The Orphan Trains and the New York Foundling Hospital connection:
To appreciate the orphan train museum here in Opelousas, you first need to know the history of “the Orphan Trains” & the connection to the New York Foundling Hospital run by The Sisters of Charity.
About the New York Foundling Hospital:
The New York Foundling Hospital was established in 1869 by Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbon of the Sisters of Charity of New York as a shelter for abandoned infants.
In the late 1800’s, thousands of immigrants were arrivng in New York from Europe, and having spent all their money on passage to the United States, in some cases they could not support their children. Many immigrant families, unable to support their children, left their babies at the Foundling Home for care. In addition disease was rampant, as many lived as many as 8 people in a one room tenament and death was commonplace. In other cases, the children were actually orphans or left here by unmarried women.
When the Foundling Hospital home began to overflow, Sister Mary Irene had to find suitable homes for the babies, and that is where the orphan trains came into the picture. The Sisters worked in conjunction with priests throughout the Midwest and South in an effort to place these children in Catholic families.
An agent for the hospital was sent around the country to confer with pastors of churches in small towns. The pastors in turn asked their people to open their hearts and take in an orphan. Families who wanted the children had to fill out a lengthy questionnaire with their pastors’ help, and also signed a promise to raise the children properly.
The New York Foundling Hospital sent infants and toddlers to prearranged Roman Catholic homes from 1875 to 1914, and that is where the orphan trains enter the picture.
Of course, not all stories ended happily: in some cases the orphans were used as cheap farm labor and never really became part of their adoptive family. But you have to remember, there were few alternatives in those days, so even those not treated well were probably better off than those left on the streets. And most cases did end well.
Most of the orphans grew up to became successful members of society and included doctors, lawyers, farmers, business men, teachers, laborers and even governors.. It has been estimated that there are over two million descendants of Orphan Train riders, and they all share a common heritage, no matter where their parents and grandparents started life.
You can read some of their testimonies here (link will open in new tab)
About the Orphan Trains:
The concept of the orphan trains came from Charles Loring Brace, who was concerned with the abandoned street children in New York. He founded the Children’s Aid Society, but soon became overwhelmed by the number of children needing care. The idea of sending groups of children to rural areas for adoption then took hold. In the U.S.A., between 1854 and 1929, nearly a quarter of a million children were resettled under what came to be known as the Orphan Train Movement. Originally many of these trains went to the midwest, but by 1907, the trains began coming to Louisiana, bringing over 2,000 orphans. The trains stopped in New Orleans, Morgan City, Lafayette, Opelousas and Mansura.
About the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum in Opelousas:
Those orphans arriving in Opelousas are remembered in the museum here. The museum contains a great collection of artifacts and photos that tell the story of the orphan trains that arrived here. Click here for an interesting video produced by the museum.
Finding the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum in Opelousas:
Address: 233 S. Academy, Opelousas, La. 70570
Tel: +1 (337) 948-9922
Note: There is a National Orphan Train Museum in Concordia, Kansas (link will open in a new tab)