Without mamas and papas on Mother’s Day

Barry stands on the steps of the old orphanage in Marquette

Imagine yourself without a mama on Mother’s Day.  Imagine yourself without a papa on Father’s Day.  Imagine yourself in an orphanage, alone.  Surrounded by people who may or may not understand you.  People who may or may not be gentle.  People who don’t love you because you’re family. 

Yesterday Barry and I happened upon the old Marquette Orphanage.  We “happened” upon it because US-41 is being jack-hammered and torn apart.  We’re all routed on a detour from downtown Marquette which passes the Jacobetti Veteran’s Hospital and the old orphanage. 

We opted to leave the security of the car and tour the front of the old orphanage.  It was a strange thing to do on Mother’s Day. 

A swath of yellow tree illuminated atop the orphanage

Would anyone like a little history lesson about this orphanage?  Please click on this link and read a great story the Marquette Monthly magazine wrote back in 2007.  It is really fascinating.  (Scroll down past the First Presbyterian Church article to find the story entitled “Home away from home”.)

I did a little sleuthing via Google.  Learned a lot about the orphanage that we didn’t know when we casually visited yesterday.  The first thing:  a lot of sources insist that the place is haunted.  We didn’t meet any ghosts in broad daylight so we can’t affirm or deny.  

According to this link some of the children were possibly abused.  I suppose that’s how the ghost stories started.  During the years some children died when living there.  People have seen lights, drawings on the wall, eerie things…  If you look closely at the second-t0-the-last photo, you might just agree with the ghost stories.  You can almost see the spirits peering out of the old building. 

Dried plants; crumbling brick

You want to know my theory?  There are ghosts in lots of places.  One of my friends just shared about the paranormal activity in her old house.  Lights turning on and off without explanation.  Noises upstairs and downstairs.  Hair dryers turning on and off.  

It happens.  Old buildings seem to be conduits to the other world.  Perhaps it’s from the people dying…perhaps it’s from over-active imaginations.  Whatever the reason, strange things often happen inside old buildings. 

Way up high...

Here’s my next theory.  Children were happy and treated well inside the walls of orphanages; children were also treated poorly and possibly abused.  It depended upon the particular people who were overseeing the orphans and perhaps the orphans themselves.  

Like life, it’s never as simple as we think it should be.  If you read the history article, lots of people thoroughly enjoyed their time spent within the orphanage.  

Here is an excerpt from the Marquette Monthly article.  It quotes Phil Niemisto who was an orphan at the Holy Family Orphan’s Home in Marquette from 1929 to 1941:  

 The nuns, who acted as either mother or teacher to their young charges, kept a strict routine at the orphanage.

“Being in the orphanage was a lot like being in the army,” Niemisto said. “Our days were pretty regimented. But we didn’t know any different. Everything was well organized—there wasn’t a lot of time for anyone to get into trouble.”

Niemisto said they all slept in a big dormitory—the girls in one wing, the boys in the other. They got up early, about 6:00 a.m., made their beds and knelt and said prayers. After that, they had breakfast—it was pretty institutional food, mostly cereal and toast.

“Then we’d go to chapel for more prayers,” Niemisto said. “Classes started at 9:00 a.m. and went until 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. There was recess and a break for lunch, which usually was a hot meal. We’d do our homework, then we had playtime.”

Sometimes the children played outside until 9:00 p.m. in the summertime. The nuns would blow a horn to tell them to come in.

“We said more prayers before we went to bed—we did a lot of praying,” Niemisto said. “If you weren’t a Catholic when you went into the orphanage, you became one while you were there. We even played religion, copying the services and the masses that were held in the chapel.”

The grounds around the orphanage served as a playground for the kids.
“There were swings and a teeter-totter, the regular kind of playground equipment,” Niemisto said. “Father Beyer was really good with the kids, I remember. They showed us a lot of movies. We went on outings. They would take us out to the Island for the day. In winter, we went tobogganing on the hill behind where [the Vineyard] is today. “


Other sources have different stories.  The regimented format did not set well with some children.  Some told horror stories.  The first orphans to arrive in 1915 were Native Americans from Assinins–across the bay from our house, near Baraga. 

I have heard many stories from area Native Americans about their challenging days in local orphanages.  They report being beaten for speaking their native language.  Some report positive experiences and memories about life in the orphanage; others still regale not-so-happy stories. 

I suspect many children with two living parents also tell different stories of being raised… 

Someone left an offering to the orphanage: two blue glass dolphins

As we preapred to leave the orphanage yesterday we noticed two shiny glass dolphins sitting on the front steps.  Someone had left them here.  As a gift for the ghost-children?  As a memory from childhood?  

