Josephine, 52, wanted to go home again.
But her idea of home isn’t what many folks would picture. It involves dozens of children and the nuns who cared for them.
Josephine came to St. Joseph Children’s Home at age 9, and stayed until she graduated from high school, 8 1/2 years later. It’s the only home she knew as a child. Yet after all these years, the stigma of growing up in an orphanage lingers. She didn’t want her last name used in this story. “I feel embarrassed,” she said.
But her longing to reconnect with the people she’d grown up with prompted an unusual family reunion. On Sept. 23, a handful of former residents gathered on the lawn at St. Joseph Family Center, along with some of the Catholic sisters who’d cared for them. They came to share their memories of the place many of them called home.
Founded in 1890 by Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, the orphanage was home to hundreds of children before closing its doors in 1981. “We opened with five sisters and six kids,” said Sister Pat Millen, executive director of St. Joseph Family Center. “Our archives say about 70 kids came through here each year.”
One of those kids was Edward Murphy. His children, Mike Murphy and Nellie Graham, attended the reunion. “Dad arrived here in 1892,” said Murphy as he looked across the sprawling lawn. “He lived and worked here until he married in 1916.”
Sister Marie Linehan also attended the reunion. For more than 20 years, she served as a houseparent in the girls’ dorm. “It was a full-time job,” she said. “We were Mom, Dad and everything else.”
Linehan cared for children who ranged in age from 2 to 18. “We gave them structure and taught them how to care for themselves,” she said. “They needed a lot of love and care.”
Josephine said she certainly did. “I wasn’t sure why I and one of my sisters ended up there,” she recalled. “We’d been in the system for quite some time. We were told by our foster parents that they couldn’t find our birth parents, so they couldn’t adopt us. They didn’t know what else to do.”
She came to St. Joseph’s in 1970. “It was hard at first. We didn’t speak much English – we spoke Spanish. It was hard to communicate.”
The sting of being different from other kids played out in many ways. “We’d go to the store to get shoes and we had nuns buying them, instead of Mom and Dad. We’d see other moms and dads visit their kids and we’d wonder where our mom and dad were.”
But as the years passed, Josephine settled into the routine and St. Joseph’s began to feel like home. In 1974, she and the other children were moved from the original institutional building into five cottages. It was a welcome change.
“I remember the old building. It was one big dorm. All the girls slept in one room and shared the bathroom,” Josephine said.
She eventually formed close bonds with the other children. “We all got along pretty good,” she said. “We depended on each other. I’ve kept in touch with some of the kids. They feel like my brothers and sisters.”
Josephine also has warm memories of the staff. “They made me who I am today – a strong person,” she said. “Sister Ruth was our houseparent, but she treated us like normal kids. She was amazing.”
St. Joseph’s and the children who lived there have a special place in Linehan’s heart, too. “They were beautiful kids,” she said. “It was a wonderful, blessed time.”
At the reunion, guests walked the grounds, marveling at the changes. “The barn used to be over here,” said an older gentleman, while another fellow pointed out where the tennis courts and ball fields once stood.
In 1981, due to changes in state regulations and funding issues, the children’s home was closed. However, St. Joseph Family Center continues to serve the community by providing counseling services and spiritual direction through healing arts, workshops and retreats.
Josephine visits frequently. It’s a peaceful place for her. She said, “It’s home, you know.”