Sunday, April 30, 1893
To the Sisters of Charity at the Foundling Hospital
I say at the outset that I do not want him. This is my daughter Margaret's idea, most entirely and emphatically hers. She learned of you and your good work from Father Thomas J. McCormick, at St. Michael's Church, in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Father McCormick recently visited your establishment, and spoke about it to the parish youth group. Margaret, her father, and I discussed the acquisition of a child in a most cursory manner, and without our consent or encouragement--indeed, without even our knowledge--she proceeded to write the required letters, falsely, over her father's forged signature. It pains me greatly to admit that my daughter is capable of such duplicity, even when the ostensible cause is worthy and charitable. And yet, it is true.
And then, most unexpectedly, at dinner yesterday evening she announced that a young boy is coming to us from New York City. Her tone and manner were so calm and unimpassioned that had I not paid heed, I might well have thought she had done no more than state her admiration for a new bonnet in Kaufmann's window on Main Street.
Do not think me hard of heart or uncaring, Sisters, but at fifty-three I am an old woman and not well. We are far from wealthy. The farm provides for our needs but allows no excess. Of my five living children, three are grown and gone. Patrick, the oldest, lives with us still, as does Margaret, the youngest, age thirteen. She is eager for this boy you are sending us. She says that she will tend to him and that I will not even know he is here. But I have my doubts. My husband, when he spoke of it at all, pressed for an older boy, someone to help with the chores. When he understood that the one you selected for us is only four years of age, he lost whatever small curiosity he possessed in the matter. So I fear that the burden of this child will fall heavily upon me, and frankly, good Sisters, I shall not shoulder it.
I spoke to Father McCormick today after High Mass. He urged me to write to you to withdraw Margaret's request for the child. That, as you must surmise, is the motive that prompts this letter. So if the boy has not yet left your admirable care, then keep him until a more willing and suitable family stakes its claim to him. If, on the other hand, he has already departed, please let me know when he will arrive, so that I can make adequate preparations. Father McCormick explained that should this missive arrive after the boy has left, we can send him back to you at the end of summer. Or, if you prefer, we can dispatch him to another home, at no expense to us. Please confirm this for me. I assure you, Sisters, that should the boy be on his way, I will attempt to care for him to the utmost of my abilities. All things are worth trying, so I will try this child, but for the summer only. Do bear in mind the probability of his return, since at this moment I do not want him.
I eagerly await your reply.
The New York Foundling Hospital
My Dear Mrs. O'Brien,
Thank you for your letter dated April 30th. It is my great pleasure to tell you that I do so trust in your goodness and generosity that despite your understandable misgivings, the boy is coming to you soon. I myself will put him on the train in three days' time, Wednesday, May 10. We will travel by the noon ferry to Jersey City, where Albert Joseph--that is his name--will board the Pennsylvania Railroad No. 5 (The Pennsylvania Limited) at quarter past twelve. He will arrive in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at twenty minutes past two o'clock in the afternoon, and then at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at half past eleven that night. After a ten-minute stopover he will leave Pittsburgh and arrive in Fort Wayne, Indiana, at twenty minutes to eight o'clock on the morning of Thursday, May 11. He will then travel to Chicago, Illinois, where he will arrive at twelve o'clock noon on that same day. At that juncture he will transfer to the Illinois Central Railroad, leave Chicago at quarter past one P.M., and arrive in Freeport, Illinois, at five o'clock in the evening. His train will depart Freeport twenty minutes later and will arrive in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, at twenty minutes to eight P.M., still on Thursday, May 11. I am told that Dodgeville is eighteen miles from Highland, so please arrange to be there to meet his train.
The weather here is warm, so I will dress him lightly in a double-breasted wool jacket--which I believe will be useful to him in time to come (it now quite overwhelms him). He will also wear long cuffed trousers, a white cotton shirt, and good leather shoes. I do not know what the spring season will bring to Wisconsin, though I am told it is much like here, only colder.
He will have one change of clean underthings in a brown paper bag. In another bag he will have two sandwiches--cheese on rye bread, his favorite--and various fruits. For your future information, Mrs. O'Brien, Albert refuses to eat meat. Perhaps you can break him of this strange and frustrating habit. I tried diligently but failed.
