Participant Informed Historical Research

“We are all smart, strong people who didn’t get to be who we should have been”

The Restorative Inquiry established a collaboration with Professor Alisa Del Tufo from Bennington College in the spring of 2020 in order to conduct a participant-informed historical research project. Alisa helped recruit two Bennington College students, India Carter-Bolick and Gabriela Yadegari, to conduct the research. India and Gabriela met with the former residents to explore and record what Orphanage-related questions that the group wanted answered; conducted research into these questions, connecting with a variety of sources (including former residents); compiled documentation and photos; and prepared both interim and final reports. They shared their research with the participants in June and August.

 

Click on the questions below for in depth answers. You also can find reflection statements from researchers India Carter-Bolick and Gabriela Yadegari. Download entire PDF HERE.

 

 

Researcher’s Statements

 

How did the Sisters of Providence come to the St. Joseph’s Orphanage and what was the relationship between Bishop DeGoesbriand and Sisters of Providence?

 

How were unwed mothers viewed by the Catholic Church in the 1950’s and 60’s? How were they viewed by the community of Vermont?

 

How did gender separation evolve over time at the Orphanage?

 

How did the State of Vermont supervise the Orphanage?

 

How were foster parents identified and screened by the State of Vermont?

 

What role did the Catholic Church/Charities play in identifying and screening foster families?

 

Why did abuse become the norm in the Orphanage?

 

How could nuns think that way? What was the motivation that led to their actions?

 

How did specific children become targets for the nuns’ abuse?

 

How did people in the know (Orphanage administrators) keep up false fronts about the abuse within the community and within their own families?

 

Why did the community give so much authority to the priests and nuns?

 

What research (medical and otherwise) was done on the children at the Orphanage?

 

Where are the children who died at the Orphanage buried?

 

Why did the Orphanage close?

 

Why is it that religion can get away with the abuse and not be held accountable? Is there a way to change this?

 

What does “Sovereignty” afford the Catholic Church? What doesn’t it afford? How have other communities/nations dealt with the Church’s sovereignty privileges? How was it not a conflict of the separation of church and state for Vermont to place children at St. Joseph’s Orphanage?

 

How do the former children see the impact of the Orphanage playing out in their lives?

 

How did the orphanage impact former children’s relationships with faith, friendships, spousal relationships, children, education, career, and mental/emotional/physical health?

 

What has given you strength to move through the impacts of the orphanage?

(What gifts or strengths do you have that you trace to your experiences at the Orphanage?)

 

What do you think our community should learn from your experiences at the Orphanage?

 

Researcher’s Statements

 

Gabriela Yadegari (Class of 2021)

I am so grateful to have spent this time working with and for you all. I appreciate the

hours I've spent talking with each and every one of you; during this isolating time I'm thankful to

have had the opportunity to connect with such a vibrant and generous group of people.

Hearing your stories and learning about your pasts has shown me how resilient every

one of you is. To live each day with more compassion and empathy than that which was shown

to you takes an incredible amount of determination, which is something very few possess. I

cannot fathom the amount of strength it has taken you to not only move past the effects of the

Orphanage, but to break the cycle of abuse which it perpetuated.

 

As someone from a younger generation, I would like to say thank you. You are each

making the world a better place through your efforts. I'm inspired by your courage and I will

carry your stories with me through the rest of my life. I promise to make every effort to ensure

your experiences are known and this injustice is never repeated. And I believe, because of your

resilience, there will be a future free from the harm you encountered. Thank you.

 

India Carter-Bolick (Class of 2023)

Writing this reflection has honestly been difficult. I’m not sure what I can say that will express how

grateful I am to have met you all. I am also not sure how to accurately use words to express the emotions I felt throughout this project: it has been an emotionally tumultuous journey. Hearing all of the abusive experiences many former children had to endure was heartbreaking. “Heartbreaking” isn’t an accurate adjective to describe hearing the pain many people we have interviewed expressed to us. There seems to be a lack of vocabulary to describe the abuses you shared because the cycle of cruelty perpetuated by the nuns and priests shouldn’t even exist in the first place: there should be no reason for such adjectives to exist. I hope that the St. Joseph’s Orphanage Restorative Inquiry provides a platform where your stories are told using terminology genuinely accurate to you, despite the limited vocabulary our dictionary may hold.

 

Words and metaphors aside, the strength each former orphan has revealed as they not only moved

through trauma, but additionally mustering the energy and time to share with Gabriela and me has truly

inspired me. From listening to your stories of resilience, I am now determined to navigate my own life with more bravery, persistence, and an empathetic heart. Your courageousness and individual beauties have even reignited my passion for working with people, which will ultimately alter my educational career. Thank you for allowing Gabriela and me the opportunity to hear and share your experiences. I will be forever grateful to have met and spoke with each of you.

 

 

How did the Sisters of Providence come to the St. Joseph’s Orphanage and what was the relationship between Bishop DeGoesbriand and Sisters of Providence?

 

Although we don’t have much information on the dynamics between Bishop DeGoesbriand and Sisters of Providence, we do know that the Bishop confided in his journal that the Sisters of Providence agreed to join him in Vermont on October 10, 1854 to “teach the young and care for the sick and the orphans.” Before the existence of St. Joseph’s orphanage, there are claims that the first white women to cross the Coeur d’Alene Mountains were actually four Sisters of Providence who were requested to open a boarding school for Indian girls at the St. Ignatius Mission by Father De Smet. A majority of the Sisters originally occupied Idaho and Montana, but then spread their work into the East Coast which is when St. Joseph’s Orphanage was established in Vermont. We may not have direct ties between DeGoesbriand and the Sisters of Providence other than his journal entry, but there are a few plausible scenarios that could explain how DeGoesbriand established their relationship. One possibility is that Bishop DeGoesbriand could have established a network during his travels before becoming Bishop. In 1851, when Degoesbriand was a Reverend, Bishop Rappe sent him to France to recruit Sisters who could care for the orphans and the sick. That same year, on October 10, 1851, Four Sisters of Charity (Sisters of Charity and Providence seemed to be used interchangeably in our research) arrived in Cleveland from Harve, France. If it is true that the Sisters of Charity and Providence were related or were in fact the same group referred to by two different titles, this could have been DeGoesbriand's first introduction to the Sisters of Providence. On July 29, 1853, Pope Pius IX asked Reverend DeGoesbriand to become Vermont’s first Roman Cathloic Bishop. Two years later, DeGoesbriand took a trip to Europe where he recruited priests from Ireland and France. This said, there is another possibility that DeGoesbriand created connections with the Sisters of Providence during these travels. Bishop Degoesbriand had also requested Mother Stanislaus O’Malley (the Vermont foundress of the Sisters of Mercy) and members of the order to join him. There is yet another possibility that the Sisters of Mercy had relations with Sister’s of Providence, which eventually led to the introduction between DeGoesbriand and Sisters of Providence.

 

 

How were unwed mothers viewed by the Catholic Church in the 1950’s and 60’s? How were they viewed by the community of Vermont?

 

In the 1950s and 60s unwed mothers were overwhelmingly viewed as sinners, outcasts, and moral failures. Unwed mothers were often shamed and considered embarrassments to the family and Catholic church, and it was common practice to send off a young woman to have her child out of view of the local community. Social pressure encouraged unwed mothers to give the baby up for adoption; it was very unusual to keep the baby, especially in Catholic families. There were no explicit legal protections for unwed mothers once she gave her child to an orphanage.

 

 

How did gender separation evolve over time at the Orphanage?

 

“As with other aspects of the orphanage’s operation, there were separate-but-equal attics for boys and girls…” Sam Hemingway, Burlington Free Press, Oct. 27, 1996

There was not an explicit guide the staff at St. Joseph’s Orphanage followed regarding gender separation. Based on the accounts of former children, we know the youngest children lived co-ed in the nursery, but when they reached an older age, children were separated by sex. The age and degree of separation varied over the years, and as the Orphanage became smaller nearing its closure, the children lived a majority of their time

co-ed.

 

How did the State of Vermont supervise the Orphanage?

 

There was not much state or government supervision of the orphanage until later efforts (starting in the late 1960s) to pull children out of orphanages and place them in homes, whether that was foster care or back with their families.

