Heirs of Destiny

July 24, 2016 GMT

Family is important in the Teche Area — more so to some

As a 14-year-old girl, Paula Rosenfeldt (Stern) watched from the distance as her newborn baby was taken to be baptized at St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church, near the hospital she had just left.

The child was then carried to the New York Foundling Hospital to be raised by the Sisters of Charity. At 3 years old, she was transported by train to south Louisiana.

Loretta Rosenfeldt “Rose” Deville Cole never knew the history of her birth mother. She married, gave birth to a son and daughter and died at the age of 23. Her story was recently told as a skit by her descendants at the Louisiana Orphan Train Society’s 25th annual gathering at the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum in Opelousas.

Paula Rosenfeldt is the first birth mother to be found from among the riders identified by the museum.

Her granddaughter, Loretta Cole Kaiser, 89, lives in Krotz Springs and is the mother of 14 natural born children and one child adopted from Vietnam. She always wanted to know about her blood relatives. Thanks to family members and a mutual DNA search through two databases, the Rosenfeldt story is unfolding.

“During a trip to New York City in 2001, we learned mom’s grandmother was Paula from Russia,” said Laura Kaiser, granddaughter of the Orphan Train Rider (OTR). “My sister Joan and our niece, Jeanelle, spent hours on the computer.”

They used DNA testing on Ancestory.com then entered the information at FamilyTreeDNA.com, said Joan Kaiser Bergeaux, another OTR granddaughter. That’s how they connected through a first cousin match with Suzanne West from Los Angeles, California, another descendent of Paula Rosenfeldt Stern. West is from the Jewish line born after Stern married and gave birth to three other daughters.

No one knew about the eldest daughter, the one baptized Catholic who rode the Orphan Train. The Jewish descendants are providing the history.

Paula’s Story

Paula Rosenfeldt Stern grew up outside Minsk, Russia. In the late 1800s the Jews were being slaughtered and many of her family lost their lives. Paula’s older sister had been sent to the United States by their parents and in 1902 at the age of 12, Paula was put on a ship alone. She cried the entire cruise. The authorities thought she was sick and wouldn’t let her disembark. Paula was sent back to Russia.

Two years after her parents nursed her back to health, she arrived the second time at Ellis Island with her 9-year-old sister. Although details of her early days on American soil are not fully known, one can imagine the uncertainty she must have experienced, becoming pregnant and then leaving her child.

Paula lived in New York City all of her life. Another Jewish first cousin who lives in Las Vegas was 10 years old when Paula died so the heirs have been able to learn first hand about their great-grandmother. She became a naturalized citizen of the United States of America on Aug. 29, 1932.

One of her daughters, Priscilla “Pershie” Stern, gave birth as an unwed mother and left the child for adoption before anyone could stop her. Paula went to the hospital to retrieve her grandson and raised him as her own. She cried everyday in silence remembering her lost baby girl, Bergeaux said.

More to Tell

In the 1905 New York City Foundling Hospital census, William “Willie” Frederick Cole, an OTR, was listed as 1 year old. Loretta Rosenfeldt “Rose” Deville Cole, Paula’s daughter, was also in the census listed as “zero-months old,” or less than one.

They both arrived in Louisiana about the same time, met as teenagers, married and had two children, a son who died in combat and Loretta Cole Kaiser. With 51 grandchildren and 120 great-grandchildren as well as a great-great-grandchild, the coincidence that Kaiser is fondly referred to as “having more descendants than Abraham” takes on new meaning. Loretta Kaiser now knows her grandmother Paula, and thus she herself, are descendants of Abraham. She will be 90 on Aug. 7.

Flo Vige Inhern, one of the forces behind the museum, said her OTR father-in-law was raised as a cousin of Willie Cole. The two boys arrived together in Louisiana and were taken home from the depot by a sister and brother who raised them as first cousins.

