Posted tagged ‘Altamont’

“Stuck with a Bunch of Nuns” – Holy Family Orphanage

July 16, 2010

The following essay is an excerpt from my book My Marquette, coming Christmas 2010! For more information, visit

My Marquette - coming Christmas 2010!


She went and adopted Jessie, but she stuck me in the orphanage with a bunch of nuns…if the old woman didn’t want me, what right did she have to stick me in a Catholic orphanage? We were good Finnish Lutherans until she stuck her nose in our business.

Narrow Lives

            In The Queen City, Thelma Bergmann adopts Jessie Hopewell, but no one wants to adopt Jessie’s sister, Lyla. Consequently, Lyla is sent to the Holy Family Orphanage. Years later, as an adult, Lyla remains bitter over the situation as obvious from her complaint above.

            Whether or not Thelma Bergmann made the right decision in not adopting Lyla—based on Lyla’s personality readers are bound to differ in their opinions—Lyla does end up going to the orphanage. She does not view her experience there as very pleasant, but then, Lyla is not a very pleasant person from the way she is depicted in my novels. Nevertheless, as an author, my heart goes out to her and I have every intention of letting her tell her own full story in a future book.

            What was it like to be a child in the Holy Family Orphanage, or even one of the sisters who cared for the children? Whenever I drive past the abandoned building on Altamont and Fisher Streets, I can only wonder what stories it would tell if its walls could talk.

            Built in 1915, the Holy Family Orphanage was the dream of Bishop Frederick Eis of the Marquette Diocese. Bishop Eis wished to have a place that would provide a shelter to the children, as well as be a school to prepare them to enter the adult world. The cost to build the orphanage ranged between $90,000 to $120,000, an astronomical sum a century ago, but Bishop Eis knew the welfare and care of the children was priceless.

Holy Family Orphanage Today

           Doubtless, life in the orphanage was far from perfect, but it did provide a buffer between the children and life on the streets. The building was built to be sturdy, made of concrete and brick with sandstone arched porches for decoration. The Sisters of Saint Agnes came to instruct, feed, clothe, discipline, and love sometimes as many as 200 children at a time.

            The orphanage would stay open for more than fifty years. Its final inhabitants were a group of Cuban children, refugees from Fidel Castro’s Revolution. Imagine the thoughts of those boys, fleeing their warm native tropical land to experience their first winter in Marquette.

            No one can speak for all the children who passed through the orphanage’s doors. Many of them probably felt bitter, abandoned by their parents, or grieving over parents’ deaths. Others may have longed to be adopted, or simply longed for the day they could leave to be on their own. The orphanage was far from a life on Park Avenue, but it was a home, an in-between place, for many children, doubtless a place that gave hope to go out and find a better life when they were old enough.

            Today, the orphanage is in a dilapidated and abandoned state. It remains, looming on the hill as people drive by on US 41, scarcely noticing it is there. It should be noticed. It was the home to thousands over the course of its lifetime. A million dreams were dreamt by its children. Today, perhaps the orphanage has its own dreams for a brighter future. It has passed through about a dozen owners’ hands in the last twenty years, awaiting development or destruction. After providing a home to thousands, it is now itself an abandoned orphan.

            The Holy Family Orphanage’s future is less important than the story of all those who passed through it. These are the real life stories which are greater than fiction, the stories that bear remembering, the truth about what life was like in Marquette nearly a century ago. Who can count how many people’s lives today would be different if they, their parents, or grandparents had not found at the Holy Family Orphanage a family when they had none?