" Get rid of the child
or I will kill it"
told Mary on
December 23, 1896,
about their newborn
A week later, Mary
left her only child at
the New York
a Catholic orphanage.
|ORPHAN TRAIN RIDERS OF NEW YORK (MIDWEST)
Sister Justina Bieganek to celebrate 100th birthday
Little Falls, MN January 2012
Sister Justina Bieganek, OSF, will celebrate her 100th
birthday with Mass at 11 a.m. and open house from 2-4
p.m on Sunday Jan 15, at St Francis Convent, Little
Falls. The public is invited to join the festivities.
A memory written by Arnold Meier, son of Orphan Train Rider Ben Lester Meier, the evening before Sister Justina's funeral.
"The Orphan Train Reunions"
Sister Justina and the annual Orphan Train Reunions attracted many Orphans including my father Ben, we don't think he ever missed a gathering - it
appeared they knew each other forever.
My father was a shorter statured person - Justina called him "Little Bennie." Born in 1898, he was 14 years Justina's senior. "But she kept him in
line." Bennie passed away in 1987. A few weeks short of the age of 90. Sister Justina and a few from the Franciscan community attended his
funeral. In her condolence card for the family, Justina wrote "We will miss Little Bennie".
Thank you Arnie Meier
Nellie was a ward there until she was three years old, when the overcrowded orphanage took advantage of the Orphan Train and sent Nellie out west with her name pinned to her dress. The Orphan Train was a
Catholic concept. The idea was any Catholic family could meet the train and pick out a child to bring home. There were no back ground checks or attempts to protect the orphans from abusive or non-loving families.
Often it was families looking for free "help" in their homes or fields that took the children in. Nellie was rousted from bed, bathed, dressed and fed, then taken to Grand Central Station where she was placed on a train
traveling to St Paul, MN. Nellie was placed on the Great Northern Pacific Railroad for the trip to Paynesville, MN. She had been trains for 42 hours and traveled almost 1300 miles. Jacob Neutzling of Lake Henry
Township, brought home. In the 1900 census she is listed as a "lodger" in his home. When Jacob's wife died, she went to live with George and Eva Weidner in Littonville (Regal) MN. The Weidners had all boys and
Mrs. Weidner wanted help in the kitchen. Nellie became the maid and housekeeper. Eva Weidner was a hard woman. Nellie forgot about her early life and believed the Weidners were her family. She always
wondered why the boys treated so nicely while she was beaten and made to work so hard. George was a kindly man, but he worked away often, leaving her to the mercy of Eva. Nellie's Indenture Agreement was
filed in 1910, officially making her a legal slave, with her knowing. Nellie remembers, "One time Eva beat me with a board. I was on the floor, Eva was hitting and kicking me. Each time the board hit my head I saw
stars. I thought she was going to kill me." Then one of Eva's sons came in and grabbed the board and pushed Eva away. He said "Mother, that is enough". At a baseball game, Nellie fell in love with a kind man
named Frank Breitbach, and through Frank's family moved out to Montana, he wrote to Nellie, and George helped hide the letters from Eva. Frank wanted to marry her, so she traveled with Frank's sister out to the
Montana homestead. The priest that was to marry Frank and Nellie needed her birth certificate and she had him write to Eva Weidner. Eva responded "She is not our daughter: you have to write to the New York
Foundling home for that Information." This was the first time Nellie heard they were not her parents. In remembering, she said "I always wished I could run away, but I didn't have a red cent to my name". Married in
September of 1922, Nellie and Frank had five children and returned to Minnesota. Theirs was a happy home, full of all the love that Nellie had missed in her early years. In 1949, a letter arrived from the New York
Foundling Home. Nellie's birth mother had written them inquiring after her daughter. The nuns were asking permission to connect them. Many years of questions prompted Nellie to agree. Her mother, Mary Kittrick
Underwood, was living on Welfare Island, having lost all of her money to a niece while she was in the hospital. Nellie asked her to come live with them in Minnesota. Mary was a quiet woman,now aged 82. She
followed her daughter's train odyssey across the states to Minnesota. She explained to Nellie that her father had threaten to kill her if Mary had not given her away. Although she was a Presbyterian, she wanted
Nellie to find a good home, and thought the Catholics would do that for her. Nellie learned she had no brothers or sisters. Mary could not settle comfortably in Minnesota, having lived in NYC her whole life. She only
stayed a week and then returned to the city, where she died in the early 1950's. With a life of abandonment as her background. Nellie learned to be a wonderful mother to her own children. Nellie died in 1986, after
sharing her story with her children and grandchildren. As we sit here in 2014, we cannot imagine putting a 3 year old child alone on a train, with no knowledge of who would take her, or what they would do with her.
Nellie is a reminder that whatever "Orphan Train" rides your past, your future is what you make it.
Nellie' s biological mother
Mary Kittrick Underwood
Nellie Underwood as an adult
Nellie as a young girl
Pioneer profile: Riding the Orphan Train
by Suz Anne Wipperling summer of 2014