 

 

How were foster parents identified and screened by the State of Vermont?

 

Foster parents were not attentively identified or screened by the State until rather recently. The farther in the past, the less formality there was. For example, there were no legal state or national guidelines that required screening during a majority of St. Joseph’s existence, and in Burlington foster parents were chosen based on the foster family’s reputation in the community. Oftentimes, extended family took up the responsibility of taking care of children in need of a new home, which is known as kinship care. In the late 1950’s and 1960’s they expected the birth parent to provide regular payments to the foster family for their own child.

“In 1962, Dr. C. Henry Kempe and his colleagues were the first to recognize and identify child abuse and neglect in the defining paper, The Battered Child Syndrome. This paper was regarded as the single most significant event in creating awareness and exposing the reality of child abuse. It gave doctors a way to understand and identify child abuse and neglect, along with information about how to report suspected abuse. Dr. Kempe was a tenacious researcher and a relentless advocate, working tirelessly to change policy, laws and perceptions to better protect children.” (Kempe foundation website) In the 1960’s, the state started licensing foster parents. In 1972, the federal government enacted the Child Abuse Prevention Treatment Act (CAPTA). Today there are background checks, interviews, home check-ins, references, medical checks, and regular monitoring.

 

 

What role did the Catholic Church/Charities play in identifying and screening foster families?

 

Vermont Catholic Charities worked in tandem with the Orphanage to identify and screen foster families. Foster families were usually Catholic and informally accountable to the Church. In cases in which abuse was reported to foster families by children, they often turned a blind eye or believed the child was lying. It also was not uncommon for foster families themselves to be abusive. Beginning around the 1950s publicly funded social workers were employed to engage with children in foster care, and they supported the children through at home visitations and day trips. However, these opportunities to check in were only periodic.

 

 

Why did abuse become the norm in the Orphanage?

 

Cultural attitudes towards children, social services, and religious values contributed to the normalization of abuse at St. Joseph’s. Until the later half of the 20th century, child maltreatment was widely accepted as the norm and a common form of “discipline”. It wasn’t until 1963 that the idea of child abuse was revisted, and by 1967, fifty states had some form of mandatory reporting laws. Additionally, the Catholic Church perpetuated cycles of abuse. Oftentimes nuns were young women who came from abusive, poverty stricken households and additionally lacked the resources and training to provide adequate care. Nuns followed the status quo; they took vows of chastity and obedience and were once described by a priest as the “slave class of the Catholic church.” There weren’t explicit instructions that directed the nuns to commit abuse. It’s likely their behavior was normalized as the nuns learned from each other. While not every person who worked at St. Joseph’s perpetuated abuse, the lack of oversight allowed pedophiles and abusers to join and avoid accountability. As Buzzfeed journalist, Christine Kenneally, said, “good people never lasted long.”

 

 

How could nuns think that way? What was the motivation that led to their actions?

 

In terms of the nuns’ behavior within the orphanage, there were a myriad of dynamics at play. While they were abusive towards the children, the nuns themselves were also subjected to violence and an exploitation of power. Many nuns were uneducated young women who were often victims of abuse or poverty in their own homes; sometimes becoming a nun was their last chance for survival as the church provided them basic necessities and allowed them to leave their potentially unsafe household. When joining the church, the nuns changed their birth names, resigning their autonomy as an act of dedication to the Catholic church. Their lack of individuality was constantly reinforced as they stood as the lowest rank in the church. We know that many nuns did not prioritize the experiences of the children, but rather considered child care an obligation or chore. The mission of the Sisters of Providence, founded in 1843, was to help the less fortunate and surrender themselves to mitigating the urgent needs of the poor. The lack of autonomy in conjunction with their obligatory role as caretakers could have fostered resentment among the nuns, resulting in the subconscious creation and perpetuation of abusive systems within the orphanage. The cycles of abuse perpetrated by the nuns is unjustifiable, but their behavior may have been the only way they knew how to manage the hundreds of children residing at St. Joseph's Orphanage.

 

How did specific children become targets for the nuns’ abuse?

