Work on Opelousas, Louisiana 'Orphan Train Museum, set to formally open in October, is moving full steam ahead _ so well that the museum may be able to hold a soft opening in the near future.
We don't have a date yet, but we are hoping for August,'' said Orphan Train Society President Harold Dupre, himself a descendant of an Orphan Train rider.
Dupre and other society members were on hand recently for the installation of a 8- by 14-foot mural by artist Robert Dafford depicting the arrival of the first Orphan Train in Opelousas, Louisiana in 1907, which will fill much of one wall of the museum.
The Orphan Train is the popular name for an adoption program began in 1854 by the New York Foundling Hospital. In an effort to fight overcrowding, the hospital began the nation's first foster care program by shipping tens of thousands of orphans out by train to be adopted by rural families throughout the rest of the nation.
More than 2,000 of them came to Louisiana, primarily to St. Landry and Evangeline parishes.
According to records from the national Orphan Train Society, St. Landry Parish's orphans were some of the lucky ones. Where the orphans elsewhere were often treated as little more than unpaid farm hands, here almost all become members of their adoptive families.
Dupre credits Father John Engberink, the priest at St. Landry Catholic Church at the time, for making that possible. ``Our orphans were pre-placed, the parents pre-screened,'' Dupre said.
As is fitting, Father Engberink has a prominent place in Dafford's mural. While no picture exists of that first arrival, Dafford said many images exist that helped him imagine it.
A postcard showed him what the old depot had looked like. In the mural itself are numerous real people of the day, including not only Engberink, but his housekeeper, Ann, the station master and many of the actual parents and orphans who were present that day.
I looked at an enormous amount of documents the society had _ it was kind of overwhelming at first, Dafford said.
While it is estimated that there are today more than 4 million descendants of Orphan Train riders throughout the nation, their story was almost lost to history.