He will be accompanied on his journey by a Miss Clare Connelly, age eleven. I know Miss Connelly to be an outstandingly responsible and capable young girl, as she has been with us since birth. Do not worry, Mrs. O'Brien. She will care for Albert Joseph as would any young woman twice her age. She has helped frequently with infants, many much younger than Albert, who, at four, is himself more reasonable and clear-thinking than you could possibly imagine.
My only concern is that as Miss Connelly will have to leave the train at Chicago, Illinois, to begin her own new life with a family there, Albert may be left to travel alone from Chicago to Dodgeville. Miss Connelly will see that he transfers safely from the Pennsylvania Railroad to the Illinois Central Railroad, and I will instruct her to find someone on the latter train to care for Albert after her departure. Perhaps a conductor will attend to him. We must trust in God's Will in such matters and pray for the best.
I will also attach notes to Albert's person, for anyone curious enough to look. I will place these notes in his pockets. Further, I have sewn your name and the words "Highland Wisco" into the hem of his jacket sleeve at the right wrist. I used a sturdy white thread. I will label him as best I can. He knows his own name and yours and has been told to ask for you.
You will recognize him immediately, Mrs. O'Brien, for he is a beautiful, bright boy, with not the slightest penchant for naughtiness. I am confident that you, your husband, and your generous (if somewhat mischievous!) daughter Margaret will quickly come to love him, as I do, for he is no trouble and readily learns new tasks.
I will now describe his physical appearance to help you identify him at the railway station in Dodgeville. He has fine fair hair, very straight. His eyes are blue with a slight greenish cast. His features are even and delicate. Indeed, I consider his an almost angelic visage. Further, his teeth, legs, and back are straight and strong, and his lungs healthy. He speaks very little, but understands everything. He has a thoughtful, sober demeanor, and yet a quick and easy smile. He is not in the least bit childish, despite his four short years on this Earth. His religious development is most impressive, imbuing him with a touching and genuine piety. He knows several prayers, including The Hail Mary, The Our Father, The Glory Be, and certain lengthy sections of The Apostles' Creed. He stands thirty-seven inches and weighs thirty-five pounds. He is small for his age, a condition I attribute to his diet. I pray that the fresh air of Wisconsin will stimulate his appetite and correct what is his only peculiarity.
I close this letter with the fervent hope that I will hear good news from you soon. Please write to me with questions, observations, and information, for I love Albert Joseph. If, indeed, it is not unseemly for me to say so, I love him as I would my own fleshly son, had God allowed it.
I pray that Jesus Christ, His saints--of whom, Mrs. O'Brien, I believe you are one--and His loving Blessed Virgin Mother, Mary, will grant you and your fine family all manner of grace, strength, and happiness.
In Christ, I am Yours,
Sister Jeanne-Marie Clotilde
Dear Sister Jeanne-Marie Clotilde,
The boy arrived, as you said he would. We had no choice but to meet him, as you seemed indifferent to the misgivings and requests I expressed in my letter of April 30th. Forgive me for saying so, Sister, but by ignoring my words you did this child a grave disservice. As is the case with all children, this boy belongs in a home that welcomes him, not in one that feels duped into accepting him.
Further, you have done me an injustice. As stated in my previous letter, I am not a well woman. At the risk of embarrassing you, I will be blunt. Six months ago I lost my breasts to cancer and the surgeon's knife. With them went the last remnants of my maternal urge. Subsequently I have endured great agitation in my mind and spirit, and have often pondered the value of my place here on earth. Further, and much to my shame, I sought relief in hard drink and for a time imagined I was carrying a child, although I knew this was impossible. Thankfully, all that has passed, and my thoughts are now at peace with whatever God's Mercy holds in store for me.
I deeply resent, however, the responsibility you have thrust upon me to care for this poor boy. I have borne seven children to full term in my lifetime. Two of them died, one immediately from a misshapen head, and the other at the age of two, from diphtheria. I have done my duty to God and to my husband, Sister, and I do not believe I should be called upon to do even more, now, with the appearance of this child. Further, I worked as a teacher for six years before marriage, thereby contributing to the good of many young children. And, finally, my disease is certain to return in the near future. I accept this fact as God's Will. When that day comes, however, what will become of this small, dependent child? My husband is not inclined to rear him, and Margaret will have to begin her own life unencumbered by the liabilities and responsibilities of a young brother for whom she must care.
