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.
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