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The Orphan Train Comes To Opelousas

Photograph: One of the children on the first Orphan Train to Opelousas was Steven Sebastien pictured here with his sister Agnes for their first communion in the early 1900s. (Carola Lillie Hartley Collection.)

Carola Lillie Hartley
Publisher and Contributing Writer

Opelousas was buzzing with excitement and anticipation in April of 1907.  Local citizens, especially those who had agreed to accept a child, were awaiting the arrival of the first group of New York orphans.  Father John Engberink, pastor of the St. Landry Catholic Church, made arrangements for this event.  Families gathered early at the Southern Pacific depot in Opelousas near Grolee Street to await the arrival of their new son or daughter.  The crowd grew so large that people filled the streets and the front lot of the nearby lumber company. Father Engberink himself was there, meeting with the families and going over details one last time before the Orphan Train arrived.  One of the ladies in attendance that day later described the crowd assembled for the arrival of the orphans as a circus of people.

The Orphan Train story is a fascinating one. In the mid 1800s, thousands of children were orphaned in New York as the result of the many immigrants arriving in the United States during this time.  Many who made the long, hard journey to America arrived sick and exhausted, and died as a result.   Others were not able to find jobs and could barely take care of themselves much less a family.  Their children were left homeless to roam the streets of the city.  

Children’s Aid Society about 1890- Library of Congress

Children’s Aid Society
The idea to place homeless children from New York in other states came from Charles Loring Brace; a 26-year-old protestant minister turned social worker.  Born in 1826 in Litchfield, Connecticut, Charles came from old New England stock and was well educated, first at Yale and then at Union Theological Seminary.  He soon discovered that his true vocation lay not in the pulpit, but among the narrow, twisting vermin-infested streets of New York City slums.   While working with the poor on those streets, he realized how many children were homeless and helpless. 

Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853.  In no time the rooms and beds of his orphanage home were filled to capacity.  There were so many homeless children.  Something had to be done.  Brace got the idea to send some of the children to live in homes outside the city.  On September 20, 1854, the first group of orphans, 46 boys and girls ages 7-15, left New York for Dowagnic, Michigan where they were placed with families willing to care for them.  This was the beginning of the Orphan Trains from New York that brought thousands of children to new homes in mostly rural areas of the United States.

Brace ran the Children’s Aid Society, a protestant orphanage, until his death in 1890.  As the 19th century gave way to the 20th the society continued its work under the leadership of Brace’s son, Charles Loring.  Many more trains were filled with New York babies and sent to new homes in the west and the south.

Most people considered the Children’s Aid Society a good thing, however, there were some critics.  Many Catholics in New York City viewed the plan as a thinly disguised means of proselytism, whereby children of Catholic parents were being deliberately placed in Protestant homes.  As a result, the Catholic Church saw a need to help with the unwanted children.  Just about this time, in 1869, Sister Mary Irene of the Sisters of Charity, the former Catherine Rosamond FitzGibbons, founded the New York Foundling Hospital.

Who was Catherine Rosamond FitzGibbons
Catherine was Born in London, England on May 12, 1823; she died in New York, August, 14, 1896. At the age of nine she emigrated to Brooklyn, NY, with her parents, and in 1850 joined the community of the Sisters of Charity at Mount St. Vincent, NY and took the name of Sister Mary Irene. 

Sister Mary Irene’s father was an Irish immigrant who left his native land for New York during difficult times.  FitzGibbons became very wealthy and socially prominent.  His daughter Catherine was a New York socialite.  In the prime of her life an epidemic of cholera spread through the city and struck down the young girl.  While in a coma, which lasted for four days, she heard members of her family discussing her burial plans, as they thought her dead.  Although Catherine was unable to speak or move, she was completely aware of her surroundings.  She prayed hard to recover.  She promised lifelong service to God and the church if she were saved from the horror of being buried alive.  As the story goes, an undertaker was closing the coffin when a flicker of Catherine’s eyelids proved she was still living.  The burial arrangements were halted.  She was spared.