Nevertheless, he is here, and as you wrote, he is a beautiful child. Thus I will be kind to this boy and will attempt to the best of my abilities to care for him this summer. But my heart, Sister, is not in it, and the heart, I believe, is crucial to the proper rearing of children.
Further, in these past two days he has shown evidence of being a troubling child, even taking into consideration the strain of his journey and the confusion and fright that his new surroundings must surely engender in his young imagination. For his entire first night under our roof he sat on the edge of his bed as still as ice. If he slept at all, he did so bolt upright. He would not allow us to remove his clothing and dress him for sleep, nor would he speak to us. The following morning he ate but little, just milk and one fried egg, and throughout the day he did not stir, but sat staring out the window at the barn. To this day he has refused to change his clothing and has said nothing comprehensible.
At present I feel at sea in my exchanges with him, and worry that he may possess some deficiency or lapse that can lead only to disaster. I must know more about this child. If you have any additional information, please send it to me promptly. I would like to know something of his parentage. And what is his birth date?
I await your speedy reply.
Dear Mrs. O'Brien,
Two whole days were required that I might absorb the powerful effects of your most recent letter. I did not, of course, know of your illness, nor did I understand your sorrows. I truly beg your pardon, Mrs. O'Brien, and pray fervently for your health, in spirit, mind, and body.
In response I can state only that life in this city is desperately cruel for children like Albert. The streets teem with unwanted boys and girls. Whole families die of diseases like typhoid, cholera, and influenza, leaving behind one or two small survivors to fend for themselves. These are castaways, adrift on the world's harsh and heartless sea. We struggle to find homes for these children--to bring them to the safe shore of God's eternal love--and in our eagerness we sometimes err. Still, my dear Mrs. O'Brien, if you could only see what a great service you have performed by taking Albert under your roof! You have given him what all children need--a family! And you have allowed us to take in yet another child, one who would have slept in doorways or on hay barges had you not accepted Albert into your home. Further, life in Wisconsin, with its clean water and sweet, stimulating air, will surely benefit Albert immeasurably more than life in this city of pestilence and pain.
To answer your questions, we know little of Albert's parental history. He came to us in a basket left at our back door during the early-morning hours of Sunday, September 11, 1888. He was fully clothed and seemingly well tended. A five-dollar bill and a handwritten note accompanied him. I have the note in front of me and will copy it here, exactly as written:
Please take care of my baby boy. I love him but can not feed and cloth him. He is not illegal. His name is Albert Joseph and he was Baptized by an Irish preest. He is now four months of age.
Thank you Sisters and God bless You All,
Based on this information, we dated his birth at approximately May 11, 1888, which would mean that he arrived at your home on his fifth birthday, exactly. Believe me, Mrs. O'Brien, I did not plan this. It is the sheerest of fate's coincidences, and I realize it only now, as I write it to you. And yet if seen from our Savior's Point of View, it may not be coincidence at all but a fine thread in the Tapestry of His Father's Wondrous Plan.
I have been especially close to Albert, for I arrived at the Foundling Hospital from our Mother House in Quebec, Canada, on September 1, 1888, just ten days before he arrived. I nursed him through two serious illnesses, including scarlet fever. During our time together I taught him several French words, which he now uses with a child's disarming and often apt carelessness. For example, Albert and I traveled by livery to the ferry in Jersey City on the day of his recent departure. He was elated to begin his new life in Highland, Wisconsin, and, as is typical of him, he felt a great affinity for the horse that drew our carriage. He pointed to the horse's ears and called them "piquant," a word I recently taught him. I thought it a fine application of a difficult word. (Oh, Mrs. O'Brien: I was most heartened to learn that you were once a teacher. After entering the convent I, too, was trained to teach, and found the shaping of young minds the most gratifying of all the work God has asked of me.)
I hope this information will be of some assistance to you. I acknowledge its inadequacy, but it is all I have. I eagerly await your next correspondence. Does Albert continue to refuse to consume meat? And has he ever asked after me?