 

Certain children were made targets of abuse for different reasons. Children in the Orphanage who weren’t Catholic, were a product of divorced parents, disabled, or children of color (any child who was identified as being a minority or having a “weakness”) were bigger targets for abuse. Sometimes younger siblings were targeted because they could not adjust to the Orphanage as quickly as their older sibling(s).

 

How did people in the know (Orphanage administrators) keep up false fronts about the abuse within the community and within their own families?

 

St. Joseph’s Orphanage was strictly sealed off from the rest of the world. Visitations were limited and, due to the overwhelming stigma around receiving social services , few people were interested in knowing about the happenings within the Orphanage. The Orphanage was referred to as a “depository for problems” so the surrounding community likely did not want any involvement. The public’s perception of the Orphanage could have been skewed by intentional efforts by the Church and since a majority of the Burlington population was Catholic, they did not question the authority or decisions made by the diocese. An example of this are the numerous newspaper clippings we have found. In the photos the children are cheery, playing with toys, or gladly completing their chores while the writing praises the nun’s charity work. Some people in the public may have only been exposed to the orphanage through these articles and therefore never been exposed to the truth.

 

 

Why did the community give so much authority to the priests and nuns?

 

Burlington had a very large and devoted French-Canadian Catholic population that trusted in the discretion of the church. Additionally, there was no legal system or government agency explicitly in place that had the responsibility of overseeing the Orphanage until the later half of the 20th century.

 

 

What research (medical and otherwise) was done on the children at the Orphanage?

 

We have not found documented evidence of research being done on children at or from St. Joseph’s Orphanage. Vermont, however, has a history of nonconsensual research and testing of marginalized people. Many children and adults from backgrounds similar to those of the former children of St. Joseph’s Orphanage were involved in The Eugenics Survey of Vermont.

 

Henry F. Perkins, a professor of zoology at the University of Vermont, organized the Eugenics Survey of Vermont in 1925. The purpose was to contribute to general eugenics research, educate the public on their findings, and create support for social legislation that would reduce the apparent growing population of Vermont's "social problem group." Subjects of the study included residents from Vermont State Hospital, Vermont State School, Rutland Reformatory for Women, and Vermont State Prison. We have found no explicit ties between St. Joseph’s Orphanage and The Eugenics Survey of Vermont or similar research.

 

For more information about The Eugenics Survey of Vermont visit Vermont Eugenics: A Documented History here: http://www.uvm.edu/~eugenics/

 

 

Where are the children who died at the Orphanage buried?

 

Many former children of St. Joseph’s Orphanage have stated several of their peers died on the grounds. Based upon visits to Lakeview Cemetery, the cemetery closest to the former Orphanage, we are unable to find any indication that they are buried there. Other possibilities may include the St. Joseph’s Cemetery or neighboring Mt. Calvary Cemetery. We are currently still attempting to acquire such records and will post any necessary updates.

 

 

Why did the Orphanage close?

 

Preceding the closure of St. Joseph’s Orphanage in the 1970’s, orphanages were largely perceived as outdated, archaic institutions. The obligation to care for homeless and/or family-less children was considered less of a community responsibility and rather the state’s duty. Ultimately, power was transferred from religious entities to the government, causing the closure of many orphanages nationally. State-organized foster care became the more dominant system for children without a home or equipped family. In conjunction, the number of practicing Catholics in Burlington was declining; fewer nuns were available and willing to dedicate their lives to working at an Orphanage while it simultaneously became less shameful to raise a child out of wedlock.

 

 

Why is it that religion can get away with the abuse and not be held accountable? Is there a way to change this?

 

The church has ingrained hierarchies that make committing abuse and avoiding consequences easy if no one within the system reports it. In the church someone who is “of the cloth” is often considered an agent of God and can seemingly do no wrong, and it’s common to look the other way because it can be difficult to come to terms with a religious figure not following faithful guidelines. Due to Statutes of Limitations (a law that sets a maximum duration of time between the date of the offense and the plaintiff’s opportunity to initiate any legal proceedings,) it is very difficult for the Church to be held accountable for physical or psychological abuse they committed in the past. (The former residents of St. Joseph’s Orphanage are working to change this statutes). Individual instances that question the authority of the church are under constant consideration by courts, including the Supreme Court.