Sister Irene and Children at Foundling Home in NY 1888 –  ©The Unite States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital Icph.3a23917   Photographer: Jacob August Rils (1849-1914)

New York Foundling Hospital
Catherine made good on her promise to serve God for the remainder of her life.  She entered the Sisters of Charity, became Sister Mary Irene, and on October 11, 1869, was responsible for founding the New York Foundling Hospital, an orphanage and home for unwanted children. The home had a staff of four sisters plus Catherine. It was originally called the Foundling Asylum, and later renamed the New York Foundling Hospital; today known as the New York Foundling .

Besides the New York Foundling Hospital, Catherine also founded three allied institutions: St. Ann’s Maternity Hospital in 1880, the Hospital of St. John for Children in 1881, and Nazareth Hospital for convalescent children at Spuyten Duyvil in New York City in 1881. She also founded the Seton Hospital for tuberculosis patients in 1894.

Soon the number of needy children in the New York Foundling Hospital outgrew the facility.  In 1873, Sister Mary Irene began placing children in homes outside the city. Within six years, over 1,000 children had been successfully delivered to loving families mostly in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the Midwest.  Since the children were transported to their new homes by trains, the project was referred to as the Baby Train or the Orphan Train.

Agents Hired to Help Find Homes for Children
An agent was employed by the New York Foundling Hospital to arrange the placements.  Soon the hospital needed more agents to travel the country, visiting with parish priests on the Baby Train route.  The priests would announce to their congregation the need for loving homes and hand out applications.  The applications were reviewed and the children were paired up with the families.  The process usually took several months to complete.  The children eventually arrived by train to their final destination, accompanied by some of the sisters from the orphanage.  This process was repeated over and over through the years.

The Orphan Trains ran from the mid-1800 until the late 1929-30.  Over 150,000 children were sent on these trains from New York by the Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundling Hospital and placed out with families, mostly in the mid-west, far west states, Louisiana, Texas and as far south as Florida.  Hundreds of New York Babies ended up in South Louisiana.

Children ready to leave the New York Foundling Hospital, 1904.

Orphan’s Sent to Opelousas
In the early 1900s, Father John Engberink of St. Landry Catholic Church in Opelousas, LA heard the story of the Orphan Train.  He was very interested in helping out.  Father Engberink is said to have visited the New York Foundling Hospital, a six-story brick institution at 175 East 68th Street in New York.  During that visit he made plans with the Sisters of Charity to send a trainload of orphans to south Louisiana as soon as arrangements could be made. 

Father Engberink

In the late winter of 1907, he manned his St. Landry Catholic Church pulpit and addressed his Sunday congregation.  Father Engberink called out to his parishioners.  He cited the unfortunate lives facing the many ill fated, undernourished orphans crowding the New York Foundling Home.  He begged all families with any food left over after supper to consider taking a child.  The priest distributed application forms to all St. Landry church parishioners interested in housing a child.  Prospective foster parents could specify the age, sex and all particulars pertaining to the child’s physical makeup.  Father Engberink was in complete control of placing the children.

The people of Opelousas immediately responded to their pastor’s request.  In a matter of days, Father Engberink had homes for a number of orphans.  The sisters were contacted and arrangements made to send the first trainload to Opelousas.

On Saturday, March 30, 1907, the Opelousas Courier reported the following: “A party of six adults and fifty
six children of various ages will reach New Orleans en route for Opelousas, coming from New York city, where the children have been collected by the New York Foundling Association, and are sent South for the purpose of being placed in homes secured for them beforehand.”

The first Orphan Train to Opelousas departed New York in the early spring of 1907. Nuns who accompanied them on their trip south cared for the children.  Children had a safety pin with a number in dark ink on a small circular card attached to their gown.  The number was pinned onto the upper left portion of the child’s garment.  The Sisters of Charity also made sure the children’s original name and date of birth were known.  They very carefully wrote in gold script this information on the interior white slip worn by each child.  The younger children wore “aprons” or small gowns with a thick white slip underneath the outer garment.  The older children were also beautifully dressed, the boys wearing suits and the girls wearing dresses.

This was not the first trainload of orphaned children to come to Louisiana, but it was the first to come to Opelousas.  The New Orleans Item of Monday, April 8, 1907 reported “another carload” of babies was expected to arrive in Louisiana, this time going to Opelousas.  The article, picked up from the newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi, said “a carload of babies passed down the Illinois Central Railroad on route to Opelousas, where they will be given away.”  The article continued:  “This car of children, ranging from 2 to 6 years of age, was in charge of Mr. G. W. Swayne, agent for the Orphans Home of New York City, and he was accompanied by two trained nurses and two Sisters of Charity.  Mr. Swayne had been down in Louisiana several days since, and had found fifty-seven families that had not been visited by the stark, or else where there are no living children, and that number of persons made application to the orphanage to supply the deficiency and fill the aching voids in many hearth.  The children were nicely dressed, their faces were clean and their heads combed, making one of the most interesting sights ever seen in this section of the country.”