I will remember you in my prayers.
Most sincerely yours in Christ our Savior,
Sister Jeanne-Marie Clotilde
Dear Sister Jeanne-Marie,
Much has transpired in the nearly two weeks since I opened your last letter. I have found it puzzling and difficult knowing so little about this boy and yet feeling such responsibility for his well-being. With my children I could always draw a line from their actions to those of other persons in our family. When Liam began to stutter, I remembered that my uncle Homer was similarly afflicted. When Timothy developed a limp, I recalled that my mother's second cousin, Walter, was likewise crippled. And when Patrick began to show signs of feeblemindedness, I remembered that my father's uncle Aaron spent the last nine years of his life at the Wisconsin State Hospital for the Insane. But with Albert everything is unprecedented and inexplicable.
As one example, Sister, can you tell me: Was Albert ever prone to theft? In the past several days he has acted in a way that is quite unsettling to all of us. It began after Mass on Sunday, May 21. We returned from church, hungry from fasting, and I began to prepare our breakfast. I sent Patrick to the henhouse to fetch some eggs. He returned empty-handed. Believing he had misunderstood, I sent him back. Again he returned without a single egg. So I went to the henhouse myself and, much to my astonishment, found not one egg, which is most strange, as our hens are fertile and reliable. My husband was as abashed as I. Later that day, as I was putting clean clothes into drawers, I made a most astonishing discovery. There, nestled in each of our drawers, was a cluster of chicken eggs, tucked in the corner and covered lightly with our clothing. Still later I discovered the hogs' feed in the horses' stalls, and the horses' oats in the henhouse.
When I asked Albert if he knew anything about this strange confusion, he quickly admitted to all of it. He said he was "putting things at home" (his exact words), and claimed that the animals should share their food. Other occurrences have continued this theme. I found my hairbrush in the hayloft, for example, and my husband's favorite hat in the hogs' trough.
Still other objects remain missing: my best linen handkerchief, for one; Patrick's dress collar and cloth umbrella; and my husband's Missal. Albert makes no attempt to deny responsibility, and my husband believes that corporal punishment is the only means of breaking such potentially illegal habits. So now, each time an object disappears, Thomas gets out his belt and strikes Albert several times across the behind.
I myself do not agree with such methods, but my husband is a strong man, having marched to the sea with General William T. Sherman's Union Army some thirty years ago. Although I did not know him then, I believe his participation in the burning of Atlanta, Georgia, and the rude destruction of property and livestock along the way hardened his heart and stilled the gentler aspects of his nature.
And yet another strange occurrence requires your clarification. Yesterday morning my husband and I were in the barn feeding the horses. Albert had accompanied us, as he seems to take particular delight in watching the animals eat. At some point in the conversation occurring between us, my husband commented on our prize horse, Sassy, calling her a "grand mare." With that Albert began to laugh uncontrollably and insisted that Sassy was not a grand mare, but that I was. He repeated this sentiment with great conviction, pointing at me and insisting that I was a grand mare. As he speaks rarely, this outburst was so out of character as to be shocking. I cannot understand the import of this puzzling incident, and I wonder about Albert's mental stability if he could, as he did, maintain in the face of all logic and common sense that I was a horse.
In response to your questions, Albert is adamant in his refusal to eat meat. His stubbornness is annoying, and I am fearful that his growth will be stunted permanently. Further, he grew quite beside himself recently when he witnessed my husband killing a chicken for supper. The chicken ran around the yard for some few moments after its head was removed, as is natural for chickens. Albert, however, screaming piteously, grabbed the decapitated head from off the tree stump and scurried after the chicken like a banshee, begging the dead animal to stop so that he could "fix" it. The event was so unexpected that all we could do was laugh. Later that night I watched Albert sneak out to the rabbit hutch, open the door, lift one of the rabbits to the ground, and stomp his feet, as if to frighten the rabbit away. The rabbit, however, accustomed to people, simply stood there until I arrived and put it back into the hutch. My husband and I feel Albert's behavior is unnatural. We will try to correct it.
Albert asks for you frequently and I explain that you are far away. Please write soon with any comments or observations that will help us better understand Albert's unique personality.