Keeper of Their History

Being part of the history of the museum comes naturally to Inhern. As a child, Inhern’s mother sat at school with an OTR. The little girl from New York, Christina, was teased by the other children. Inhern’s mother took Christina under her wing and a generation later, one of Christina’s sons was a classmate of Inhern’s. Also as a child, Inhern played with the children of “Miss Mary,” an OTR, and her father’s first cousin was a rider.

“I knew about orphans early,” Inhern said. “When I became of age and met my husband, he was the son of an orphan rider. Daddy’s cousin raised that little baby whose picture is in that case right there.”

Like many natural born children, some childhood experiences are not pleasant at the hands of adult caregivers. So it was with children arriving on the orphan train. Not all would have good experiences.

“They all worked on farms, we all did. I did, too. But, we weren’t mistreated,” Inhern said. “There was a stigma about them and some of the children would say all kinds of things about them.”

More than 300 have been identified of the reported 2,000 children who settled in Louisiana between 1854 and 1929. Orphaned by their parents at birth, or found on the streets of the city, they knew only the Sisters of Charity and the Foundling Hospital as their home. Frightened beginnings were compounded when rendered by train to destinations far from home.

The last known rider in the Teche Area, Alice Kearns Geoffroy Bernard of Delcambre and Erath, died in January 2015 at 98. Like Christina, her early memories of teasing haunted her throughout her life. After marriage, she never wanted to return to Erath, Inhern said.

New Plateaus

Joe Courville and his wife Jane were among the celebrants at the 25th reunion. His mother’s father, George Wilks, was an OTR. He came from Holland with his mother who gave him to the Foundling Hospital when she could no longer take care of him. There is no record of what happened to the father but Wilks was about 6 years old when he arrived in Louisiana.

“Everything back in those days was hush, hush,” Courville said. “These orphans were sometimes used liked slaves. I didn’t know my grandfather but my mother has told me how she was treated and (how) her daddy (was treated).”

A picture of his mother as a small child sitting on Wilks’ lap, surrounded by the whole family, is among the rider mementos on the walls of the museum. It was only through her stories that Courville came to know his grandfather’s plight.

Although his rider’s life was hard and stories passed down reflect emotional wounds rooted in bitterness, the museum offers a place for all families to find consolation and restoration through shared experiences, Inhern said.

Treasures Under Glass

One of the newspaper articles featured on the museum wall is dated March 28, 1993, The Daily Iberian. It reads, “Clifford Niles came into this world Dec. 31, 1905. But his place of birth is not known.”

At 4 years old, the toddler arrived in New Iberia and was taken home by a family who had no children.

“My grandfather was a sharecropper. My grandmother told my aunt that when he came, he’d sit under the table and ask for his ‘sisters.’ They took it for granted he had (siblings),” said Gwendolyn “Poopay” LeBlanc. “But, he had been brought to the orphanage at two weeks old. He was there four years, so when he was asking for the sisters, he meant the nuns.”

Clifford Niles Oubre wore No. 50. Before the museum was housed in the building located on Opelousas city property, Poopay LeBlanc took her father’s arrival papers and dress to show the museum collectors.

“It was in the drawer for 70 years,” said Carl LeBlanc, Poopay LeBlanc’s husband. “Then she framed it and it’s good for as long as we are alive.”

“When he came, he was 4 years old but he never talked about it — never,” said Poopay LeBlanc. “Before I married I learned about it, but he never talked about it.”

If Poopay LeBlanc’s grandmother had not kept the dress and papers hidden away to be brought out in later years, LeBlanc might never have known the history of her father’s arrival.

When he was older, Oubre cut cane in fields for the Walets at Caroline Plantation. Later he was a driller for Texaco and worked on the rigs located at the same plantation. The Walets became family to the young man and his heirs as much as the Oubres.

“He started with nothing, worked for Texaco and bought land and more land,” Poopay LeBlanc said. “I’m protective of his land. If he could do that, starting with nothing when they had nothing, that’s quite an achievement. He took care of his mom and dad until they died.”