 

It is unbelievably difficult to pinpoint how religious institutions are able to perpetuate cycles of abuse and evade consequences, but in the case of St. Joseph’s, the time period was a large contributing factor. Orphanages were considered charitable institutions who could provide more care than their biological families and homes could, which no one felt the need to question. There were also no alternatives offered by the government (unlike the systems now).

 

 

What does “Sovereignty” afford the Catholic Church? What doesn’t it afford? How have other communities/nations dealt with the Church’s sovereignty privileges? How was it not a conflict of the separation of church and state for Vermont to place children at St. Joseph’s Orphanage?

 

There is a term called “Sovereign immunity” which is a legal doctrine that declares you cannot make a claim against the king or queen as they are unable to do wrong, but it has no legal relevance to the United States. The term originated from England– “sovereign” relating to the English monarchy. The United States created the 1st Amendment that forbids Congress from privileging one religion over others and prevents the government from restricting an individual's religious practices. This federal law doesn’t permit any abuse by religious institutions; one can hold churches accountable for cases you might similarly hold secular institutions to, such as abuse. Unfortunately, states can set regulations which can make it nearly impossible due to statutes of limitation (a law that sets a maximum time between the date of the offense and the plaintiff’s opportunity to initiate any legal proceedings).

 

 

How do the former children see the impact of the Orphanage playing out in their lives?

 

It’s important to note that there was never one cohesive answer to these questions because everyone who participated has been impacted by the Orphanage differently. Even if individuals experienced the same environment, harm, and/or abuse, the way that those experiences inform one's life varies from person to person.

 

 

How did the orphanage impact former children’s relationships with faith, friendships, spousal relationships, children, education, career, and mental/emotional/physical health?

 

Very few former residents of St. Joseph’s Orphanage identify as Catholic, but many former children affirmed that they have preserved— and some even depended on— their spirituality. Many established their relationship to God or some higher power, but do not participate in church or practice under an organized religion. There are also several former children who are not spiritual whatsoever.

 

Half of the former children shared that they developed trust issues due to their experiences at St.

Joseph’s, which resulted in difficulty making or maintaining many friendships. The other half shared that they have created a family out of several very close friendships which have been built upon honesty and trust.

 

Despite many former children finding friendships difficult, most individuals are currently in healthy partnerships with lovely people. A commonality between those currently in partnerships and those not is that they have often been through a divorce or separation. Many participants we spoke to who went through divorce or never married attributed their relationship difficulties to prior trauma; rushing into a partnership or forming relationships with people who were abusive.

 

Not every participant had their own children, but of the former residents who did become parents, there is a wide variance of affinity between them and their children. A few participants who never had their own biological children have dedicated their time to working with and/or supporting kids– in which many view these children as their own family. Some former residents repeated the unhealthy behaviors they experienced in the Orphanage when raising their own children; these parents attributed their abuse to never having role models to exhibit positive parenting. Others consider themselves very good or even “too good” of parents because they worked very hard to ensure their children had a healthier childhood; in an attempt to prevent their children from facing the same hardships they did, they described their parenting as overbearing and almost suffocating for their children. In many cases the former children have estranged and distanced relations with their children as a result of their parenting choices, such as becoming over protective, pulling away in fear of their own inadequate parenting, and replicating the abuse they endured as children. Nevertheless, some former residents expressed that their children seemed to forgive, respect and love them regardless of their parenting decisions– a relationship with mutual unconditional love.

 

Most participants finished high school or received their GED but never went on to complete higher education. Many people believe the abusive teaching style and misdiagnosing of “retardation” in the orphanage made them lose self-confidence which ultimately contributed to them not pursuing higher education. Others believed they were made smarter and more attentive by the intense classroom environments. Many people moved on to pursue blue-collar jobs working in construction, factories/plants, truck driving, retail, etc. Although it doesn’t apply to everyone else, many others pursued jobs dedicated to caring for others like social work, childcare, nursing, or joining the military. In the workforce, it was also common for the former children to struggle getting along with their superiors or follow the demands of higher authorities/ bosses.