My Dear Constance,
Your most interesting letter of June 9th is received. May the Lord reward you a thousandfold for the kindness and patience you are showing dear Albert. Your letters are of great value to me, as I feel that despite the many miles that separate us, Albert still holds a part of my being in his. I am glad that he asks for me, but am sure that in your loving care he will soon forget me.
Unfortunately, I cannot solve all the mysteries you pose in your letter. For one, Albert never revealed any tendency toward theft while in my care, and I cannot begin to explain his behavior regarding the eggs & feed, etc. We do teach the children to share their meager belongings with others here at the Hospital, and Albert was always quick to do so. Perhaps he is simply mistaking that lesson and applying it to the animals on your farm.
Upon the incident concerning your horse I am happy to shed some light. I believe that Albert simply misunderstood what your husband was saying when he referred to the horse as a grand mare and heard, instead, the French word grand-mère, which means "grandmother." I am certain that he meant this as a compliment to you, as we teach our children to honor and respect all aspects of family, even though few of these unfortunate outcasts will ever be part of one.
I hesitate to say so, and I hope you will pardon what might be construed as impudent, but I do hope you can persuade your good husband to desist from corporal punishment. During my many years of working with children like Albert, I have found that physical punishment rarely corrects undesirable behavior, especially if the child has not yet reached the age of reason. I have read that the mind is connected to the brain, and that the brain responds to physical sensation in surprising ways. Pain teaches children not respect but fear, and fear leads to numbness of mind, not to acuity, thereby rendering the mind incapable of grasping the lesson being taught. Human nature seeks to escape pain and to find pleasure. My belief, then, is that when physical pain is used as a means of instruction, with each blow of the belt--with each second that the child suffers--we lose the child's mind to the haphazard pleasures of the imagination. The child learns the art of fancy and fantasy, not the hard lesson of obedience, for the body is the most sordid and least reliable avenue to the soul. The body controls the lower functions only, and the boy who attempts to be good through fear is just as crude as the person who attempts to dance by rote.
My poor father, like your husband, was misguided in this regard, and thus I can assure you from my own hurtful personal experience that physical punishment leads not to comprehension but rather to a befuddled and nervous disposition. Indeed, when I entered the convent, at age eleven, I did so not only to answer Christ's Call and to alleviate the burden on my desperately poor family but also because physical punishment had led me to the grotesque delusion that I was Saint Joan of Arc, destined for martyrdom and glory. Thanks to the kindness of the good Sisters of Charity, I slowly returned to my true self, and in that journey learned that those who are temperate act not from fear but from habit, and that good habits are created gradually, diligently, and lovingly. I believe with Saint Paul, who wrote to the Corinthians, "Charity suffereth long, and is kind." I cannot think of a higher ideal than that, nor a more efficient means to touch a young boy's heart and alter the disorderly habits of his mind.
Please forgive my remarks if you find them meddlesome.
Yours in Christ and all His Mercies,
Postscript: Seeing that Albert is of such a sensitive nature, perhaps you can protect him from the natural slaughter of animals that is a good and necessary part of life on your farm.
New York City
My Dear Friend,
I have not heard from you in so many days that I fear I may have offended you. Please write soon to let me know that all is well with you and Albert and your good family. I never intended insult and dearly apologize if any was taken.
Your Friend in Christ,
Sister Jeanne-Marie Clotilde
Dear Sister Jeanne-Marie,
I am sorry if my silence caused you worry. We have suffered a trying few weeks, and I simply could not find time to put pen to paper. Our cares seem most weighty this summer. First, Highland is in tumult, having been invaded by tramps whose brazenness and brutality quickly dispel whatever grain of pity one might feel for them. They number in the scores and seem to multiply daily, often congregating in front of taverns and other places of questionable reputation. Countless burglaries have been attributed to them, along with wanton destruction of property. We, thank God, have been spared, but Sam Peterson, an acquaintance, recently suffered a dreadful loss. Tramps lured his favorite hunting dog, a fine beagle named Lucius, into a shack, where they skinned and gutted him, as one would dress a deer. They placed the remains, hide intact, at Mr. Peterson's door, with a note saying "We Mean Business." Mrs. Peterson is said to have rebuffed their demands for food and drink the previous day.
