September 2012 Print

The Orphan Trains of New York's Sisters of Charity

Miss Susan Galleo

Dear Sister,

I received your letter and the little box you sent me, for which I return many thanks. I am grown so large that you would not know me. I have been busy all this fall helping Uncle Ned to get his corn out of the field, and he said I worked very well. I have only to cut some wood for the stove, and to play with the baby while Aunt Fanny sews. I am as happy as a little bird. I would love to see you. Please come to see me sometimes. I am learning my catechism, so that I can make my first Communion. Aunt Mary says you must pray for her and for Your little boy,


This letter is from the New York Foundling Hospital’s annual report of January 1883. Hundreds of others like it can be found in the hospital’s archives. They comprise part of the little remaining documentation regarding an era of U.S. history unfamiliar to most Americans—the era of the Orphan Trains.

The Orphan Trains ran for 75 years, from 1854 to 1929, and were the well-intentioned effort of several institutions to address the staggering number of orphaned and abandoned children on the streets of New York City. In the mid-1800’s, the port of New York was flooded with immigrants, a great number of whom were the Irish who fled their country’s devastating potato famine. Other Europeans were lured to America by advertisements about free land which could be found along the new railroad routes then being surveyed. Irish or otherwise, those who survived the journey to New York arrived to find a city ill prepared to handle their presence. There were not enough jobs for them, even temporarily. They lived in cramped and dirty tenement buildings. Thousands succumbed to cholera, typhoid fever, and tuberculosis, which thrived in such unsanitary conditions. When both of their parents died and with no extended family on whom to depend, children were left on their own to survive as well as they could. Often parents would simply abandon their children out of sheer desperation. Not surprisingly, these “street Arabs,” as they were derogatorily called, often turned to crime as a means to support themselves. They were regularly rounded up and flung into adult prisons. The Chief of Police in 1849 estimated that at the time there were 10,000 vagrant children on the streets of New York City. Other agencies’ reports estimated the number to have been around 30,000.

During this tumultuous time, Charles Loring Brace was living in New York City completing his training to become a Methodist minister. Moved by the plight of these destitute youngsters and supported by the funds of local businessmen, Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853 as a means to help the city’s abandoned children. Brace was convinced that the key to ensuring these children would grow to be productive and respectable adults was to get them off the streets of the city and into the fresh air and open, clean space of the countryside in the expanding Midwest. He believed the farmers of America’s frontier would welcome these underprivileged children. Though the lifestyle would be a drastic change for the children, it would certainly be a vast improvement over their present circumstances. What better way to transport them, he thought, than by the nation’s railways? Thus was born the idea of the Orphan Trains.

Brace’s system of the “placing out” of the orphans was quite simple. Notices were sent ahead of time announcing when and where a group of children would be arriving. Those interested in caring for one of them need only show up at the appointed place, make their selection of a child, and sign the acceptance papers. Any children not chosen boarded the train again and proceeded to the next stop. The agreement between the Children’s Aid Society and the new parents indicated that agents from the Society would make regular visits to assess the children’s new situations. For the 75 years that the Orphan Trains ran, approximately 100,000 children were placed in homes this way by the Children’s Aid Society, an average of just over 1,300 annually.

As is often the case, the Catholic Church takes an idea, either good or indifferent in itself, and improves it. In the Orphan Trains of Charles Loring Brace, the Sisters of Charity recognized an opportunity to find homes for the hundreds of abandoned infants and children at their recently-instituted New York Founding Asylum.1

The story of the Founding Asylum begins with the story of its founder, Sister Mary Irene. Born Catherine Rosamond Fitzgibbon in England in 1823, she moved to Brooklyn with her family when she was nine years old. It was during an outbreak of Asiatic cholera in 1849 that Sister Mary Irene had a vision of what her future would be. She contracted the disease. Her state of coma during the illness was so deep at one point that her parents believed her to be dead and had a priest administer last rites. Catherine, however, was not dead. She could hear the voices of those around her and prayed that God would spare her life. “And as she did...the talk and the weeping in the room seemed to quiet, replaced by a vision of a multitude of children, and the admonition, ‘These are the little ones you must save for Me.’ ”2 Catherine survived the sickness, and the next year she entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Charity, by whom she had been educated as a young girl.