 

Some conversations arose around having physical health problems, but most people expressed struggling with emotional trauma. The majority of people we interviewed still suffer from PTSD, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and/or addiction. Despite this hardship, all of the former children have said they’ve developed healthy coping mechanisms such as sustaining healthy diets, going to therapy, being physically active, taking medication, finding creative outlets, and/or learning to open up to loved ones about trauma. The conversation about generational trauma also arose during some interviews; many former children expressed concern that their personal trauma might negatively inform their children and consequently, the future generations.

 

What has given you strength to move through the impacts of the orphanage?

What gifts or strengths do you have that you trace to your experiences at the Orphanage?

 

Many shared that their independence and determination were the factors that helped them move through the impacts of the orphanage. These qualities stemmed from a variety of explanations: genetics/innate personality traits, motivation to not let their abuser’s “win”, faith in God, support from friends and family, and therapy. Every participant exhibited immense resilience and inspirational strength, which some even attributed to spending time at St. Joseph’s. Some also attribute their cleanliness and ability to make their bed perfectly to living at the orphanage. However, many people felt like they could not attribute any of their gifts or strengths to their experience at the orphanage.

 

 

What do you think our community should learn from your experiences at the Orphanage?

 

The following paragraph— containing an accumulation of conversations— was formulated as a response to what the community needs to know and learn from the abuse that took place at St. Joseph’s Orphanage:

 

“Vermont needs to know the truth.” It’s time for the public to know about this tragedy and the ways in which the current system allows similar cycles to perpetuate. Children need to be looked after and cared for more adequately. Children also need support systems: every child needs an adult who will listen and validate their feelings and experiences. To change this history of abuse, any agency working with children needs to be transparent and held accountable for any violations of the children’s trust and safety. The Catholic Church, and specifically nuns and priests, should not be inherently trusted and can not be granted ultimate authority. No person should be capable of hiding behind religion to escape accountability for mistreating, abusing, or hurting others. By sharing this history, acknowledging the harm that was done, taking accountability, and supporting one another, we can end the cycle of abuse that St. Joseph’s fostered. “No child or person should ever be treated like this again.”

 

 

 

 

Research Sources Include:

Jim Forbes, Senior Policy & Operations Manager for Vermont DCF Family Services

Sam Hemingway, Former journalist at Burlington Free Press

Christine Kenneally, Journalist and author (Buzzfeed article)

Jerome O’Neill, Burlington-based lawyer

Burlington Free Press archive (Newspapers.com)

University of Vermont public archive

About Burlington Vermont- Charles Edwin Allen

American Catholic Historical Society - William L. Lucey

The Catholic Church in the United States of America- Catholic editing Company

Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington Website (vermontcatholic.org)

Sisters of Providence Website (providenceintl.org)

Vermont Eugenics: A Documentary History Website (uvm.edu/ ~eugenics/ )

The sources for these answers are as follows:

Jim Forbes, Senior Policy & Operations Manager for Vermont DCF Family Services

Sam Hemingway, Former journalist at Burlington Free Press

Christine Kenneally, Journalist and author (Buzzfeed article)

Jerome O’Neill, Burlington-based lawyer

Burlington Free Press archive (Newspapers.com)

University of Vermont public archive

About Burlington Vermont- Charles Edwin Allen

American Catholic Historical Society - William L. Lucey

The Catholic Church in the United States of America- Catholic editing Company

Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington Website (vermontcatholic.org)

Sisters of Providence Website (providenceintl.org)

Vermont Eugenics: A Documentary History Website (uvm.edu/ ~eugenics/ )

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

ABOUT US >

The St. Joseph Orphanage Restorative Inquiry seeks to understand and document the events of the orphanage through the voices, experiences, and stories of those most impacted: the former children of the Orphanage. The Restorative Inquiry will then facilitate inclusive processes of accountability, amends-making, learning, and change.  The St. Joseph’s Orphanage Restorative Inquiry is an initiative of the Burlington Community Justice Center, a division of the Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO) of the City of Burlington.

CONTACT >

Marc Wennberg

T: 802-522-7394

E: marc@communityreentry.net

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