I've heard that many of these men are Germans who worked at the iron mines. When the ore gave out some years ago, they moved to timbering. Now the trees are gone, and they have no means of making a livelihood. So they wander from town to town, stealing and begging. Further, three banks have closed during the past several months, leaving many farmers penniless. Some have turned to acts of arson to collect insurance on barns and livestock. And I understand that an outbreak of black diphtheria has taken fifteen lives, mainly children, in the town of Mount Horeb, just east of here. I also heard that two women--wives deserted by the tramps in Germantown--were driven mad by want and desperation and so took their own lives. They were found next to each other, hanging from the same tree, and a dead infant girl was discovered in a soapbox under their feet.
These tragedies reduce our troubles to almost nothing, and yet I cannot say that this summer is easy for us. Margaret has moved to Prairie du Chien, where she works in the kitchen of a prosperous family. Her absence has meant more work for me. Then our hogs developed a blight, and twelve had to be killed for no profit. And the very next week Albert and Patrick did something quite remarkable. According to Patrick, Albert told him to dig a large hole behind the barn to give the horses air. Those are Albert's words exactly, as he admits to having spoken them. Patrick complied, digging a pit some ten feet wide and two feet deep. As this was on the south side of the barn, where we seldom have cause to go, we did not discover the pit until it had been completed. My husband worked hard for two days to fill the hole again, even with Patrick's help.
Naturally, both Patrick and Albert were punished for this nonsense, which brings to mind the comments in your letter of June 16th regarding corporal punishment. My husband and I discussed these ideas and concluded that our experience in family matters justifies whatever course of discipline we might pursue for Albert. Be assured, however, that any and all punishment is administered with the correct intent. Indeed, we thought that Albert was responding in kind, until the incident described above.
Still, he is now more talkative and curious than ever. He has also gained weight and grown noticeably and begun to take part in family activities, like saying Grace before meals. He still refuses to eat meat, but we have accepted this in him. His objection to meat does not appear to be a whim or an act of contrariness on his part, but rather a manifestation of something deep in his unfathomable character. I hope, however, that he will outgrow it. He now tends to several of the animals on the farm, most often the cows. But we do not allow him to witness the slaughtering.
He seems content here, and I have come to appreciate even his eccentricities, and feel healthier now than I have since before my illness. Perhaps the doctors are wrong and the cancer will not return, and I will live to see Albert grown and happy.
Your friend in Wisconsin,
It is Sunday night and the children are asleep. They sleep on cots lined up like soldiers, one close upon the other, in a large room on the fourth floor of our Hospital. These are young children, infants to age five, so they are mixed, boys and girls together. The night beyond the windows is hot and quiet. I sit at a desk near the door, keeping watch. I write by candlelight. The children often speak in their sleep, like saints speaking in tongues. One child just spoke of a crocodile. Another talks about her dolly being lame. Two children whisper to each other, although both appear to be sleeping soundly. And Martin just wet the bed again. He is beginning to squirm in a miserable attempt to make himself comfortable. I will tend to him in a moment.
The bed immediately to my right is Albert's. Another child, a two-year-old Negro girl named Pearl, sleeps there now. I should never have allowed myself to love Albert as much as I did. I know that now. The other Sisters warned me, but I was arrogant and ignored them. I recognize this now as a sin of pride, and I confess it to you, Constance, rather than to a priest, for no priest could know how serious a sin it really is. No absolution, no Act of Contrition, will ever put it to rest.
I knew Albert better than I have known any other male being on this Earth. I took his head in my hands and felt its weight and shape. I bathed his small body and dressed him. I cut his hair. I kissed him. I have many children here, and still none. I am seized by melancholy, for I sense a change in your most recent letter, and I realize that Albert's life is becoming yours, as it once was mine.
I must tend to Martin now, before his restlessness awakens the others.
May You Sleep in Christ's Loving Arms Always,
Sister Jeanne-Marie Clotilde
You will be relieved to learn that we have decided to keep the boy after all. We have changed his name to Robert Homer. We think it suits him better, and he does not seem to mind. I will always pray for you.
Illustration by Paul Micich