HARTINGTON — An old family secret was revisited when a Nebraska historian spoke recently in Coleridge.
The secret, which had been well-kept for nearly a quarter century, involved a family living in the Hartington community in the early 1900s.
Mary Josephine was born in the New York Foundling Hospital in 1910. Her parents were married but the father deserted his wife and child.
The mother of the little Irish girl knew she could not provide for the baby and several months later left her at the New York Foundling Home.
After a three-day trip from New York in 1912, the Orphan Train arrived in Hartington with the toddler Mary Josephine.
Mary Josephine was just one of thousands of orphans in New York who found new homes by traveling west on one of the Orphan Trains which ran from 1854 until 1929.
Henry and Elizabeth Boland met the train and took the little red-haired girl home to live with them. She was the Boland’s only child.
Henry was the janitor at Hartington Public School and the family lived across the street from the school. Mary Josephine grew up playing with her cousins and graduated from Holy Trinity High School in 1928.
Mary Josephine did not find out until she was nearly 23 years old that she was adopted.
Mary Josephine had stopped in one of the stores on her way home from the Telephone Co., where she worked at the time, and someone let it slip in a conversation.
The news hit Mary Josephine hard, according to her daughter, Barb Sierk, who lives in South Sioux City.
“My mother went home and confronted her parents and they told her the truth. At first my mother thought, ‘I am not who I thought I was,’ It really bothered her,” Sierk said. “It did not take her long to realize how much she had to be thankful for. My mom had a wonderful life with the Bolands.”
Shortly after learning she was adopted, Mary Josephine moved to Sioux City, but the question of “who she was” followed her.
She was invited to a girl’s house in Sioux City where there were several other girls.
“One of the girls kept staring at my mother. The girl remembered my mother from being on the train,” said Sierk. “The girl was older and had been on the same train as my mother. The other girl was taken in by a family in Dakota County. She told my mother the name of the orphanage where they had come from.”
While living in Sioux City, Mary Josephine met the man she would marry – Paul Sweeney from Newcastle.
He encouraged her to try and find some information about her birth parents.
When Mary Josephine received a copy of her birth certificate it listed her parents’ names as Horace and Mary Fogarty Kenny.
Everyone had always called her Josephine and her nick name was Jo. It was the first time she knew her name was Mary.
Marks on her birth certificate made Mary Josephine think she was a second child.
At a chance meeting in Sioux City with someone from Bow Valley, Mary Josephine’s children found out about a story in the Capper’s Weekly telling about the Orphan Train reunions that were being held.
Three of her children and their spouses took Mary Josephine to the special event which had 22 orphans in attendance.
“At the first reunion we went to, all of them got up and told their stories. Most of them were content with their lives except for one lady. She stood up and said she would not want her life placed on anyone,” Sierk said.
It kindled a passion for the family to find out more about her past but their attempts led nowhere.
At one of the Orphan Train Celebration’s, Father John Fangman, who was a rider in 1929, encouraged people who were born at the New York Foundling Hospital to keep pursuing their records.
The family was able to find out Henry and Elizabeth Boland in Hartington had requested a “blond, blue eyed girl” although they were delivered an adorable little red head – an orange red.
The records also showed that Mary Josephine’s birth mother had later contacted the Foundling Home concerning her daughter – she was told her daughter was gone.
“We don’t think her mother intended to abandon her,” Sierk said. “But they were very poor and illiterate. The birth mother might not have understood or been able to express herself very well.”
In 1995 Mary Josephine and her three children hosted an Orphan Train reunion in South Sioux City – thirteen riders attended the event.
The story could have came to an end in 1998 with the passing of Mary Josephine but her granddaughter Brenda Rector decided that no matter what it took she would find out the answers for her grandmother.
When Brenda searched records using a variation of the name Kenny – she found out the last name was spelled Kinney not Kenny.
The family found out Mary Josephine did have an older brother which she had always known in her heart.
The brother had been placed in the New York Founding Home as well, but he was later reclaimed by his mother.
The brother had passed away in 1991. His children were contacted, but they were not interested in having anything to do with their new-found relatives.
Brenda made another phone call and found out there were three boys born to Mary Josephine’s father and his second wife.
The family did not know their father had been married before and were totally shocked.
One son lived on the family farm in Vermont where the father had grown up.
The other brothers lived in Florida and South Carolina. Throughout the years these families have traveled back and forth getting to know each other.
Mary Josephine’s children have the dress that they are sure their mother wore on the Orphan Train when it pulled into Hartington in 1912.
They also know their mother was known as number 10975.
The family has the article from the newspaper that tells which families took a child when the train stopped in Hartington.
“Grandma Boland was a private person. She never wanted to talk about it. She probably thought she was protecting her daughter by not telling her,” Sierk said. “I don’t know how she would have thought she could keep it a secret though – it had been in the newspaper. It listed all the families who had taken a child in the newspaper.”
The news clipping the family still has says:
In 1912, a special car from New York City containing about 40 orphans ranging from two to four years of age, from the Catholic Orphans Home, brought children to Hartington, Neb.
People who adopted these children were:
Mr. and Mrs. Henry Boland, girl
Mr. and Mrs. Mat Burbach, boy
Mr. and Mrs. Henry Sudbeck, girl
Mr. and Mrs. Chas. Wiess, boy
Mr. and Mrs. J.W. Lammers, girl
Mr. and Mrs. John Rameil, boy
Mr. and Mrs. Clem Suing, boy
Mr. and Mrs. L.M. Uhing, girl
Mr. and Mrs. Joe Fernholz, unknown
The remainder were placed with families at Bow Valley, Crofton, and Wynot, Neb.