Monthly Archives: July 2012

We Are Here, exhibition of contemporary American Indian artists, opens August 3

Friday, August 3, marks the opening of a significant exhibit of contemporary Americna Indian artists.  The exhibit “DED Unk’unpi — We Are Here” is part of the statewide commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862

According to Dakota Artist and scholar Gwen Westerman Wiscuna, the phrase “DED Unk ‘unpi–We are Here” recalls the fact that “when the prisoners were hanged, they called out their names and said, “I am here.”

The exhibition is open August 3 – September 28 at the All My Relations Gallery, 1414 East Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis. The Gallery is open Tues.–Fri. 11 a.m.–
6 p.m., Sat.–Sun., 11 a.m.–3 p.m.)  Co-sponsors of the “We Are Here” exhibit are the Native American Community Development Institute and All My Relations Gallery.

Opening Reception – August 3rd, 2012 5-8pm, light refreshments will be served.  Free and open to the public.

Details about the statewide commemoration of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 sponsored at the state level by the Minnesota Historical Society can be found at http://www.mnhs.org/library/tips/history_topics/94dakota.html.

One Minneapolis-One Read Selection Offers Stories of the Impact of U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures – Ralph Waldo Emerson

In this 150th commemoration of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 Minnesotans struggle to unravel the facts and, even more, to internalize the reality of a War so near at hand, so close in time, and so unknown to 21st Century Minnesotans.

The Minnesota Historical Society has launched a massive multi-faceted program to uncover, interpret and share the facts and forces that led to, infused and flowed from the War. Through the exhibit at the History Center, public discussions, a guide to historic sites and more, MHS has focused Minnesotans’ attention on a piece of Minnesota history long overlooked – because it is just too difficult to face.

Minneapolitans who dip into fiction for a better understanding of the 1862 tragedy are already deep into Diane Wilson’s Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past, the book chosen by the Minneapolis City Council as this year’s One Minneapolis One Read Minneapolis choice. The book explores Wilson’s Dakota Indian ancestry over generations. The story begins with the U.S-Dakota war, then follows Wilson’s family members through five generations life in South Dakota and Nebraska.

The One Minneapolis One Read initiative launches early this fall. A host of organizations and institutions are involved, all focused on encouraging local community explorations of the themes posited in the “one read.”

Spirit Car, published by the Minnesota Historical Society, is widely available in area libraries and bookstores and at MHS Press. The book can be downloaded from the Hennepin County Library and is also available in e-book format from commercial vendors.

Readers will find additional information about the book and resources about the Dakota War through the Minnesota Historical Society Press and at the MHS website. There is also a discussion guide prepared by the Minnesota Book Awards/The Friends of the Saint Pubic Public Library.

Librarians at Hennepin County Library have created a great website for readers who want to explore other writers’ perspectives on the War and its implications. The website lists a generous reading list of fiction and nonfiction titles related to the Native American experience in Minnesota along with comments from other readers. All of the titles listed are available for reserve and check-out from the library.

This is the second year of the One Minneapolis One Read program. Hundreds of Minneapolitans took part in community discussions of last year’s book, the Grace of Silence, written by NPR host and Minneapolis native Michele Norris. Rebroadcasts of One Read Week events are available on Comcast on Demand. Follow One Minneapolis One Read developments on the website, on Facebook or on Twitter. Email oneread@minneapolismn.gov.

WPA’s Legacy Shapes the Landscape of Minnesota and of Northeast Minneapolis

There’s talk these days that what this nation/state/city needs is a 21st Century Work Progress Administration (WPA).  It’s short-hand for what is, in fact, an incredibly complex story of a Depression era program of immense import to the participants and their families, to the economy, and to every American today.

Instinctively, mention of WPA conjures images of bridges, roads, buildings and other concrete (literally) memorials to the work of thousands of men and women who improved the physical infrastructure of the nation.  In part this is because those physical structures remain and the “WPA” stamp is an enduring reminder of who did the work.