Who knows?  We left there quietly, remembering children without mothers and fathers on Mother’s Day.  And thought sadly about the many children alive right now in the same situation…

About Kathy

I live in the middle of the woods in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Next to Lake Superior's cold shores. I love to blog.
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32 Responses to Without mamas and papas on Mother’s Day

  1. fountainpen says:

    Yes, indeed, what a mysterious thing to do on Mother’s Day, and yet
    what an interesting thing to do….and yes, to all of the above…we shall
    never know each other’s journey…..the moments of high delight, and the moments of dire pain and aloneness….

    The pictures are haunting enough…ghosts, sure, why not!!
    Certainly there was a military, monastic way about it, and yet,
    somehow, there must be some happy ghosts there too!

    Don’t you think??!!


    • Kathy says:

      Fountainpen…a happy ghost? A happy ghost?? How come I didn’t think of a happy ghost??? You know, I’ll bet it could be a happy ghost. A child who loved the orphanage so much she still doesn’t want to leave… I’m sure that’s what it is! 😉

  2. jeffstroud says:

    Powerful story, very thoughtful and well rounded. Not choosing sides, that each event or experience is the opportunity for consciousness or sleeping.

    Wonderful old place, I would have been inside there in short moment, to see what I could photograph! Too cool!

    I am Love, Jeff

    • Kathy says:

      Yes, Jeff, you get it! Why should we choose sides when there are so many different stories which came out of that orphanage? Opportunities for sleeping or consciousness, as you say. As for getting inside that old place…read this: http://www.theghosttracker.org/marquette.htm
      He doesn’t show any photos of the inside but swears he went in. I think you’d probably fall through all the floors! Then you would be a ghost, and not too happy of a ghost either… LOL!

  3. Snoopykg1 says:

    Thanks for the history lesson, along with thoughtful things to ponder, ghosts, children without families, etc….
    I too thhink there are all kinds of stories that these old buildings.
    I too had the same experience on the USS Yorktown docked in Charleston.
    True ghosts do live there, as we spent three nights on board.


    USS Yorktown (CV-5), 1937-1942
    Overview and Special Image Selection

    USS Yorktown, a 19,800 ton aircraft carrier built at Newport News, Virginia, was commissioned on 30 September 1937. Operating in the Atlantic and Caribbean areas until April 1939, she then spent the next two years in the Pacific. In May 1941 Yorktown returned to the Atlantic, patrolling actively during the troubled months preceding the outbreak of war between the United States and the Axis powers.

    • Kathy says:

      Kim, sounds like you could write a haunted story of your time on the Yorktown. I have a few ghost stories, too, but mostly stories of deceased family members or friends showing up. (If anyone wanted to believe the stories, that is…)

      • Snoopykg1 says:

        Everyone should go to:

        to learn more and get an idea of what kind of ghosts we did see. The had about 5 fantastic stories, mostly at night in the barracks that we slept in, bunks hanging fromt he ceiling.

        Very interesting, especially for pilots.

  4. Kathy, a thoughtful story worthy of publication alongside the article you referenced. I am touched by the dolphin gift. I instantly decided that it was a former resident, or a descendant. You are right about children growing up in different families with the same parents. My brother shared some stories of his childhood with me recently. His memories and relationship with my parents is totally different than mine. I recommend everyone have a long conversation just listening to your siblings talking about childhood, school, parents. You’ll be amazed. Assume nothing based on your own memories!

    • Kathy says:

      Carla, I suspect you may be right about the dolphin gift. I am also fascinated listening to the memories our children have of growing up here. I think, “Did we live in the same house??” Their memories are so different from the way I remember everything…

      • Eileen says:

        i leaved in the Holy Cross orphanage i was 5 i remember the tunnel and new the girl that drowned in the Cory i remember a lot of things there the girls name was Frances someone pulled the tube out from under her and he could not swim she was like a sister to us and when we went to go see her the nun told us how she drowned

        • Kathy says:

          Eileen, thank you for sharing your stories with memories of life at the Holy Cross orphanage. I did not know about the girl who drowned. That must have been rough on everyone.

          • Eileen says:

            she drowned at the quarry she was like a sister to us we went back to ee here and the nuns told us she drowned we were very sad

  5. holessence says:

    Kathy – A brilliantly told, thought-provoking blog. I appreciate the way you revealed both the light and shadow sides of the story.

    If you have easy access to a black/white copier, make a copy of the second to the last photograph. You may well find that it reveals much more than you can see in the color version of the picture. I have many people who bring their color aura photographs for me to “read.” I always make a black/white copy. In my experience, (or maybe it’s just how my min’s eye works) they reveal much more.

    Laurie Buchanan

    • Kathy says:

      Laurie, it seemed important to try to reveal both the light and shadow sides of the story. I will try to make a black and white of that photo and look at it more closely. Thanks for the idea!

