Reminiscences of Franco-American Orphanage

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One Sunday, my family went out for a long drive. I was ten years old then. We ended up in Lowell, Massachusetts in front of the Franco-American Orphanage. Three stories high, this building was huge.

Franco-American Orphanage

One side of the property was open lawn stretching down toward the Merrimack River. The other side included a wide delivery driveway, swing set and jungle gym with shin bars and ladders. At the end was a cavernous shrine made up of large boulders, outdoor lights and fronted by permanent seats. Statues of the Stations of the Cross sat on raised boulder platforms that edged the large driveway.

The Sisters of Charity of Quebec, an order of religious Sisters, ran the orphanage. We all exited the car as one of the Sisters came out the front entrance and walked down the driveway to greet us. Her conversation was in French, so I showed little interest. At one point, my mother told my brother and me to go play on the swings. We were the only children in this area, so we explored every inch of the gym set with excitement.

Eventually, my mother opened the car trunk and pulled out a small suitcase, handing it to the Sister. After a few minutes, she called us back to the car. As my brother and I approached the vehicle, my mom took my hand and walked toward the Sister, introducing us. She transferred my hand into hers.

“Joyce, you’re going to stay here,” she said.

The Sister distracted me by asking questions about my schooling, what subjects I liked, all the while holding my hand firmly. She pointed to the back of the property at a large stone grotto. As she spoke, the car turned around and drove away.

Our LadyoOf Lourdes Grotto

For months I was in shock and visibly frightened as I tried to accept this unfamiliar and violent change in my life. There was no word from my family so I was very slow to relax as the school year started. Some other parents would adopt me. Back in 1965, the original Orphanage was more boarding school but no one mentioned this fact to me.

On Sunday mornings, many parents came to take their child out for the day. As we were huddled in the Day Room after Sunday Mass and breakfast, the PA system would announce a child’s name and that girl would leave the room. This behavior frightened me as I imagined one girl after another was about to meet prospective parents. I never did see the girl return, so I was very puzzled about these events.

Girls did return from their visits, of course, but it was never clear under what circumstances. Rejected? New parents not interested in the candidate daughter?

As time went on, I explored the outside of the schoolyard investigating in which ways I could escape.

I would meander by the Stations of the Cross, trying to estimate how close the Merrimack was to the back of the Orphanage and whether I could jump the fence. From a few windows in the Orphanage, I could see how powerful the river was by the size of the white caps. If I needed to jump to escape, then I could probably swim it successfully. After all, I was a good swimmer. My father had taught me by repeatedly throwing me in the water. Eventually, it took. Although the river promised the fastest escape possible, it would be a last resort. Innately I knew enough to respect the tremendous force of those angry waves and the large rocks that lined the shore. On Sunday mornings, I would sit in the Day Room and anxiously wait to hear the names of potential adoptees pierce the air over the PA system. I jumped in my chair at each announcement.

Three months later, I heard my name for the first time. I froze, not knowing how to extricate myself from this potential disaster. The monitoring Sister, the Day Guard in my mind, instructed me to go to the Mother Superior’s Office.

I had not been to this Office since my first moments inside the building. Would I remember how to find it? Slowly, I walked down one dark hallway after another, up landings and down landings, rounding corners lined by hand-carved furniture, huge armoires, and gold-framed portraits of religious scenes.

Arriving at her office door, I hesitated. What do I do if some potential man and woman are seated inside, waiting to look me over? Would they examine my teeth as farmers did when buying a horse? Would they notice my difficult-to-control, fine hair? Would they inform me that my real parents had formally rejected me?

I gingerly entered the room and sighed in relief. No potential parents were visible. The Mother Superior, a formidable-looking woman of small stature sat behind her impressive desk. Standing to one side was the Sister that handled the Girls’ Course, the collection of girl students in the Orphanage. In my mind, she was the Everyday Girls’ Guard.

In French, the Mother Superior started to interrogate me.

“Savez-vous pourquoi je vous ai appelés ici ?” she asked.(b)

“Non” I immediately and emphatically replied.

The Sisters looked at each other. I inclined my head and with arms rigid at my sides, my eyes searched both faces for a clue as to what I had done wrong.

“Avez vous déplacé vos entrailles?” Mother Superior continued.(c)

I thought for a moment and did not know what “entrailles” were. As the seconds passed, I grew more and more angry. What business had this Sister to dare accuse of me displacing anything? Did they think that I took these missing “reins”? I was both insulted and frightened.

Throwing my arms up in the air and slamming them down at my sides, I screamed “I didn’t take anything” and ran out of the Office back to my Day Room.

