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Humble Beginnings: A Child's Life in the Orphanage

June 11, 2013

In celebration of Concordia's 130+ years of service, we periodically post excerpts from our history book. In case you haven't seen any of our "Humble Beginnings" posts before, Concordia started as an orphanage in 1881. The excerpt below gives a first-hand account of life at the orphanage - the good and the not so good - from a woman who lived here as an orphaned child and then as a resident later in life. Enjoy, and leave a comment if you like. :)

... Reading through the journal entries and the minutes of the Board meetings, it makes one appreciate what a feat of perseverance and strength and faith it was for the Home to survive its challenges and develop over 125 years into the extensive and self-sufficient organization it is today.

In the beginning, the children were the focus of everyone's efforts. Unlike many orphanages of the time, the Home was always able to feed the residents well and provide for most of their needs. Of course, living on a farm also meant that each child was expected to pitch in and help, and so was assigned chores to complete. Older girls took care of the younger children or worked in the kitchen, laundry, or in similar domestic activities. Boys were responsible for taking care of the farm animals, milking cows, helping with the harvesting, or doing more labor-intensive chores.

Sara Bachman describes a typical day in a child's life in the Home:

"In the winter, one of the older boys arose at 4:30 a.m. and fired the stoves so that the buildings would be warm at the 6:30 rising bell. At 6:00, several boys crawled out of their warm beds and were soon headed for the barn where they helped with the milking, feeding, tending chickens, and other chores. Breakfast was served at 7:00 and devotions were held as soon as that meal was finished. After breakfast, beds were made, floors were swept, furniture dusted, and one boy started for his daily trip to Marwood to collect mail. By 9:00, all school-age children were in class where they studied until 11:30. At noon, a substantial meal was served and at 1:30 the afternoon session of school began. After school, there was barn work for the boys and kitchen and housework for the girls. There was also a time for outdoor recreation.

"Supper came at 5:30 and the period after supper was spent in studies, games, hobbies and, on the occasion of a birthday, a birthday party with cake and lemonade or cocoa. Hobbies were encouraged. Most of the children led happy, well-adjusted lives."

The school curriculum mirrored that of the public school system with the addition of classes related to the Bible and the Lutheran catechism. All the children completed eighth grade. Reflecting the times, boys who demonstrated a gift for learning were permitted to attend high school and junior colleges. Girls were not encouraged to advance their education; rather, as Miss Bachman relates, "Most of them found work at the Home or as maids or domestic workers in private homes."

Mr. Lensner, and later Mr. Adolph Pflueger, along with Mr. A. Paar, each served several years as the schoolteacher. Dave Beaver, whose mother, Maria Weber, along with two sisters and a brother entered the Home in 1903, recounts his Aunt Anna's memories of the Home, as told to her son, James Andrews:

Anna was to remember those years at the orphanage with mixed emotions. She thought Herr H. M. Lensner, who ran the orphanage, was Moses incarnate in the skin of a stern German Lutheran elder. There was harsh punishment for minor offenses. Treating a child in that fashion today would be called child abuse, but 90 years ago spanking was the reasonable alternative to exorcism. When she was 86 and reminiscing on her early childhood, Mother laughed and said, "Yes, they were strict, but we only got caught occasionally. Oh, we got away with a lot, so I guess it came out to be about even."

The number of children in the Home would fluctuate over the years. Initially, most were referred to the Home from the Pittsburgh pastors and had been baptized by them. Many children, however, had either a very tenuous or no tie at all with a supporting church. In addition, no sooner had the Home opened than it was approached by the Pittsburgh Board for the Poor, which asked the Home to receive its orphans, an arrangement which continued for 21 years until it became too problematic to house these orphans. While only five children total entered in 1883, 44, including seven from the Poorhouse, entered in 1884.

These numbers grew and waned over the years as society's views on this issue changed:

1908: 40 girls and 49 boys

1920: 43 girls and 33 boys

1930: 27 girls and 33 boys

1941: 27 children total

1958: Concordia stops providing care for children

By the time the last orphan left in 1958, Concordia had cared for over 1,000 children.

...........

Founded more than 130 years ago, Concordia Lutheran Ministries is a faith-based, CARF-CCAC accredited Aging Services Network and recipient of the inaugural Pennsylvania Department of Aging Excellence in Quality Care Award. As one of the 50 largest nonprofit senior care providers in the country, the organization serves over 20,000 people annually through home care and inpatient locations. Concordia offers a lifetime continuum of care that includes adult day services, home care, hospice, medical and rehabilitation services, memory support, personal care, respite care, retirement living, skilled nursing/short-term rehab, spiritual care and medical equipment. For more information, call 724.352.1571 or e-mail us here.

4 comments

  • Comment Link Kristi Kennelly posted by Kristi Kennelly on Nov 11, 2015 8:15 PM

    My grandfather Joseph, and his younger brother, Donald, were both at the orphanage following the death of their father in 1918.
    We never knew how long they were there until my great-grandmother was able to care for them again. Any records to share would be greatly appreciated. If you have suggestions for how to get information from St. Rita's home for Infants, that would be great too!

  • Comment Link Eva Weil-Johnson posted by Eva Weil-Johnson on Sep 25, 2015 9:57 PM

    Amazing stories! My great-grandfather and his siblings lived at Concordia around 1900 after their mother passed away and their father couldn't care for them. This post really helped me visualize what their life may have been like when they lived there. Is there a way to access any personal records of the children who lived there? I'm looking for the Weil siblings: Charles/Karl Vernon, George William, Marie Louise and Conrad August. They all lived there in the 1900 census, and by 1910 only the youngest, Conrad lived there.

  • Comment Link Concordia posted by Concordia on Nov 10, 2014 2:10 PM

    Thanks for the comment Janna! Someone will be in touch with you shortly about our archives. :)

  • Comment Link Janna Larson posted by Janna Larson on Nov 8, 2014 11:25 PM

    I am researching a couple who are said to have met at Concordia Orphanage. Agnes Augusta Vianko appears on the Butler Co. PA 1900 census. I did not find her eventual husband, John Scott St. Clair. If you have any information on these people, or a person I may contact, I will be grateful for your help.

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