Sister Mary Irene was acutely aware of the number of abandoned children, especially the infants, on New York’s streets. The unwanted babies were left daily on church doorsteps and on the stoops of houses of the wealthy. In the worst cases, they were thrown out like refuse into garbage cans or into the gutters. Many were left on the steps of St. Peter’s Convent where Sister Mary Irene and the other Sisters cared for them as best they could. Prompted by the recollection of the vision she had during her illness and by the obvious need for a better arrangement, Sister Mary Irene proposed to her superior the idea of an institution devoted to the care of these infants. Mother Mary Jerome presented the request to Archbishop John McCloskey, who approved the idea. On Oct. 5, 1869, two Sisters from St. Peter’s were sent to prepare the rented building at 17 East Twelfth Street. On Oct. 11, Sister Mary Irene joined them, and they began the Foundling Asylum of the Sisters of Charity. The Sisters had planned to open the asylum in about three months, after they had time to ready the building for the reception of the infants. An infant was left at the door on the first night. By the end of the year, 80 others had arrived.

The Orphan Trains had been running for almost 20 years by the time the Sisters of Charity began their own version in 1873. Opposed to the idea of sending the children to a destination with no idea into whose care they would be placed, the Sisters worked with priests throughout the country to have the children matched with a family before they ever boarded a train. Priests in Nebraska, Missouri, Louisiana, and other states announced during their Sunday sermons that there were orphans from the East who needed stable, Catholic homes. The interested parents signed up. Parish priests knew their congregations and could recommend suitable families to the Sisters. Prospective parents could even make requests for particular physical traits of the child. One such request read: “Your agent has promised me a nice red-haired boy. I have a red-haired wife and five red-headed girls and we want a boy to match.”3

Also differing from the Brace system was the Sisters’ insistence that the placing of the children be the end of a process instead of the beginning of one. Although infants were regularly placed with families, children from the Foundling Asylum were most often sent on the trains only after having spent several years in the care of the Sisters and of a closely-monitored network of foster parents. Children left at the asylum were often sick. Of the 1,377 infants admitted during the first year of operation, 772 died. The babies’ first months were most often concentrated on their being nursed to health. The Sisters then placed the infants and toddlers in foster homes so that beds were available for the other orphans continually arriving. After having spent time in foster care, the children returned to the Asylum, healthy and adjusted to spending time in a family environment. The final step was the placement with a permanent family.

When a group of children had been matched with families, the Sisters prepared the children for their journey. They were outfitted in the best clothes the Sisters could find. On the inside of one of each child’s garments was pinned a slip of paper with a number written on it. Somewhere in another town or another state, an excited couple held documents with that same number. The youngsters boarded the train with two Sisters and several social workers who always accompanied them on the trips. Sister Mary Irene saw each train off from the station until her death in 1896. Once the group arrived at their destination, the Sisters assisted with the matching of a child to his new mother and father. Sister Justina, O.S.F., who rode the Orphan Trains in 1913, visited the Foundling Hospital in 1969 and read the following about her first meeting with her father: “Little Edith Peterson, then twenty-two months old, was placed aboard a baby train with fifty other Foundling Hospital children on their way to new homes. The number forty-one was pinned to her, the same number given to John and Mary, who came to the train station on the appointed day to meet their new daughter. When John Bieganek first spotted her, he commented, ‘I hope she’s number forty-one!’ and seeing that she was, he scooped her into his arms.”4

The arrival of the trains was a local event. Even people who were not taking children came to the stations to watch the activity. In the contracts between the parents and the Foundling Asylum were provisions regarding upbringing, inheritance, and annual visits by the Sisters or their representatives. The children began their journeys with no family and ended their journeys with mothers, fathers, and siblings. Over 20,000 children were placed in homes by the Sisters of Charity during the 50 years they participated in the Orphan Train movement.

The Orphan Trains stopped running in 1929. Child welfare laws were being established to address orphans and abandoned children. Both the Children’s Aid Society and the Foundling Asylum realized that placing children closer to their original homes better served all involved than sending them states away. Annual visits could be conducted more easily. Keeping the children closer to the places of birth proved less traumatic to these young ones who had experienced enough trauma already. In our modern way of thinking, the idea of shipping orphans and abandoned children to places unknown and into the homes of strangers might seem outlandish. However, the Sisters of Charity, faced with an almost impossible task of caring for such a number of orphans, made the best out of a bleak situation and sent out on America’s Orphan Trains the most precious of cargo.


1 Other orphanages and institutions besides the Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundling Asylum placed children on the trains. Many eastern cities participated in the movement. However, the CAS and the Foundling Asylum placed the largest numbers.

2 Gottlieb, Martin. The Foundling: The Story of the New York Foundling Hospital. New York: Norfleet, 2001. Print. p. 24.

3 Gottlieb, The Foundling, p. 56.

4 Andrea Warren, We Rode the Orphan Trains (Boston: Houghton, 2001). pp. 51-52.