Saint Joseph's Industrial School and Orphanage, and later Home for the Aged, Bethany, Oklahoma.

It opened in 1912 and by the time it closed in the 1965 several thousand children, and aged, had been cared for by the facility.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Orphan in Early 20th Century America

In 1848 in Arkansas one family lost both parents, two children and orphaned five others. Extended cousins, grandparents, and aunts and uncles stepped in to absorb these children into their family units.  That was the way things usually went but sometimes there was no extended families, sometimes the friends were taxed to add another person to often overcrowded living quarters and food needs and sometimes there were no friends. New immigrants, strangers passing through, and abandoned children presented a challenge to local communities and charitable groups.

Stepping into this void in the Victorian era were various institutions conceptualized as a helpful force in society but which often, for one reason or another, failed to live up to their noble goals.  Church and religious groups were one force for community care of those in need.

In the later half of the 19th century, due to illness, economic depression, and many other forces there were many orphans.  Many methods, philosophies, and approaches to care of the children without parents.  Some were spurred by sheer sense of civic duty, some by deep seated religious beliefs about caring for those in need, some by new sociological ideas about social engineering, educational concepts which attempted to merge factory floor efficiency with school, and various views on the nature of psychological development.

The truth was that sometimes children found themselves, through no fault of their parents or themselves, "temporarily orphaned."   Several stories have emerged of children who were sent to St. Joseph's due to serious accidents to a parent which created a chain reaction of job loss, home loss, and the total chaos of sudden temporary poverty.  Several of these children were reunited once the parent or parents had healed and found work.  The children's facility then served as a port of safety during temporary crises.

For others, however, the stories were heartbreaking tales of children left alone, or abandoned, and then struggling in a new place, among new people, and a foreign world which seemed overly harsh and confining. 

The facility opened in 1912 but already there were new models of child care and orphans filtering through the country.  The well known orphan trains would continue to run into the 1920's taking eastern orphans across the Midwest to place them with families who would come to every stop.  The need, however, was great because several plagues, diseases, unsafe working conditions, sudden death, and destitution were creating what seemed an endless stream of orphans.  

Facilities such as St. Joseph's attempted to fulfill their mission of Christian charity and love. In the process they utilized what were believed to be the latest and most progressive ideas of caring for orphans.  

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