“According to Mr. Swayne, the New York orphanage spends about one-half million dollars per annum in taking care of babies that are left at the institution or sent to it from various sections of the Empire State.  In the course of a few days he will be back down this way with another solid carload of babies, also bound for Louisiana, and states that even after that depletion of the ranks he will still have 2,000 under his roof.  The parties who accept the care and charge of the orphans are held to a strict accountability until the child is of age, reports being made to the orphanage twice each year.  They must prove that they are able to care for, raise and educate the child.”[1]

Orphan Train Arrives
According to accounts from Opelousas citizens who witnessed the arrival of the first Orphan Train, Father Engberink stood on a high platform at the train depot and called out each child’s number, which corresponded to the prospective foster parents waiting in the crowd.   The actual distribution from this first train ran into late evening and did not end until the following morning.  Nearly 70 children from this first train were placed with Opelousas area families.

Through the years other trains brought children from New York to southwest Louisiana.  Numerous Baby Trains passed through the area between 1905 and 1927, with some estimates revealing as many as 2,000 orphans resettled in Louisiana through the New York Foundling Hospital.  Besides Opelousas, trains went to Lafayette, Marksville, Mansura, New Iberia, Morgan City, Lake Charles and Alexandria.  Children were placed with families in those towns and the smaller communities in those areas.

Even after the placements were made, the sisters continued to received information on the children.  A representative of the hospital visited each family once a year to make sure all was well.  Although the foster parents weren’t expected to adopt the children, many of them did.  There were some problems, but most of these could be worked out.  One of the biggest problems in Louisiana was that the children from New York spoke only English while most of the foster parents in Acadiana spoke French.  After some time, everyone seemed able to understand each other.

Even though some of the placements did not work out, in most cases, the story had a happy ending.  Most of the children grew up to become prominent, productive, contributing citizens of Acadiana.  The wide range of occupations held by these orphans varied from the bazooka playing and shoeshine expertise of Jerome Winburne to the political posts held by Charles Gorney, who became the Mayor of Leonville, and Martin Arvine Roy, who became the Mayor of Opelousas.  Many others became successful businessmen and professionals, while others became well known entertainers.  Not only were the orphans the lucky ones, but also Opelousas and all the other area communities benefited by sharing in the development of these people’s lives.

Although it is not certain how many children arrived in Opelousas on that first Orphan Train, it is generally believed that between 56 to 67 orphans made the trip from New York in 1907.  Some of those known to have been on the Southern Pacific train on that day in April are:  Rev. Alfred Schwab, Ville Platte; Mrs. Monique Marcantel, Ville Platte; Margaret Cuntz, Eunice; Joseph Johnson, Washington; Mrs. Rose Pitre Ballinger, Baton Rouge; Clara Fusilier Cooper, Lafayette; John Brown, Plaisance; Aloysius Vidrine Inhern, Ville Platte; Agnes Thompson Lalonde, Krotz Springs; Felix Meyers, Grand Coteau; Willie Cole Doucet, Krotz Springs; Bernard Riley, Ville Platte; William Malloy, Ville Platte; George Thompson Dupre, Prairie Ronde;  Mrs. Helen Eastin, Ville Platte; Henry Freed, Port Arthur, Texas; Henry Segar, Lawtell, Ferdie Tweedel, Lewisburg; Richard Kolder, Lewisburg; Vera Zeniott, Washington; Charley Gorney, Leonville (became the Mayor of Leonville); Katherine Gay Guillory, Krotz Springs;  Annie Smith, Eunice; Harold Callahin, Leonville; Mr. J. L. Labbe, Church Point; Leo Bihm, Leonville; John Smith, Margaret Pitre,  Jennie Richard,, and Thomas Hannin, Lewisburg; Anna Hidalgo, Lawtell; Anna Sibille, Bristol; Jerome Winburne, Jimmy Jefferies[2], Martin Arvine Roy (became the Mayor of Opelousas), Cornelius Dupre (a very successful local businessman), George Dupre, Johnny Hollier, Johnny Vidrine, Frank Lapari, Claire Mouille, Steven Riley, Steven Sebastein, Charley Green, Joseph Ferris, Irene Stone, John Martail Downey, Clarence Bibbs, Mathilda Werner, Victor Savoie, Mrs. Mary Abdalla, Mrs. Agnes Roy Guillory, Johnny Victory, Arthur Davis, Frances Wilson, Sr., Edward Ringrose, Charles Russell, Mrs. Lilly Dugas Gardner, Johnny P. Owen, Mary Lafleur Ledoux, Joseph Frame and Victor Andrepont (a successful businessman), all of Opelousas.  Others were George Lampke, Esther Stelly Martinez, Turner Scallon and Willie Vidrine. (Note on this list of names: Although some newspaper stories over the years gives this list of names as the riders on the first Orphan Train, it is possible that only 50 – 56 were actually on that train that arrived on April 5, 1907. At lease two, and possibly three, other trains arrived in Opelousas that year. Probably some on this list did not actually arrive on the first 1907 train, but on one of the later 1907 trains.)