As the months passed, I accepted that this was my new home. I questioned the oldest orphans. These older girls left the property each weekday to walk to a nearby High School. Months later, the Music Teacher assembled a group of girls to star in a special event. Being part of this special occasion helped to occupy my mind and postpone my eventual escape. We practiced both singing and dancing for weeks. At the last dress rehearsal, we were dressed in full costume and even hair and make-up.

Musical Event circa 1965

The musical evening was a great success and finally I felt accepted among these lost girls. As a token of the wonderful event, one crafty Sister took black and white photos of the evening and water-colored our costumes to match the beautiful pastels of our crepe paper French period costumes.

Water-colored photo

After many months, I finally understood that the sign outside did not apply to 100% of the students and the school was just that – a school.

I never gave up my dreams of various and daring escapes, but do have fond memories of these young girls who sang and danced with grace and colorful style, and embraced me as one of their own in the early 1960s.


(a) When French-Canadians could not care for their children, they sent them to orphanages. The most common orphanages in Quebec were Catholic orphanages. This custom, which originated in France, continued in Canada as the population expanded. Orphanages proliferated and educational institutions grew. Religious orders from France and later England backed the hospitals, orphanages, lower and higher educational institutions that spread throughout Canada.


(b) Do you know why I have called for you here?


(c) Have you moved your bowels? The Mother Superior was asking if I was distressed, either with constipation or in any other way. I would never have known what “bowels” were in English or French.


Joyce Derenas is a historical fiction author who writes stories based on the real lives of her French-Canadian ancestors of the Beauce Valley in Quebec.

This Post Has 33 Comments

  1. Donna Bunker

    Dear Joyce, what a lovely account! I grew up in the Lowell area, and as a child I always wondered about the children at the Franco American School and felt sorry for them. It seemed so dark and scary to me from the outside. I recently started investigating my ancestry, and discovered that my great grandfather’s first wife died, leaving him with two small boys and an infant daughter. That infant, I have learned, was abandoned at the FA orphanage, probably with nothing more than her name attached. I was so sad for her, until I read your blog. I am finding through research that someone of her name later worked at the CT state mental institution and stayed single all her life, and lived to be 101. I’m hoping it’s her, and that maybe she turned out to live a happy life after all. I am going to make it my mission to give her an identity again. Even though it’s 100 years later, I know who her parents were, something that she likely never knew. I would also like to find out where she is buried, so that I could visit her grave and tell her that she matters to someone today. I wonder if the FA school would have detailed records about her, and where she went after finishing her education there?

    I cried so hard for her when I found out that he abandoned her. She was just an innocent little baby. I wish I could go back in time and take her in and raise her as my own.

    Thank you for writing this blog. ~Donna

      1. Jen Harrison

        Hi Joyce, Not sure if you’re aware the school sent out a note today on their Facebook page that this will be the last year that the school will be open. Hope all is well with you. Jeannine Renaud / Jen Harrison

    1. Ruth Rollins

      Not to forget about the teaspoon of vicks vapo rub by mouth every damn night..god bless you Joyce ..I was there for a short term in 1959/1960…mother superior? i have nolove for that place..and if you could not speak french? what about the ruler across the knuckles? thank god i was not one of them..and..the treat for the day..mollasses on bread.a nightmare i will never forget !!..

      1. Jeanne B

        Molasses on bread one day and peanut butter on bread the next day.
        I endured it for 13 years. The nuns were doing the best they could. It was not an easy job.

      2. Amanda

        Hi I am looking for anyone who might have know a judy or judith Thibodeau or joanne Thibodeau that was at the orphanage.

  2. Wendy

    I was there in the 50’s and it was the worst place on this earth. A book will come out obout our experience.

    1. Joyce Derenas

      I’m sorry that your experience was not good. The orphnage did fill a need that poor people had with caring safely for their children when they had no choice but for both parents to work full time. It was also still in fashion to send your children away from home – sort of a status symbol of everything going well in your modern life. But what you went through does not constitute who you are today. I’ll look for the book to debut. In the meantime, I wish you every happiness and peace.

    2. Rita Hughes

      Please let us know when your book gets published.I had 2 cousin’s That was there in the 50’s,so sorry your time there was a bad experience.

    3. Amanda

      Hi I am looking for anyone who might have know a judy or judith Thibodeau or joanne Thibodeau that was at the orphanage.

  3. Jaclyn Leonardi

    I believe my grandfather was there in the late 20s, early 30s. Do you know of a database that I can search?

    1. Joyce Derenas

      No database exists. Anyone who would remember his is now deceased.

      1. gloria mitchell

        Hi my name is Gloria . My 7 brothers and sisters and I were orphans there in the forties and fiftys. Our parents were unable to care for us. Eventually we were able to reunite . My brother and I just made an appointment to visit there next week . The school will be sold soon , so this will be an opportunity to reflect . Hope you don’t mind me sharing . God bless !

