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.”