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History and Memory: Precious Scraps of Family Stories from the Sisters’ Orphanage Files

By Sarah Cantor, Director of Archives

Most of us have no trouble knowing our place in the world. We are the daughters and sons of these people, from that place and with those customs. So imagine the holes in memory faced by families torn asunder by circumstances, often of poverty and death, when they try to piece together their family narrative. The SNJM U.S.-Ontario Archives might seem like an odd place to look for such answers, but because we house the records for the Christie Home for Orphan Girls, we help find them on a regular basis.

Mere weeks after their arrival in 1859, the Sisters in Oregon began accepting foundlings and orphans. They really had no choice as children were often abandoned at the gate or simply thrown over the wall that surrounded St. Mary’s Academy in Portland. There was no other orphanage in the state so by dint of necessity, the Sisters took on that role in addition to their teaching. As the years passed, the orphanage moved first to St. Paul, then in 1908 to the Marylhurst campus, where it was one of the first two buildings constructed. At its busiest, the Christie Home (named in honor of Archbishop Alexander Christie) housed nearly 250 girls ranging in age from six to 14.

Many of the families who contact the Archives about their mothers or grandmothers discover they resided at Christie through census records. Their requests are often the same: “Can you tell me any information about my mother/grandmother and her family?” Sometimes there is almost no information, maybe just dates of residency. Other times, using the chronicles and other records, we can provide information about baptisms, First Communions, graduations and even major illnesses. Recently I returned one student’s eighth grade diploma to her. She’d never received it because she was in the hospital during graduation and it had sat in her file for nearly 60 years. Another time I sent copies of photographs to the daughters of three siblings who were at Christie in the 1930s. It was the first time they had ever seen childhood photos of their mother and aunts.

These seem like little things, but when pieces of a family story are missing, every scrap of history can be precious. It is a privilege to be able to use the Sisters’ history to help families complete their stories.

Photo credit: Archives, SNJM U.S.-Ontario Province