Descendants of many of these New York Babies live in Opelousas and the Southwest Louisiana area today.

Placements Continued until 1929-30
The Children’s Aid Society and The New York Foundling Hospital[3] continued to “place out” children until 1929-30.  There were several reasons for the orphan train movement to end. A couple of the primary reasons were:  the beginning of the depression in 1930 made it extremely hard for families to consider “adding another mouth to feed,” and there were new laws and new programs being instituted that were designed specifically to help children.  The number of Orphan Trains began to decline dramatically during this time.  However, state laws governing adoptions, and either restricting or forbidding the interstate placement of children, seems to have been the major reason for this decline.

In 1887, Michigan passed the first law in the United States regulating the placement of children within the state. Again in 1895, Michigan passed a state law requiring out-of-state, child-placement agencies to post a bond for each child the agency brought into the state of Michigan.  In 1899, Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota enacted similar but stricter laws, which had the effect of prohibiting the placement of incorrigible, diseased, insane or criminal children within their state boundaries.  Using these state laws as models, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, North and South Dakota, and Ohio passed similar laws within five years.  Eventually, these laws resulted in the ending of the placing out program.  Also about this time, new foster care homes were beginning to replace the large institutions and orphanages of the past.

But the Orphan Trains left a lasting legacy on the US, Louisiana and Opelousas.  Thousands of children left the streets and orphanages of New York, and other large Eastern cities, to find homes with loving families in Louisiana as well as in many other states.  It was an inexpensive way out of solving juvenile crime.  But its greatest triumph was proving the value of foster families, and for that millions of children have benefited since the last trains headed west and south out of New York City carrying homeless children to a new life of hope.

Note: Today Opelousas has the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum, located in Le Vieux Village at the east entrance to the city.

Also, this week, on Wednesday, May 3, 2023 (12noon to 1pm), be sure to attend the Orphan Train Documentary Screening at the Delta Theater in downtown Opelousas. To learn about that, click on this link:

[1]New Orleans Item, New Orleans, Louisiana, Monday, April 8, 1907.

[2] The first known Opelousas citizen to become a famous radio personality was James “Jimmy” Jefferies.  When he was very young, Jefferies came to Opelousas in 1907 from New York on the Orphan Train.  He was taken in by Dr. and Mrs. James Saizan, who treated him as their child.  While radio was still in its infancy, Jefferies left Opelousas to pursue a career as a radio entertainer in Dallas, Texas.  He initiated the Early Bird Breakfast Program in the early 1920s and almost immediately became one of the most highly revered entertainers in the south.  Jefferies remained in Dallas with his program for 10 years before going on to New York City as an aspiring Broadway performer.

[3] Today The New York Foundling is one of New York City’s oldest and most successful child welfare agencies. It continues its mission to society’s least and smallest, to “abandon no one.” Its work with society’s “most vulnerable,” reaching some 13,000 each years in New York and Puerto Rico, continues to be rooted in the determined compassion that motivated Sister Irene nearly 150 years ago. And it all began with five dollars, a crib, and an empty apartment building in the Village.