One remarkable aspect of the WPA initiative is the less visible but equally lasting impact on the lives of people who were struggling through treacherous economic times.  The goal was to provide one paid job for all families where the breadwinner suffered long-term unemployment.  As one recorder of WPA activities wrote in 1942, “The Work Projects Administration helped to solve the problems of the family and the city.”

The WPA was authorized in 1935 under the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the inspiration and guidance of his adviser Harry Hopkins.  Framed as an outgrowth of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration WPA focused on economic recovery and on the absolute commitment to the value of a real job.  Though critics charged that WPA was a government handout, the truth is that WPA workers improved the health and welfare of millions of Americans who learned new skills, tried out ideas, and left a positive imprint of solid construction and implementation of essential community services.

During WPA’s  eight years Americans invested $13.4 billion dollars. In Minneapolis 70,000 men and women found gainful work, education and creative opportunities through WPA. When WPA was dissolved in 1943 it was not failure of the program but a more robust economy buoyed by the harsh reality that American men and women had found defense-related employment.

One hallmark of WPA was that it was largely operated by state and local governments.  Local agencies which provided 10-30% of costs worked closely with and nonprofits and community organization that played a major role in developing and delivering services.

Begun as an economic development/employment project WPA shifted with the tides of time.  As American workers found jobs in industry, labor unions worried less about their members losing jobs to WPA workers; this opened the way for WPA to venture into vocational training.  As visionaries worried about the loss of creative talent and feared that writers, artists, musicians were given unskilled labor jobs, programs in the arts emerged.  Later, as War overwhelmed the nation, existing programs were repositioned in terms of defense preparedness.

The diversity, complexity and shifting direction of WPA programs is hard to categorize. Though they are variously grouped, the WPA programs fall generally into the categories of Construction and Community Service.

Construction

Minneapolitans live in a city built with the labor of WPA workers, working for no more than $8/hour and grateful to have a job to go to in the Depression era.  A shining example of their work is the Minneapolis Armory, built in 1935, probably the most important building constructed in the Twin Cities during the Depression.

The Armory is known as the nation’s shining example of Moderne style.  Its very existence depends to some extent on the fact that it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Armory construction brought $300,000 into the local market while it employed over 400 tradesmen.  All of the materials for the building were produced locally, in keeping with principles of WPA projects – steelwork by Minneapolis Moline and Gillette-Herzog, brick from Twin City Brick, granite from St Cloud and limestone from Mankato.

The Armory is just one stunning example of the physical impact of WPA . Some basic statistics describe the scope:  WPA workers built eleven new city garages and reconditioned five new parks, 68 playgrounds and eight high school athletic fields enlarged and improved 14 branch and main libraries, built or repaired sewers, alleys, curbs and gutters repaired, repaved thirty miles of street and built ten new bridges.  They also installed nearly 65,000 street and traffic signs.  You get the idea.

Other construction highlights include these:

  • Columbia Golf Course, which dates from the early 1900’s,  is one WPA project with which most Northeasters are familiar.  Golfers enjoy the upgraded grass greens created by WPA workers.  The improved greens actually helped Columbia to continue to operate, though at a loss, during hard times.
  • Another local hallmark of WPA is John P. Murzyn Hall in Columbia Heights which began as a WPA project at a cost of $649,407.  Originally known as Columbia Heights Field House, the hall served da community center for the people of Columbia Heights.  The first official event at Murzyn was the January 28 Birthday Ball to celebrate Washington’s Birthday in 1939. Murzyn Hall continues to serve the community as the site of countless dances and other activities and a popular locus for weddings and other important family and community celebrations.
  • Wold-Chamberlain, then one of the largest in the country, enjoyed a major rehab subsidized with $2 million federal funds and the labors of hundreds of WPA workers.  The construction include 30,000 feet of new runway, new hangers, grading for a new naval base and more.
  • Liberal grants of federal funds and WPA labor benefitted the Minneapolis Municipal River Terminal
  • The Minnesota Soldiers Home got a new power plant along with extensive landscaping and sidewalk construction.
  • The Longfellow House was rehabbed and converted into a public library, now a charming museum and reminder of an earlier Minneapolis
  • The “belt line highway” remains a major thoroughfare that still bears the mark of the WPA workers who provided a sixty-foot main highway 66 miles long, “flanked on each side by walks and service drives.”  The goal was to “enable motorists from the west to enter the heart of Minneapolis at the most advantageous point, with minimum confusion and maximum safety.”
  • The city’s proud heritage of beautiful parks owes a debt to WPA workers who established five new parks and reconditioned thirteen others. They built five new parks and added bath houses and landscaping to Lake Calhoun and Lake Hiawatha.  The beauty of Theodore Wirth and Minnehaha Park tells the WPA story writ large.
  • They remodeled the interior of the Minneapolis auditorium and rehabbed numerous court houses offices.
  • Workers reconditioned 22 municipal buildings including seven fire and four police stations.
  • General Hospital and the University hospital received assistance for a total of 155 WPA construction workers.
  • WPA workers worked in a quieter environment to conduct a geodetic survey of Minneapolis “to determine the precise locations of boundaries and geographic points so that the city’s future may be planned intelligently and precisely.”  The report of the survey is that the “geodetic maps are accurate within an inch and less. The project is closely allied to the U.S. coastal and geodetic survey.
  • Of particular interest to Northeasters are the five greens that WPA workers constructed at the Columbia Heights Golf Course.
  • The Minnesota State Fairgrounds are not exactly Minneapolis but as the home of the Great Minnesota Get Together the Fairgrounds belong to all of us – and to WPA we all owe a debt of gratitude to the WPA workers who built the swine and horse barns, the poultry building, the cattle barn ramp, the 4_H building, with improvements to the grandstand, parking areas and the grounds – all at a cost of $2 million federal funds.

Minneapolitans who walk, drive, fly, learn, play sports or just enjoy the beauty of a city park or other public space have a WPA worker and a progressive administration to thank for the vision that merged the economic vitality of the community with the needs of a family for a steady, if minimum, income and a worker who is proud of day’s work well done.

Community Services 

One chronicler of WPA notes that, “everyone can watch the construction of a new school or a bridge in his community, see the men at work, and recognize the value of this work to himself and his fellow man.  The value of this [community service] work aimed at the educational, recreational, and cultural needs of the people as well as at their physical health and well being, is more difficult to determine.”  Still, the reporter observes, it is essential to record “what this work means in time of peace and its increased possibilities in time of national emergency.”

A quick survey of the community service programs of WPA offers a superficial hint at the truth of this observation:

1) Education.   High on the list of programs is adult education, broadly defined.  Americanization classes were a key “defense activity.” Governor Stassen observed that “such classes are a distinct aid to national unity – they help to extend the friendly hand of a free people to those who desire to become one with us.”

Other adult education programs focused on literacy assistance geared to “making Minnesota the most literate state in the union.”  Assistance went to local school boards to establish “Junior Extension colleges.”

Vocational courses such as shorthand and typing, navigation and life boat practices, first aid and safety, dressmaking and dramatics also got WPA support.  Vocational courses included foreign languages, radio code, diesel engineering and just about anything related to national defense.

There were courses in practical skills such as public speaking and parliamentary law as well as special programs in handicrafts for “shut-ins” who learned skills to create products to sell.  Homebound teachers reached children with disabilities who had never been to school

Numerous other programs came under the broadly-defined education activities:

  • Nursery schools were another priority.  By 1941 over 1000 “under-privileged children ages 2-5 were enrolled in 29 nursery schools in 22 communities including several Indian reservations.
  • Children’s health was a major concern as WPA provided yearly examinations and other health measures including smallpox vaccinations, diphtheria inoculations and Mantoux tests for thousands of children.
  • The women’s WPA sewing project employed nearly 500 women in Minneapolis.  The efficient manufacturing organization was a model of efficiency, so efficient that it was threatened because the women had produced enough clothing to serve the relief department’s distribution needs for up to seven years.  At one point it was rumored that the clothing might go to England as part of the lease-lend program.
  • WPA played a significant role in the extension of public library service to a million unserved Minnesotans.  WPA opened 167 new book stations, served nearly 3000,000 Minnesotans without nearby libraries and registered 37, 117 new borrowers.
  • Under the supervision of Gratia Countryman and working at Trudeau School 183 WPA workers indexed the Minneapolis Star Journal from its beginning and microfilmed the Minneapolis Journal for the years 1878-1939.  The project also provided braille textbooks and texts in large print.
  • WPA workers were visible in school libraries.  Though many were placed as librarians in the schools, others restored thousands of damaged books and magazines – everything from repairing book bindings to erasing finger smudges from the margins.
  • Over 900 WPA workers served recreation projects serving 200 communities in 76 Minnesota counties throughout the state.  Again, emphasis was on long-term recreation programming couched in terms of national defense.

2) Arts.  The most lasting of the WPA community service are programs in the arts – visual arts, music, writing and museums.  The impact of these programs is evident and powerful sixty years later.  The Federal Writers Project and the WPA Artists Project clearly have lives of their own.

Federal arts Project:  In Minneapolis the imprint of the Federal Arts Project is pronounced.  WPA-supported visual artists created paintings, sculpture and murals in public buildings as well as easel paintings and graphic arts for public agencies.  Artists worked in realistic styles and chose familiar subjects such as cityscapes, farm scenes, people at work and play to create a portrait of Minnesota life in the era.  The murals at the Minneapolis Armory are perhaps the most evident. The Armory houses two of the few remaining examples of Federal Arts Project murals, large frescoed murals by local artists Elsa Jemne and Lucia Wiley. In recent years both the Minnesota History Center and the Weismann Museum have mounted exhibits of Federal Art Project works.

The program also included free classes for all age groups and rotating exhibits of national and local art works.  At the Walker Art Center scores of workers conducted art classes and activities for hundreds of children and adults.

Federal Writers Project.  In Minnesota as in other states the emphasis in the Writers Project was to communicate the state’s history, folklore, stories, culture and more to the written page.  Writers collected manuscripts and plumbed the memories of pioneers.  They recorded and organized thousands of stories that live today in books, libraries and particularly in the American Memory Project sponsored by the Library of Congress.

Of particular interest to Northeasters is one of these books, The Bohemian Flats, first published through WPA in 1941.  It’s the story of a small, isolated community that lay on the west bank of the Mississippi, tucked underneath the Washington Avenue bridge  From the 1779’s to the 1940’s the village was a home to generations of immigrants  – Swedish, Norwegian, Czech, Irish, Polish and especially Slovaks.  The book continues to be published, expanded and read.

Another visible WPA project is publication of Minnesota: A State Guide, part of the American Guide Series and still in print.  A fascinating story about the Guidebook is the controversy it caused when right wingers charged that it and similar guidebooks from other states were actually community propaganda.

Hundreds of photographs taken by WPA workers are now digitized and online through the Minneapolis Central Library. Photographs of neighborhood churches, monuments, landscapes and more are an essential visual record of the city as it was in the late 1930’s.

Music project. Emphasis of the Minnesota Music Project was to bring the educational, cultural and entertainment values of living music to communities who could not otherwise had had these advantages.  The project included summer band concerts and music for community singing, band clinics for young musicians, and radio concerts broadcast over the University of Minnesota radio station.

250 musicians were employed oin twelve units throughout the state – one symphony orchestra, two concert bands, one “negro” chorus, a teacher’s project, a copyist project and six small bands.  In addition WPA supported an experimental project in music therapy at the University of Minnesota Hospital

3) Research and records.  Though the work sounds tedious, the impact of the research and records programs of WPA are used every day by Minnesotans.  The project included several elements focused on arranging, indexing or improving essential records;  neglected in boom times the records are of long-time importance for administrative and research purposes as well as to Minneapolis-born residents who want to find their own birth records or those of their forbearers.

One major records project was the Historical Records Survey designed for the use it gets today by public officials, attorneys, students of political scientists and researchers.  WPA workers surveyed public archives, the records and history of organizations, from churches and cemeteries to social organizations, objects and places, including monuments, historic sites, trails and Indian burials and mounds., manuscripts and more.  Today the Survey is a research staple.

Some 800 workers were employed at the state and county levels to refurbish, list, revise, extend, index and otherwise improve private records.  Workers also created a variety of maps for every incorporated village and city in the state, including maps of real property.  Today Minneapolitans can research their house history by referring to the WPA survey of Minneapolis homes and residents including the condition of the building and yard, the type of heating, whether the house had running water, sewer connections, mechanical refrigerator or ice box, the number of residents in the home, their ethnicity, nationality and occupation.

Minnesota’s Historical Records Survey identified and organized local public records such as the names of local officials, the function of each office and the records of historic buildings and sites.  WPA workers assisted in the development of research studies including surveys of the safest routes for school children, real estate activity surveys, income studies and the Minneapolis fire hazard survey which revealed and led to the correction of thousands of fire hazards.

Research was also a priority at public higher education institutions.  WPA supported technical undertakings, many related to national defense. The main and “farm” campuses of the University of Minnesota were at the forefront of WPA implementation.  Some 460 WPA workers worked on over one hundred project in the fields of science, history, medicine, technology and others.  Workers assisted in research several projects tied to national defense, including studies of sulfa’s use in treating wounds, burns and infections, elements of high explosives, the strength of aircraft materials.

Conclusion

Whether or not a WPA-type project is appropriate to meeting the economic and social challenges of today, the history of the initiative is a rich sources of ideas proposed, projects planned and implemented, concrete results that can be measured in terms of the degree to which they have met the test of time.

Note:  This article was written for and published in The Northeaster, the community newspaper of Northeast Minneapolis.  Much of the material in this article is based on reports by and to WPA officials.  Of particular value was the 1041 report to the Federal Works Agency, Works Projects Administration, published by the Work Projects Administraton of Minnesota.    Also important was a 1939 report by the State Administrator, Linus C. Glotzbach, prepared for Colonel F.C. Harrington, director of WPA.  A 1942 guide prepared for Social Studies Teachers, prepared with the assistance of the WPA, was also very useful 

These reports and countless others are available at Minneapolis Central Library Special Collections.

 

 

 

Confused-Yes! Conquered-Not So Fast! Minnesota Struggle to Untangle Proposed Voter ID Amendment

Samuel Johnson quotes (English Poet, Critic and Writer. 17091784)

One of the most pernicious effects of haste is obscurity

Samuel Johnson

Concerned Minnesotans are struggling untangle the language, much less the issues, that spur the breathless rush to embrace the pernicious Voter ID Amendment.  Neither the media nor mere mortals can predict whether or not eh Amendment will appear, in whatever form, on t he November ballot.   As Steve Sack suggests in a recent Star Tribune political cartoon, the forces that favor the “confuse and conquer” strategy have surely confused and remain intent on conquering.

Advocates pro and con the proposed Voter ID Amendment clashed this week in the sanctum sanctorum of the State Supreme Court.  As the Justices probed the issue per se and the contours of the Voter ID decision before them, they seemed to metaphorically, if not visibly, scratch their wise heads.

What IS the issue  –  and WHY is the present electoral process being rocked by a problematic mandate that addresses an issue that has not been a problem and which, if it were a problem, one that  has been ably managed by the state’s heritage of fair and open election.

Ah, there’s the rub.  Minnesota is  just too wide open.  What some well-coached proponents of the Amendment seek is a process that holds purported imposters at bay while costing the general public a hefty sum to create a burdensome barrier.  The “solution” to the nonexistent problem is pernicious in that closes the voting booth to the unworthy runs the risk that it will bar voters who lack the state issued voter ID that proves they are a member of the legitimate Voters Club.

The concept of a Voters Club has its roots in the infamous Jim Crow laws presumably deep sixed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  That monumental law bears the scars of a mighty struggle in which Americans marched – and died.  Since the 2008 election the right wing has busily planted and nurtured the seeds of public doubt, preparing the ground for a return to a time when states called the shots about voter rights.

Today’s proposed Voter ID proposal is s wolf in sheep’s clothing, slinking stealthily across the states, where laws in ten states now require approved voter ID’s.  Joining the hungry pack, Minnesota’s GOP legislators caught the scent, embraced the patently pernicious proposal, wrapped it in the flag of electoral purity, and rallied the honorable voting public to sign on.

The protracted legislative deliberations split down party lines;  GOP members cried Wolf about voter fraud while DFLers raised questions about ambiguity and evasive answers, e.g. when bill author Representative Mary Kiffmeyer, former Secretary of State, defined the meaning of ‘substantially equivalent” to mean “equivalent substantially.”

It was DFL Governor Dayton who observed early in the game  that “if you want to make big radical changes in election law, it should only be done when there’s very broad agreement and support  — otherwise al you have is lawsuits, bitterness, partisan accusations.”

As the Governor predicted, Minnesota is mired in the Amendment quagmire.  Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has proposed clarification of the ballot language so that voters understand the consequences, e.g. the necessity of a state-issued ID and establishment of a system of “provisional ballot.”  Supporters of minimalist option to put before the voters argue that the Legislature has the sole authority to determine what appears on the ballot.

It remains to the Court to decide if the ballot language is so misleading that the proposed Amendment itself should be dropped from the ballot handed Minnesota voters in November.  The Court has indicated a decision will be reached next month, leaving time for an edited ballot to reach polling sites before the voters show up.

No matter the Court’s decision, if the Amendment does appear on the November ballot, no matter the semantics, and if the voters vote in favor of passage, the issue goes back to the Legislature where the devil in the details will meet his/her/its maker.  And still the “if’s” continue.  Opponents of the Amendment have not precluded further legal action.

No matter the legal outcome, the obscurity wrought by haste will inevitable persist.  Some Minnesotans will still question their neighbor’s right to vote;  others will fear or feel the pain of disenfranchisement.     No matter the outcome, the Voter ID Amendment resolves nothing while it unnecessarily confuses a nervous electorate.

Minnesotans Celebrate Community Gardens and Gardeners on August 11

The frost is still deep in the ground when the preparations begin.  Neighbors gather to pour over seed catalogs, sign up for tasks, exchange gardening tips and harvest preferences. 

As the back hoes come out of storage the community gardeners face reality – the hours of stooped labor, sources of water, careful labeling or indistinguishable seeds.

Next the seedlings – and friendships – begin to sprout.  Shared decision-making and the hard labor that gardening demands mean hours of collaboration on a common purpose and a sense of community pride that are the glue of lasting friendships.

On Saturday, August 11, Minnesotans will pause in their labors, get up from their kneepads, pluck a fresh veggie from the vine, and share in a celebration of Community Garden Day.  There will be proclamations and posters, kudos and public praise for all that community gardeners contribute to the health of Minnesotans, the economy, the environment and the access of gardeners and their families to the rich harvest at its peak. 

One subtle benefit of community gardening is the cross pollenating of cultures.  As they work in tandem, gardeners share knowledge of traditional fruits and vegetables along with stories and recipes reminiscent of the heritage that new Americans contribute to Minnesotans whose knowledge of culinary delights is growing by the season.

In many neighborhoods individuals and families in need will enjoy a delicious and nutritious meal or two when generous gardeners contribute their surplus produce to a local food shelf.

Gardening Matters is the prime mover behind the celebration of Community Garden Day in Minnesota.  Check their website for more about the day, about their regional hubs, and about the countless contributions of community gardens and gardeners to Minnesota.

Women’s Prison Book Project sponsors tours, book sale and ice cream social!

The Women’s Prison Book Project continues to expand and enhance their volunteer efforts to meet the reading and information needs of women in prison.  In addition to their ongoing efforts, they are planning two big events for their friends and supporters.

On Saturday, July 8, the Fly Away Zine Mobile, the Women’s Prison Book Project and Boneshaker Books are hosting an Ice Cream Social with a chance to learn about the Zine Library, visit the Mobile Open House and share experience and knowledge of the project

It’s Saturday, July 28, 2:00-4:00 p.m. at ABoneshaker Books, 2002 23rd Avenue South in Minneapolis.

The following weekend, Saturday and Sunday, August 4 and, they are sponsoring a repeat of their annual book sale.  From 9:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. shoppers will find books of every genre at a new book sale location, the driveway of the blue house on the corner of 15th Avenue and 35th Street.

Same books!  Same deal!  Hardcovers are $3 and paperbacks are $2.

Sister Justina Bieganek, OSF, continues her heavenly journey

Sister Justina Bieganek died yesterday at age 100.  She was surrounded by her Franciscan community and the undying love of an extended family that embraced her beloved Orphan Train Riders and their descendants.  Sister Justina was a prime mover and the Franciscan Center the meeting place for hundreds of families who might not have known their own or others’ stories were it not for the unflagging work of this diminutive woman

Sister Justina was herself an Orphan Train Rider. !hen she who made the trek from the New York orphanage to Minnesota in 1913 she was identified only as #41.  She was not yet two years old.  The little girl whose birth name was Edith Peterson had a happy childhood on the farm near Avon, Minnesota, with Mary and John Bieganet and their large family.  When Mary Bieganek died in 1919 one of the Biaganek sons and his wife opened their home to the six-year-old Edith.

Edith’s introduction to the Sisters of St. Francis came when, as a teen, she attended a Franciscan boarding school.   In 1929 young Edith joined the Franciscans, taking the name Sister Justina.

For decades Sister Justina was a busy woman with little time or resources to explore her roots.  It wasn’t until 1969 that she was able to visit the New York Foundling Hospital where she learned her parents’ names and that the reason she was placed in the orphanage and thus on the Orphan Train was recorded as her widowed mother’s “inability to care for the child.”

Inspired by learning something of her roots Sister Justina had a new mission – to locate and reach out to other Orphan Train Riders and to collect and preserve their stories. She was not the only inquisitive Rider; two women from North Dakota who had shared the Orphan Train experience had also realized that they were not alone.   In July 1961 Minnesota was the first state to sponsor a gathering of Orphan Train Riders.

Soon, with Sister Justina’s active involvement, the Orphan Train gathering moved to the gracious setting at the Franciscan Center in Little Falls where it has become an honored tradition.  At first it was the Riders themselves, then their children joined them, and their grandchildren and a host of others eager to learn more about the Orphan Train Riders – the people and their stories.

Since the Orphan Train stopped running in 1929 there are few Riders still living.  Still, the gathering at Sister Justina’s Franciscan home continues as a time and setting for families to share memories, pour over scrapbooks and family photos, relax  and enjoy their common heritage.

In January this year the Orphan Train families and the Franciscans celebrated Sister Justina’s 100th Birthday with a grand party open to all who knew and loved Sister Justina. The proud and perky centenarian reflected that  “at each step of my life, I have been graced with God’s great blessings,” concluding that “my life has been better than good.”

With a look to the future she added “I pray for a happy death and I look forward to meeting my parents.”