On Saturday, July 12th a grade school research project that began in October 2012 came full circle for a local 7th grader. As a requirement for the 7th grade Social Studies class, Parrish Vienne of Abbeville began to think about what her Social Studies project topic might be. The journey began at the library where she pulled many books of various topics that seemed to interest her but one specific book stood out among the rest, The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America by Marilyn Holt.
This topic of orphan trains in general captured her interest and as she read on this became a true learning experience because she had not heard of this subject matter before. As she progressed in her research she took to the internet and stumbled upon many articles about the Orphan Trains and more specifically as they pertained to Louisiana. She discovered that there is an actual Louisiana Orphan Train Society and an Orphan Train Museum in Opelousas, Louisiana. This was the perfect place to do some hands on research, so a visit was planned for a Saturday outing. During this visit to the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum, Parrish was warmly welcomed and we were all pleasantly surprised to find a wealth of pictures, exhibits, individual stories and perhaps the most helpful, an actual orphan train rider’s daughter. Mrs. Margaret Briley, a volunteer at the museum, upon learning that this was for a school project, happily walked Parrish through the whole museum, giving a personal tour of sorts and told many stories and gave invaluable information. Mrs. Briley even shared her own fascinating personal story of the journey her father, John Brown made from New York to Louisiana on one of the very Orphan Trains she was there to research.
Notable things that Parrish learned from Mrs. Briley and from the museum itself were the circumstances that led to so many children becoming orphans in the early 1900’s. It is now attributed to the tremendous increase in immigration to America in the early 1900’s and orphan trains ran between the years of 1854-1929. The increase in immigration to New York caused overcrowding, disease, hunger and starvation. Many parents could not find work and could no longer care for their children, so thousands of children were left to fend for themselves on the streets. The Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul recognized this growing problem on the streets of New York and moved with compassion for the children, began to search for ways to rescue these abandoned and desperate children who had no advocates and no protection. This is before the welfare system was created in the United States.
The Sisters of Charity created the New York Foundling Hospital. A basket was left in the foyer where desperate parents could leave their children in the care of the Sisters and hopefully have some chance of survival and a better life. Unfortunately, as the Sisters continued to accept more and more orphans the conditions in the hospital were not much better with the increased overcrowding and the Sisters had to find a way to give these children homes. The Sisters worked with local Catholic priests throughout the country to find homes for these the children and the “baby trains” or “orphan train” system was created.
Most of the children who came to Louisiana are from the New York Foundling hospital and the trains came to cities such as Lafayette, New Iberia, New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Opelousas just to name a few. It is estimated that 2,000 children came to Louisiana on orphan trains.
Today, the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum in Opelousas is one of only two orphan train museums in the Country and the Louisiana Orphan Train Society, mostly descendants of orphan train riders is dedicated to preserving for future generations, such as Parrish and educating the public on this time in the history of our Country and our State.
In November 2013, Parrish completed all components that were required of the Social Studies project which included a research paper, a visual project board, and as an added bonus she dressed in costume to present her project. The project was entitled “Whistle Stops: Louisiana Orphan Trains”.
At Matrait Memorial Catholic School, Parrish competed with her peers and was awarded First Place in the Louisiana History Category. This gave her the chance to advance where she placed First again at the District Level, and again at the Regional Level which was held at UL Convention Center. Finally in April 2014 she earned the honor of competing with children from all over the State at Burton Coliseum in Lake Charles. The State Social Studies fair is the culmination of the winners from all corners of the State. Just to take your project to State is an honor and over 700 projects were competing this year at the State level. Like with any other contest, the competition gets very tough the more you advance. Parrish achieved the top honor and was awarded First Place in Louisiana History Category for the State of Louisiana.
Upon learning that Parrish had placed First at the State level, a few members of the Louisiana Orphan Train Society invited her to attend their annual meeting for members. This is a wonderful gathering where board members, members of the Louisiana Orphan Train Society, family and friends of descendants and members of the public are invited to the museum for food, entertainment, awards and an open mic opportunity where people can share their personal stories of their loved one’s abandonment, journey to a new home, and life anew. The only known living Louisiana orphan train rider Mrs. Alice Kearns Bernard was in attendance that day and this held a very special meaning to Parrish because she had read about Mrs. Alice over and over during her research. Held on Saturday, July 12th 2014, Parrish’s research and project that had lasted all year finally came full circle when she was honored to be asked to present her speech and display her project to those in attendance at the annual meeting.
However, this time putting on the costume and giving her speech was completely different because it was no longer about competing. It was about honoring those little orphans who so long ago persevered and triumphed through horrible life circumstances at the very beginning of their fragile lives. These children who were torn from families, separated from siblings, abandoned, some of them starving and sick. Those innocent children who had no idea where they were going when they were shuffled onto trains and sent to a strange land and countryside, where many did not speak the language of the French speaking Louisiana families they were placed with. Where many had never seen a farm animal and yet were sent to live and work on a rural farm. These kids who did not know their own ancestry which was supposed to be kept a big secret and came to live in a place where many were teased and mistreated on the school yard because of the stigma in those days and endured being called “yankee” and treated like a second class citizen. Some came to find happy and loving homes where they were completely accepted as a true family member; while others endured a life of indentured servitude, and many of these orphans were rarely officially adopted. This time giving her speech and presenting her project was to honor those who today keep alive the memory of the orphan train riders. Parrish thought it was only fitting that she donate her project to the museum where others can view it as they visit the museum. Special thanks from Parrish goes to Mrs. Margaret Briley, daughter of orphan train rider John Brown and Mrs. Flo Inhern both of the Louisiana Orphan Train Society, the Board and Members of the Louisiana Orphan Train Society and curators of the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum.