There was a period in this country, now largely forgotten, when orphanages bulged and homeless children roamed big city streets. Their parents had come to this country upon invitation to share in its bounty but did not find it.
Between 1859 to 1929, more than 200,000 of these homeless or impoverished children on trains headed for the rural Midwest. These “orphan trains” were meant to lead children to a better life. The children were dressed in their best clothes, given little cardboard suitcases for their belongings and put on coaches for the long journey. Beatitudes resident Vicky Moe was one of these children.
“I'm a determined person,” said Moe as she greeted me at the elevator on the third floor of the South Plaza building. I already suspected this because I found it difficult to reach her by phone. She's rarely at home. Most of the time she's going places and doing things all over the campus, even though she turns 101 on April 28. “I'm happy when I can keep busy,” she stated with a big smile.
I'm glad I got the opportunity to visit this lively little lady and I'm happy she has given me permission to share some of her life story with her fellow residents and others.
Moe's parents, Giuseppe and Natala Gennaro, emigrated from Sicily to New York City shortly before she was born in 1912. When little Victoria Gennaro arrived on Hester Street, New York, the situation was desperate. Her mother was malnourished. She and Giuseppe already had three other daughters and possessed little more than the clothes on their backs. With great sadness they gave up Vicky to the Children's Aid Society and the Foundling Hospital Orphanage where she spent the first six years of her life.
Those institutions helped thousands of children. It's estimated that between the 1850s and 1920s there were more than one-quarter of a million children in New York City who were orphaned or homeless wandering the streets. Many of these orphans were the children of penniless immigrants. In an effort to address this emergency, the Children's Aid Society organized the Orphan Train Movement. After finding prospective foster or adoptive homes elsewhere in the country — primarily farm country — they put the children on crowded trains which transported them away, hoping there would be someone on the other end to meet them and take them into their homes. Occasionally there was no one on the other end, and the children would be returned to New York to start over.
In 1918 when Moe was six years old and not in good health, she was sent on one of the orphan trains to Easton, Minn. She doesn't remember much about riding the train except crossing a wide river, likely the Hudson, as they left New York. When she reached her destination she ran as fast as she could. She was scared and didn’t know what to expect.
In Easton she became the foster daughter of Lucie Norton, the housekeeper for a Catholic priest, and lived in the rectory. Her health problems made life difficult and Norton was extremely strict. Moe would later write,“I was suffering from malnutrition and acquired influenza during the epidemic in that year. I am a determined person, and I feel that helped me make my way in life…I am proud to be a survivor.”
Moe was never officially adopted. She called Norton, her benefactor, "Aunt Lucie." Norton found it difficult to show love and was quick to say “no, no,” whenever Vicky wanted to do something. Once, Moe hid her pajamas under her shirt and sneaked over to the house of a girlfriend, where she stayed the night. Fortunately the priest was kind to her, providing reassurance and support.
Moe was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and attended their school. She received a good education and became a gifted pianist. She graduated from high school in Easton in 1930. One of the highlights of her life at that time was attending the World's Fair in Chicago in 1933. That same year she completed a nursing program from a school in Sioux City, Iowa. As an RN and she cared for babies, specializing in premature ones.
Vicky married Herman Roulston. The couple was blessed with two children, Jerry and Cecilia, and later seven grandchildren. Interestingly, Moe's daughter is now also a resident of Beatitudes and lives in South Plaza just across the hall from her mother. They are often seen together— what a happy arrangement!
Moe’s marriage to Roulston did not last. Her second husband died of cancer. In spite of this, she says her “third and last marriage, to Ivan Moe, was a charm. It lasted until 1987 when he died of Lou Gehrig's disease at 81.” Following Ivan’s death, Moe lived in an apartment in Phoenix and “did lots of volunteer work, including tutoring six and 7-year-old kids.” In 2012 she came here to live with us at the Beatitudes.
Sadly, Moe went her entire adult life unaware that she had four sisters. One of her granddaughters learned about them through immigration and census records and included them in her 100th birthday remembrance book last year. In 2010 Moe attended a reunion of the Orphan Train Children in Minnesota where there was much fun and laughter.
Try to meet this lady — if you can catch her! Look for a petite woman with white hair and a big smile on her face, walking fast. She'll be on her way to an event or a concert, or a class. As she likes to say, “You’re never too old to learn.” We are excited to celebrate Vicky Moe’s 101st birthday in April and we hope that she be with us for many birthdays to come.