My Father, the Orphan

A thank you to the nuns, and a story relevant to child psychology today....    

Wesley Van Ornum was born December 14, 1914--a year when an assassin’s bullet began a war as brutal as any, where death came by mustard gas instead of suicide bombers. Soon my father would experience losses as sharp and painful as many soldiers or their families.

At age six, my father was placed in St. Patrick’s Orphanage, in Watertown, New York, run by the order of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. I came to know my father’s childhood through his stories, a family visit in 1963, and old letters discovered in a storage chest after he died. Life at the orphanage was strict. There were many chores. It was chilly inside in the fall and winter, wool underwear and sweaters provided heat that the furnace couldn’t. Instead of meat there was soup. One day each year offered respite: at Christmas, every child attended three Masses, received an orange and substantial present, and enjoyed chocolate candies.

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The Sisters by necessity reared the children with structure and discipline, but were wise enough to overlook some naughtiness and rule breaking. My father enjoyed reminiscing about unauthorized over-the-back-fence raids to the apple orchards of Old Man Skinner, who responded by shooting rock salt from a shotgun high into the sky.

For seven years my father experienced a daily routine that must have been exhausting, yet comforting. Everyone rose early to do chores, and after this the nuns and children worshipped, sang, and chanted Latin at Mass. Then came breakfast, school, playground, dinner, homework, and bedtime prayers. Through the rhythm and companionship of each day, my father developed friendships with many Sisters--relationships that continued for over 65 years. Even Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig found time to help out--a sepia photo from 1927 (above) shows Dad, Lou Gehrig, and the Babe standing together, smiling and relaxed.

My father’s lifelong love of science, which would lead to participation in the Manhattan Project, ownership of a patent and two now unclassified monographs for the U.S. Air Force, began one Christmas. Sister Basil reminisced in a letter, “Do you remember when you got the Gilbert chemistry set? The light of success was in your eyes, the day you experimented with the litmus paper and it showed a change in the weather. Sister Mildred (a future college president) remarked to me after your graduation, ‘Boys and girls study science just to pass an examination but Wesley knows his science.'”

When he entered young adulthood, encouragement from the nuns continued from afar. Sister Dominica wrote: “You may be sure our thoughts traveled as fast, as fast as your train. I awoke about 2:30 Friday morning wondering where you were and if it was cold. It was raining and quite cold here. I called Saint Joseph and told him it was time for him to go meet you at five in Chicago.

 “At breakfast time, again I wondered does he (Wesley) have a warm breakfast: little did I picture you sitting along a canal, perhaps with a cold lunch only, as you stated in your letter. Oh! These things are so harsh to human nature, however it must be good for the soul, or else God would not permit it.”

My father was happily married for 45 years, raised a family, had a successful career, and always gave support and help to family and friends.

Although psychologists and others decry the problems in orphanages, have foster care, adoption, and residential treatment solved the woes of abandoned children? At least one psychological study, showed that orphans, as compared to their counterparts, had a 40% higher graduation rate, a 10 to 60% higher median income, higher happiness, and lower rates of unemployment, poverty, and incarceration.

When I think fondly of the Sisters of St. Joseph who raised my father, these words come to mind: "They were the pride of their generation; they were the glory of their times" (Ecclesiastics, 44:7).

William van Ornum

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Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 3 months ago
What a wonderful story!  One of my very good friends was a Sister of St. Joseph in her younger years.  I will send this story to her.
As the mother of an adopted child, I tend to think that children fare better when given the long-term bonding and relationships that come with a family. 
I don't know that I could ever adapt to institutional living - but then, sometimes it is in difficult situations that the soul can find its wings.  And sometimes we don't know our situation is bad unless someone else interprets it that way to us.  Your father must have been the kind to know his blessings.
8 years 3 months ago
I bet that many readers here owe a lot to the nuns who taught them years ago.   I know I do and was extremely happy a few years ago when I was able to speak with my 8th grade nun and thank her for what she did for me.  There were a lot of heroines in those convents that gave up their lives to help others and have gone unrecognized.  The Catholic Church is a remarkable institution to have inspired so much dedication and produced so many good people.
we vnornm
8 years 3 months ago
Beth, thanks for thinking of the Sisters of Saint Joseph and helping to keep their legacy alive. I think their mission comes from following in the tradition of St. Joseph, the "foster father" of our Lord. It's a wonderful thing that you can provide love and stability for a child who in other situations or times might not have received that. best, bill
we vnornm
8 years 3 months ago
Dear JR Cosgrove:

Yes, many heroines out there and sadly, too many that have gone unrecognized. Sometimes I think we Catholics need to go back and look at our culture and be as assertive as many other groups who prize and publicize their history. I think you've hit on my reason for picking this topic this week. To rephrase Shakespeare, "the evil that Catholics do is obsessively repeated, the good is oft never reported in the press." Thanks very much for writing and for remembering goodness in your past. bill van ornum
we vnornm
8 years 3 months ago
Amber,
Thanks for reading this short piece. Sometimes I feel sad that the ranks of the good sisters are not what they were, but on the other hand we have many great young people going into fields like school psychology, social work, and teaching. The baton has been passed, but I hope keeping in mind some inspiring things in those old days will help guide us into the future. amdg. bvo
Thomas Dammrich
8 years 3 months ago
Thanks for sharing this.  I have said frequently in recent years that we need to return to Orphanages to raise kids whose parents aren't willing or able.  I worked with a guy who is now in his mid-80's but grew up at Maryville.  His parents were poor and had 10 kids and just couldn't afford to raise them.  So they took them to Maryville and visited them frequently but let the orphanage raise them.  He was a very successful man who, himself, raised a large and wonderful family.  I am fully with you on the idea of resurrecting orphanages and funding them adequately to educate the children.  I guess we would spend less money for far better results!
8 years 3 months ago
What a beautiful tribute to your father and to the Sisters of St. Joseph who helped to raise him.  In the fifties, while I was in college, I volunteered at an orphanage operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph.  It was appropriately named, St. Joseph's Home for Children.  I remember that the children were lovingly and well cared for.  That Home has been long gone.
Beth, it is every adoption social worker's dream to find loving parents for the children in their care.  Some of my happiest memories of work are the times I placed children with adoptive parents.  I still get an annual Christmas card from adoptive parents of a toddler I placed with them in 1990.  He and they are doing very well!  God bless you and your family.
I wonder if the tide is turning toward forms of institutional care, as you mentioned, Bill.  Here in San Diego County, we have what is called San Pasqual Academy.  It opened as a public-private project because of the poor record of youth in the foster care system-high numbers of placements, lack of fully developed independent living skills and youth leaving foster care without earning a high school diploma.  It is a residential-educational facility for teens and it opened in 2001.  The large campus has its own high school with both vocational and college prep classes, sports , independent living skills training and home-like settings.  From what I've heard it is considered to be successful. 
I like your rephrasing of Shakespeare!!  How right you are.
Francis Perry Azah
8 years 3 months ago
This is a soul-inspiring narration of how wonderful those nuns were at the time. They were dedicated to their vocation and sincerely sacrificed their lives for the good of the less-privileged in society.

In fact your father was “lucky” to have the grace of being housed by the nuns for all those formative years as a child; and been loved by them. The correspondence between them shows that distance cannot be an obstacle in showing affection to one who really needs it. That was what the Lord said to His disciples that others will know that you are my followers if you love one another. And elsewhere he admonished us to be of assistance to orphans and those who need our utmost help.

If more people of the new millennium would be able to dedicate their time, talent and treasure for the good of numerous orphans in our towns and cities like the Sisters of St. Joseph and other religious in the past; I believe we will be fulfilling our Christian mandate of being witnesses of the Good News of Salvation with our very lives.

