sisters’ Concordia Motherhouse under the jurisdiction of one bishop and the Abilene girls school under another. So the Mother Superior made the decision to recall most of the Sisters to Concordia, and those few who chose to remain in Abilene were the nucleus of what would eventually become a new congregation, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Wichita.

The Wichita sisters continued to operate the academy until 1912.

After they closed it, the Concordia Diocese purchased the property and renovated it, and in 1915 asked the Concordia sisters to operate it as an orphanage and home for the aged. By 1924, a home for the elderly residents had been built in Concordia, and so the Abilene facility became strictly an orphanage, with as many as 80 children living there at one time. During the 1940s and ’50s, children from Abilene were allowed to attend school there as day students.

But due to changing child welfare laws and the advent of the foster care system, the orphanage ultimately closed in 1958. The main orphanage building was torn down a year later.

It’s estimated that about 900 orphans had lived there between 1915 and 1958.

Sister Xavier Cunningham was one of the original Concordia sisters sent there in 1915, and she is credited with founding the award-winning Holstein cattle herd that provided both money for the home and jobs for many of the boys were lived there.

She died in 1948, yet still looms large in the memories of several of the men at Saturday’s gathering. One story was about Sister Xavier, in full habit and boots caked with manure, taking charge of a prize Holstein bull that had gotten loose. That drew chuckles from orphans Frances Todd of Concordia, who went to the Home in 1934; Alfred Vargas of Owasso, Okla., who went there in 1935; and Alvin Veesart of Clifton and Norbert Seitz of Omaha, who both arrived in 1937.

After numerous stories about the dairy and farm work, Sister Judy Stephens asked, “But what about the girls? What work did you do?”

“I peeled potatoes,” Rita Dussault Hisey said with a chuckle. Now living in Fort Worth, Texas, Hisey and her sister Mary Agnes came to the Home from Demar, Kan., in 1935. “At first, the little girls peeled potatoes, then they changed it to the older girls. So I just kept peeling potatoes.”

Steve Howe came to the reunion with his wife Frances hoping to hear those kinds of stories about the earlier Mount St. Joseph Academy. His grandmother, Mary Ann Riordan, was raised on a farm near Solomon, Kan., and her education in Abilene allowed her to become a teacher. But she died before Howe was born and so he knows very little about her life.

“I was hoping to learn more here,” he said. “So in that sense I’m disappointed. But I have a better sense from these stories of what it must have meant to her.”








4 Responses to “‘Orphans,’ ‘townies’ gather to reminisce about Abilene orphanage”

  1. Linda (Schneider) Vogan on July 14th, 2016 4:21 pm

    I was there in 1954 with sister Helen Gregory & brothers John & Peter Schneider, I think. Does anyone have pictures of that time? Thanks.

  2. Loretta Jasper on July 1st, 2016 10:41 am

    A perfect time together for the orphans and their families, and the townies as well.
    A story in need of archival preservation!

  3. Helen Mick, CSJ on June 25th, 2016 5:33 pm

    The faces express so much. What a joy for all.

  4. Jodi Creten on June 25th, 2016 5:22 pm

    Great pics, Sarah. Wish we could have heard each speaker but know you will capture in all in writing shortly. What history!

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