  6. Marianne says:

    Very interesting, Kathy! Thank you for that adventure. I too, hear stories about ghosts, especially in old buildings. Just a year ago or so I had to go to the hospital. The hospital is over 100 years old. I overheard a few nurses and orderlies chatting about the ghost appearances on certain floors. They not only heard them, but also saw them. Two of the nurses talked of witnessing the same event while they were on shift together. An interesting idea about ghosts that I came across was from “Adam”. He is a gifted energy healer. In one of his books he refers to seeing a ghost. He said something about the ghost being trapped energy that needed to express something and once it did it dissipated. It made sense to me. At least that’s the way I remember it.

    • Kathy says:

      Marianne, it would be interesting to talk with the ghosts in the orphanage…to allow them to express what they want to say…and then see if they dissipate. I like your theory, too. Interesting about your hospital experience and the nurse’s experiences.

  7. Reggie says:

    An unusual story and a thought-provoking post, Kathy. How interesting that you chose mother’s day of all days to visit an orphanage. I too love the little dolphins – I think they were a peace offering to the spirits who still live there.

    In the Animal Medicine Cards, Dolphin is described as “the keeper of the sacred breath of life” who “teaches us how to release emotions through Dolphin breath”: we exhale all our pain and tension, and inhale the essence of Great Spirit. In this way, Dolphin acts as a messenger from Great Spirit to the children of the earth. 🙂

    • Kathy says:

      Reggie, it’s strange. I guess I didn’t realize that it was mother’s day and we were visiting the orphanage until afterward. Even though we knew it was mother’s day, we weren’t really thinking about that… It was only when I wrote the headline that it all “came together”. Love what you shared about Dolphin and the Animal Medicine Cards. Sounds true…

  8. Cindy Lou says:

    What a beautiful, touching post! When at NMU, I walked past the orphanage many times and always marveled at the beauty of the building itself while wondering about the lives of those who had lived there. There used to be an orphanage at Assinins – two of Johnny’s uncles lived there around the ages of 10 or so. They came from a large family and there wasn’t enough money to take care of them all so two of the older boys went to live there to help the family…..what a decision for a momma and poppa to make!

    • Kathy says:

      Cindy, bet you did walk past that orphanage many times. I hope Johnny’s uncles had good experiences in the orphanage. When reading the Marquette Monthly article, I noticed they mentioned that lots of other parents chose to send kids to the orphanage when they couldn’t afford to raise them. Or when one parent died. These kids were called “Half Orphans.” Yes, imagine what the parents felt…

  9. Dawn says:

    Beautiful building, but sad too. Kind of like the mental hospital buildings I saw when I was in Traverse City…

  10. You can read more history regarding the Holy Family Orphans’ Home and the surprising role it played in Operation Pedro Pan in my article in Michigan History Magazine, September/October 2010, called “When Cuba Came to Marquette.” Holy Family Orphans’ Home has been a refuge for 1000’s of children over the years and it doesn’t deserve to be in the condition it is.

    • Kathy says:

      Carrie, I ended up seeing that article and was fascinated by it! (My husband works at the L’Anse Sentinel and brought home his complimentary copy to show me.) That was a very interesting story–you did a great job reporting it. So many people are connected with this orphanage. It would be wonderful if it could be restored.

  11. Eileen says:

    does anyone have earlier pictures of the inside of the holy cross orphanage before it was so bad i remember just was hoping to get some older pictures

  12. Eileen says:

    i remember the tunnel and the Cuban’s but they were not children i remember 2 of them coming down to wish me a happy birthday when i turned 5 year old

  13. Lots of food for thought here, Kathy… Children are like plants, in my humble opinion, they all need different kinds and combinations of light, moisture and soil in order to grow and thrive. It stands to reason that some children thrived in an orphanage and others muddled through or even had their spirits crushed. How fortunate is the child who has adults in her life, parents or guardians, willing to create the right conditions for her growth and well-being. It seems so random, though, who gets what is needed and who doesn’t get quite as much… How amazing that you chanced to stumble across this orphanage on Mothers Day.

    • Kathy says:

      Barbara, to think we stumbled upon this orphanage three years ago on Mother’s Day. I remember being so excited to take pictures of the old building, and to imagine those who lived there. You are so right–lucky indeed is the child who has loving adults to nurture him or her. Sad for those who don’t. Thank you for finding this “old” blog post and commenting. Wondering how you discovered it!

  14. Carolyn Palmer says:

    I just was inspired to write a poem entitled “Orphans Need You”. Then I was motivated to check the internet for orphanages in our area. My husband and I live in Cooks which is about 90 miles from Marquette. How I would love to be able to restore the building and to see it in operation once again! This is, of course, without considering all that would be involved in the task. I have really enjoyed the information I have received about the old orphanage which I did not know existed. We have only been living in the Upper Peninsula for 4 years.

    • Kathy says:

      Hi Carolyn. Thanks for stopping by my blog and finding this orphanage story. It seems like a lot of people are interested in this orphanage and wishing it could be restored. By the way, we live about 80 miles from Marquette, in a place called Aura, if you’ve ever heard of it. I am smiling thinking that you wrote a poem about orphans. It sounds like you have a big heart.

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