Poopay LeBlanc said Oubre always appreciated his parents taking him in, but they only changed his name. He was never officially adopted as a child. Although they were unable to have children before he came to live with them, they eventually had two natural sons, Steven and Glenn Oubre.

Poopay said the greatest legacy her father passed on was love of family.

Touching Community

The boy born to Ida May Jenks, a 20-year-old girl from England, became a ward of the Foundling Hospital when he was 17 days old. Alfred Brenner Landry’s American born father, Alfred Thomas Brenner, had no address reported on the birth certificate.

After arriving in New Iberia on the Orphan Train, he was raised by Ava Hulin Landry and her husband Albert Landry of Cypress Island. He, too, never talked about being an orphan.

“In my younger days, my grandmother told me there was a catalogue sent to St. Martin de Tours Church in St. Martinville,” said Delores Landry Romero. “She looked in it and saw a boy with ringlets. She said, ‘I want this boy.’ According to the letter sent to us by the Sisters of Charity, there was no such catalogue. But when the children arrived, my grandmother recognized the beautifully dressed child with a name ribbon. She knew it was him.”

Four other riders were raised in the same small community including Henry Delahousse, a very close friend of Alfred Landry. Delahousse was not as fortunate. He was treated like a slave, said Delores Landry Romero repeating what she had heard from the family. He slept in the barn and ate on the porch of his foster parents’ home.

Romero’s grandmother said she always feared her son would leave them because of being the only child and having a discontented OTR friend.

Alfred Landry’s early life wasn’t easy, however. At 4 he only spoke English when he arrived in Louisiana. The foster couple spoke only French. They didn’t know when their son was crying for chocolate milk. Yet with the help of a bilingual black couple living across the street, they learned about his needs, said Elaine Landry Breaux, another daughter of the OTR.

“Leaving the Sisters, that was all he knew,” Elaine Breaux said, “Having to come on a train with other children not even knowing where you were are going, getting down from the train and people you can’t understand...”

The father of five was a self-taught man who lived seven miles out of town on the outskirts of St. Martin Parish. His schooling only went through the sixth grade, but the only child of the Landry couple stayed close to home even through his mother always feared he would leave.

His heirs are many, starting with the two daughters and three sons, the late Russell Landry, Calvin and Al.

Instead of leaving, his legacy has touched the village of Loreauville through his heirs including grandson Brock Romero, the nurse-practioner at the Rural Health Clinic started by his father Dr. Russell Romero, husband of Delores Landry.

His innovation built homes and businesses including the Landry Pepper Company, Delores Romero said. The late Russell Landry’s daughter, Lamar Bertrand, still runs the factory.

Alfred Landry developed the process for the factory and without engineering experience came up with a conveyor to help his wife separate the good peppers from the bad. It’s no wonder he grew to be “very close to his parents, his wife and all his children,” said Delores Romero.

Part of History

Heirs of the Orphan Train Riders, friends and supporters of the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum in Opelousas gathered July 9 to celebrate 25 years of collecting history.

During the event, a New Orleans Sisters of Charity speaker told how the original Foundling Hospital moved across the street to a new building in 1958. Traffic was stopped throughout the day as a steady stream of nuns walked with children from the old to the new orphanage. A time came when the Sisters could no longer maintain the old structure and it was sold to a developer who built a high-rise condominium complex. His name? Donald Trump.

According to LAOrphanTrain.com, between 1854 and 1929 two charity institutions, The Children’s Aid Society and The New York Foundling Hospital, gathered resources to help more than 250,000 homeless or abandoned children living on the streets of New York City. The plan was to take as many children as possible off the streets of New York and place them into rural homes across America.

The Orphan Train Movement is recognized as the beginning of the modern foster care system. It was responsible for bringing more than 2,000 children to Louisiana. Despite the hardship of leaving their only known life behind, those children rode the orphan trains for new and better lives.

The last orphan train ride to Louisiana was in 1929. It was in that year the program ceased in large part due to growing measures by state legislatures across the country to restrict or forbid the interstate placement of children.