        1. Joyce Derenas

          Gloria, I hope the visit brings happy memories. All parents, I think, do the best that they can do. The start of the industrial revolution DID effect Lowell, MA a lot.
          From 1880 to the 1930s, thousands of French Quebecois left all their land, animals, relatives, and sought jobs in the mill system throughout New England. This had a profound effect on people throughout New England for generations. I’m so glad that you found each other. And that you will have a chance for a visit now. Cherish what you have now, and let the memories slip away.

    2. rachel

      i have found a 1940s census on fro this orphanage. My stepmothers’ mother was sent there when she was a baby. her name was Rita Martin and she was born in 1931. by 1935 she was a resident there and when she was 15 she left and got married. there is a FREE genealogy site you can search also,

  4. gmachef18

    Hi Joyce!
    We have been connected for a while now. I read this account and found that we have something else in common. I was placed in a similar home for a short time in Lexington, NC, Junior Order Children’s Home. At one time when I was 16, I did escape the Home. Another young girl and I ran away. There were no fences to keep us in, so we just walked away. We were found and taken back. A short while later my foster parents from MD came to take me back home to live with them until I was of age.
    You are a cousin of mine. I enjoy your writings.
    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Joyce Derenas

      There are thousands of us that have had similar experiences, so yes, you are a cousin of sorts. Thanks for readying my blog.

  5. Marie Wilson

    Hello Joyce, I to am a student who lived at Franco American Orphanage my 3 brothers and baby sister were there also during the late fifties.. My parents were not able to take care of us. Between the age of 5 years old to 16 i was placed in 3 orphanages. there were some times difficult other not bad. One sister Mere Ste Louis de la Croix took time to study me, there were times when I was rebellious and when she realized what was bothering me she took me aside and explained my moods. I have never had anyone care about me so much to even take the time to learn about me. She was my mentor, I would do anything for her. she taught me to sew, how to increase/decrease knitting, we made many things for the missionary. Even knit a sweater for my father. At first I hated the fact of being raised in orphanages but as I grew up I had realize I’ve learned a lot from the sisters, Made me the strong person I am today.

    I was in that dance in the picture you posted and would like to know if there is a possibility somehow to purchase a copy, or would it be in a book that may have been published. My mother had the single copy of me but over the years it has vanished. I would also be nice if all the girls names were on the picture.

    Marie ( Irene Ferland) Wilson

    1. Norma Geoffrion Landry

      Oh my goodness Irene, I know who you are, I am Norma Geoffrion, Landry. I have pictures if you want some. I would love to connect with you. We were in 7th and 8th grade together.

      1. Joyce Derenas

        How wonderful that you two have connected. I’m happy for you both.

  6. Linda Gendreau Lareau

    Fell on this blog by accident, my sister,brother and I were there 1952-1953….approx. my memories are sad except for the times I spent in the infirmary,the lay nurse who took care of me was my inspiration for becoming a nurse, this blog is very special i. Thanks

  7. Jeanne B

    I was there from 1941 through 1954, from age 3 to age 16. Never forgave my mother for keeping me there so long. I have photos from the 1940’s if you are interested.

    1. Amanda

      I am looking for anyone that might know a judith Thibodeau or any Thibodeaus in franco American orphanage maybe from anywhere from 1945-1960s I’m looking for records from my mom being there?

      1. Joyce Derenas

        Hi Amanda. I was too young to remember but perhaps there are folks out there who would. Check back every 6 months or so to check. Thanks for visiting, it means a lot to me.

  8. Amanda

    I am looking for anyone that might know a judith Thibodeau or any Thibodeaus in franco American orphanage maybe from anywhere from 1945-1960s I’m looking for records from my mom being there?

  9. Marie ( Irene) Wilson

    Hello Norma, yes I remember you also it’s been a long time and I am so excited. How have you been doing? I have a couple pictures and I believe they were of our confirmation Father Bouchard is in it with also. Do you remember him? Maybe you can help me to identify the others in the photo. Love to hear from you again.

    1. Norma Landry

      Hello Irene, Nice to hear from you, hope you are doing well. I live in California now and have been married to Leo for 53 yrs. How do we exchange photos. I can give you my email address. But don’t want it shown public here. Let me know.

      On Wed, Sep 26, 2018 at 4:59 PM Pioneers of the Beauce Valley wrote:

      > Marie ( Irene) Wilson commented: “Hello Norma, yes I remember you also > it’s been a long time and I am so excited. How have you been doing? I have > a couple pictures and I believe they were of our confirmation Father > Bouchard is in it with also. Do you remember him? Maybe you can help me ” >

      1. Marie Wilson

        I would love to hear from you again. I wasn’t sure if you had received my reply. You can send the picture to my e-mail it is: Be waiting.

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