“We are all smart, strong people who didn’t get to be who we should have been”
The St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington, now closed, was home to more than 13,000 children in its 140 years of operation, a Catholic-run institution held in high regard in the community for its care of neglected, orphaned youth.
In the 1990s, though, accounts began to emerge concerning a darker side of life inside the orphanage: reports by scores of former orphanage residents detailing physical, emotional, psychological, and sometimes sexual abuse at the hands of nuns and other clerical personnel.
Few believed them at first, and their cases against the state diocese were thrown out in court. But these ex-orphans persevered, ultimately winning validation for the harm done to them and then working for laws to protect vulnerable children in Vermont today and into the future.
Life at the Orphanage:
Every child arrived at the Orphanage due to their own unique circumstance. Some were brought there by their families because of broken marriages or poverty. Others arrived due to familial abuse or neglect. Still others arrived as infants when single mothers found little social support to raise children as their own. By the 1920s and increasing thereafter, some were placed by the State of Vermont.
Life at St. Joseph's Orphanage was regimented. Upon arrival, children were assigned a number. That number, rather than their name, often became the way nuns addressed them. Girls and boys lived in separate dormitories and saw each other only when they were in school, at chapel or during special events. Infants were placed in a nursery.
Each day, the children were awoken at sunrise. They would kneel by their bed for a morning prayer, go to breakfast and chapel, then classes. There were also assigned daily chores, which included working in the laundry and kitchen, scrubbing floors or delivering meals to live-in priests. Visits from outsiders, including relatives, were limited.
Due to this insular setting, the outside world looked at the orphanage and saw it as a safe, respectable way to care for children who came from troubled families or difficult circumstances. Until the 1960s, the state had little oversight on life at the orphanage.
For some children, their orphanage experience turned out positive. For many others, their time there was terrifying, with no one to turn to for help.
Court Proceedings and Adult Impacts:
Stories of physical and sexual abuse of children inside the St. Joseph’s Orphanage first surfaced publicly in June of 1993.
That’s when Joey Barquin, living in Florida, filed a federal lawsuit in Vermont, claiming he was beaten and molested by a nun as child in the early 1950s.
The state’s Roman Catholic Diocese fought the allegations. However, after a judge issued a pre-trial ruling favorable to Barquin, the church settled out of court three years later for what was described as an amount in the low “six figures.”
By then, 28 former residents of the orphanage had filed lawsuits against the diocese, Vermont Catholic Charities and the Sisters of Providence. More than 50 others had accepted $5,000 settlements in return for agreements not to sue the church.
The former orphans’ stories, detailed in a series of stories in the Burlington Free Press, shocked many Vermont Catholics. The disclosures came four years before the Boston Globe made the sexual abuse of children by priests a national story.
In Vermont, however, litigation against the church came to an abrupt end in 1998 when a different federal judge threw out the cases against the church on technical grounds.
Individual Healing and Creative Resistance:
Their collective efforts stymied by the courts, the former residents looked for ways to move on with their lives. The job of disentangling themselves from the emotional and psychological damage done to them as children at the orphanage was never easy. It took on many forms , from therapeutic to spiritual to simple inner strength.
For some, this also meant adopting more unconventional strategies to have their voices heard.
They staged solitary weekly protests by holding signs and standing outside the entrance to the former orphanage building, which was converted into the headquarters for the state Catholic diocese in the early 1980s.
Others painted words of protests on a large boulder on the shore of Lake Champlain near the old orphanage. Still others wrote books, created Facebook groups or reclaimed items from the abandoned orphanage compound. In one instance, a group of former orphanage residents were allowed to tour the old orphanage and left behind a wall filled with graffiti memories of their time as children there.
Each of these creative acts of defiance (and many others) served notice that the former residents were not giving up in their efforts to find justice and bring closure to the abuse they had suffered.
The story of what happened at the St. Joseph’s Orphanage leapt back into public view in 2018 when Buzzfeed, a major internet news site, released an in-depth piece written by investigative journalist Christine Kenneally about the horrors endured by the children who lived there.
The article, entitled “We Saw Nuns Kill Children: The Ghosts of St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphanage, led Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan to form a task force to formally investigate the allegations contained in the report.
Two years later, the task force came out with its findings. The 286-page report was unable to substantiate murder, the only allegation that could still be criminally prosecuted. It did, however validate the claims of widespread physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse of orphanage children.
The task force also recommended funding for a Restorative Inquiry into St. Joseph’s Orphanage to bring about accountability and amends-making for the former orphanage residents who are still alive.
A core group of these survivors, The Voices of St. Joseph’s Orphanage, has worked since May of 2019 to attain these goals and still meets weekly to this day. The group’s efforts, which include this exhibit, the passage of legislation to protect children, the publication of an Anthology of creative writings, and many, many other achievements, led to it being awarded Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services’ Survivor/Activist Award in April 2021.
Despite numerous invitations, however, the Burlington Catholic Diocese and Vermont Catholic Charities have refused to engage with the group.