The family is vital in nurturing a child, which positively shapes the future of that child. The love of a fahter and a mother help the child to be well balanced psychologically, physically and spiritually. These aspects of life was what the holy nuns tried to provide to your father and other children. Thanks for sharing this story with us.
we vnornm
8 years 3 months ago
Dear Father Perry,
Perhaps now and in the future the laity need to be more involved, even in structured ways through new forms of ministry with children. I attended a forum on human rights that focused on children, sponsored by the United Nations and presented at the meeting of the American Psychological Association in Toronto. One issue that was brought up: many men are not going into fields involving work with children, fearful of excessive scrutiny or one false accusation that could ruin a career. How many men work in elementary schools? I know this is on the minds of young persons deciding on careers. Cardinal Dulles, before his death, brought up some good point on this issue but they were not implemented. Do we call this kind of effect "collateral damage." Sad, sad, sad. amdg, bvo
we vnornm
8 years 3 months ago
Hi Thom,
Ten kids! Glad that this man was able to work cooperatively with the orphanage! One of the good points of the nuns was the continual presence of the same Sisters during the child's stay. Today this same effectiveness is replicated by childcare and agencies serving the developmentally disabled. Although the type of facility is different-group home, developmental center, etc.-the highest quality agencies retain staff, even sometimes for decades, and this gives the kids stability. best, bill
we vnornm
8 years 3 months ago
Dear David,
Let's hope that some kind of tort reform takes place amidst all the health care changes. It seems unlikely, though. But soon there may not be any neurosurgeons or ob/gyns when they are needed: the malpractice for these specialities and risk of lawsuits have skyrocketed. The Sisters recognized what many psychological studies have replicated: of all child rearing styles, those that display a high level of guidance/structure + support/love are the most effective. best, bill
we vnornm
8 years 3 months ago
Dear Janice,
I would be interested in learning more about the San Pascal Academy, especially the funding mechanisms. Do you have a link for myself and others? For over 30 years I have been affiliated with Astor Services for Children in Dutchess County, New York (http://www.astorservices.org/). I can still walk into the residence in Rhinebeck, NY and meet people who worked there decades ago. This atmosphere can be hard to create in strictly private agencies, so the combination of faith-based and public agencies offers potential. But I am not sure how the political winds are blowing on this. Something for me to research, and i'd appreciate any leads from you or others. Thanks for starting a dialog with Beth! amdg, bill
James Sheehan
8 years 3 months ago
Dr. Van Ornum,
Thank you for passing this article along.  What a fantastic story.  It's refreshing to hear an orphan's story that doesn't remind me of a passage from ''Oliver Twist''. 
It also raises the question of what is better for a child.  Running the risk of being bounced around as a number in a State run foster care system that's funding is subject to the whims of politicians or be part of a more institutional, but certainly more structured orphanage environment.
 Be well,
 James Sheehan
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
we vnornm
8 years 3 months ago
James,
It's really great to hear from you! The foster care system is a labyrinth and there are many degrees of quality in the placements. Some of the best I have come across are called "therapeutic foster homes" where children, usually children at-risk for psychiatric problems, are placed. The foster parents receive training and ongoing support. But it's expensive. Hope you keep reading the blog. best, bvo
8 years 3 months ago
Bill (and any other readers who may be interested) this is the web site of the San Pasqual Academy:  www.sanpasqualacademy.org
I will try to get in touch with someone at San Diego County who would be knowledgeable about the academy.  I will let you know if I have any luck. 
I appreciate how you respond to each of the commentators.  You have a perspective that adds to "In all Things"-knowlege and practice in psychology and in Catholic spirtuality and practice.  A much needed combination.  We all have a lot to learn from you!
Amber Anne
8 years 3 months ago
This story is touching, thank you for sharing it :) It goes to show how resilient some children can be no matter their circumstances. I find it so intriguing that two children in the same environment can be so different, one child shows resilience and success where another child just doesn’t make it. I attribute this greatly to having compassionate people truly care for you, and to have someone who is your “role model” as I am sure those nuns who cared so deeply led to his successful resilience. How interesting :)
we vnornm
8 years 3 months ago
Thanks, Janice. I reviewed the San Pasqual Academy website and am impressed. The land formerly belonged to the Seventh Day Adventist Church and was developed into a private-public partnership that created the first residential treatment center for foster care teens. The goal was to provide more stability and a standard core of experience. The advisoty board includes representatives from the court as well as current and former residents. As always with the web, if I were interested in any program I would conduct careful due diligence and visit the place, talk with many people, etc. But this place looks like it has excellent potential not only for placements but as a model for other counties and states. Perhaps there could be a full feature article on this sometime. Keep reading! amdg bill

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