Orphan Train Rider

Orphan Train Rider
Oliver Nordmark - Age 15 - Esbon KS

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Around the same time that Reverend Brace was beginning his work on behalf of the homeless children in New York City, another person of faith, Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbon of the Sisters of Charity, felt God’s calling as well. With beginning capital of just five dollars, Sister Irene sought help from charitable women and raised enough money to rent a small house located at 17 E. 12th Street where, on October 11, 1869 she began preparations for opening what would be called the New York Foundling Hospital. The mission would be to save the thousands of infants and very young children who were being left to perish in alley ways and trash heaps around the city. Appropriately enough, October 11th is the Feast of the Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Sister Irene, along with the other Sisters of Charity, intended to take three months to get the home ready to open, but on the very first night an infant was left on the front steps and without ceremony, the Foundling Home was in operation. By January 1, 1870, when the Sisters had originally intended to open their doors, they had 123 babies in residence.

Placing a white cradle in the foyer of the Home, while leaving the front door unlocked, word was sent out that a desperate mother could enter the Home and leave her child in the cradle with no questions asked. All the Sisters asked was that when leaving, the mother ring the bell by the front door so that the Sisters would know that there was a new little one to be gathered up and brought upstairs with the other babies.

Prior to the opening of the Foundling Home, abandoned infants found alive on the streets were taken by police to Blackwell’s Island (a prison and workhouse) where they were cared for by aging prisoners. Few survived infancy.

In the following six years, the NY Foundling home relocated twice to larger buildings to accommodate more children. By 1876 it became apparent that another solution was needed to solve the problem of homeless infants….Mercy Trains, or Baby Trains as they were sometime called, would be the answer….

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


A well-to-do Connecticut minister, Rev. Charles Loring Brace was born in Hartford in 1826. After completing his education, he felt a calling toward missionary work as opposed to church ministry. Brace did not believe in “survival of the fittest” but felt instead, that there was much society could do to improve the lives of the very poorest classes. After working in NYC’s Blackwell’s Island Prison, he was convinced that the adult poor were a hopeless cause and from that time forward, devoted his efforts to saving the children of poverty in the city.

Brace established the Children’s Aid Society in 1853. His first efforts included lodging houses for the thousands of newsboys who lived on the streets, as well as industrial schools, a farm school and even a summer home on Long Island. But his most ambitious endeavor, and the one for which he will forever be known, was “placing out."

Rev. Brace strongly believed that the best place for a child to grow up was in the home of a Christian farmer. With an idealized view of what life was like in the West, and the realization that the growing number of homeless children in the city would one day translate into a serious crime problem, Brace began his “placing out” program in 1854 with a group of boys traveling to Michigan. The effort was a success and began what would be a seventy-five year movement on the part of the Children’s Aid Society to save more than 100,000 urban children living in poverty.

Upon his death in 1890, Brace’s sons, Robert and Charles took over their father’s work through the Children’s Aid Society until their retirements in 1931 and 1927 respectively. The brothers established many new in-city programs to help the poor, including the foster home programs, but they continued to support their father’s work of relocation.

The Children’s Aid Society is still in operation today and still helping children both in urban and rural settings. They were instrumental in helping my father and his siblings during the Great Depression….but I’m getting ahead of myself!

Check back next week for the story of Sister Irene Fitzgibbon of the Sisters of Charity followed by an examination of just exactly HOW the placing out process worked……

Monday, February 1, 2010


In the middle of the 1800’s, New York City was awash with immigrants from European countries. From 1840-1860, 4 million people entered the city through Ellis Island and amazingly, most of them stayed. With barriers related to language, transportation and income, new arrivals were soon confronted with the reality of their new life. The Land of Milk and Honey with Streets Paved in Gold was in fact, a crude existence plagued with overcrowding, a shortage of jobs, unsanitary living conditions, and difficult - often heartwrenching - decisions.

With no social programs available (no food stamps, workman’s compensation, unemployment, welfare, etc.) families were left to their own devices. If a father was hurt on the job and left unable to work, there would always be another immigrant ready to take his place. Often, with a lack of resources and a growing number of children to try and care for, parents were forced to make the difficult choice of sending their older children (ages 8 and up) out on the streets to fend for themselves.

Commonly known as “street arabs” “waifs” or “street urchins”, these children would often band together in small groups for protection and friendship. Selling newspapers, shining shoes, or begging a few coins was their only means of support. By 1853 it is estimated that 30,000 children were living on the streets of New York City. This growing problem was soon to be addressed by two people: Reverend Charles Loring Brace of Connecticut, and Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbons of the Sisters of Charity. Both Rev. Brace and Sister Irene felt called by God to help the thousands of children who not only struggled to eek out their existence, but also posed a growing threat to the crime problem in the city.
More to come…..