A Tribute to Those Who Stand in the Gap

In Biblical times, the city wall was all that stood between residents and an invading army, so any breach in the wall left the good citizens vulnerable to attack. Ezekiel 22 depicts God seeking a man who will stand in the gap and build up the broken wall, but he finds none. What a sad passage.

Today, we are surrounded by broken walls — vulnerable people in need of protection. It’s been on my heart to encourage those who are currently standing in the gap on behalf of vulnerable children. You see, gap standing is difficult work. I can testify, if you’re gonna stand in the gap, you’re gonna take some arrows. Amen?

I see you foster parents, ready at a moment’s notice to take a sibling group, regardless of the disruption to your family. I see you children’s home houseparents, who celebrate a thriving young person’s graduation with hidden dread, because it means you get to start all over with a newbie, and you are just. So. Tired. I see you crusaders on the front lines of the fight against child sex trafficking, bone-weary of bureaucratic red tape and soul-sick at the suffering you see each day. I see you, and I applaud you. Keep going. Don’t give up!

Because, you see, your efforts have a L-O-N-G shelf life. You cannot see it from where you’re standing, but the gap you are struggling to fill today will affect generations to come. Let me take you up to a high mountain, where you can see for miles into the future. I’m standing two mountain ranges away, waving at you. And four mountain ranges away? Well, that’s where these precious little faces stand. They are the fourth generation legacy of some selfless saints who stood in the gap for my grandparents in the early 1900s. Let me tell you about Lawrence and Marjorie.

Lawrence Bartosh

At first it was all so exciting! He got new shoes, and a new outfit. Not that he really cared about such things, because new clothes meant more hovering from the nuns. He was four, and much more concerned with besting his buddy Eugene in their game of marbles. But here he was, trying not to scuff his shoes, walking single file off the ship Proteus into the bright Galveston sunshine. The trip from New York City had taken several days, in tight quarters. All he wanted to do now was run and jump and yell, but the nuns had other ideas.

Orphan Train newspaper article

The next day, the group of 58 children and 6 nuns assembled at the train depot. Lawrence had only seen trains in picture books, and the sight of the big black engine, bellowing steam, its whistle piercing the air, thrilled him to his toes. Soon they settled on their bench seats, and he made sure he got to sit by Eugene. The group was smaller now, since one group of children boarded a different train. He had no idea where he was going, except to someplace called “Texas” to something called a “family.” Whatever. He could not peel his eyes away from the view out his window — grass and trees and COWS with unimaginably long horns!

In a few hours, the train pulled up to a station, announced by two short and one long whistle blast. The children spilled out onto the deck, eager to see Texas, pulling against the nuns’ insistent grips. People milled about, excitedly pointing at the children, and a priest with a clipboard conferred with the nuns. Sister Agnes led one of Lawrence’s friends toward the strangers. The priest checked the number pinned to the back of the child, then checked a paper presented by the man and woman. With a smile, the woman knelt down to speak with the child, then took her hand, and they all walked away. The same scene played out with two more children, and then the nuns shooed everyone else back onto the train. Within minutes, wheels were clack-clack-clacking down the track.

The scene repeated in town after town, until at last the train pulled into a town called Weimar. The group of children was much smaller now, and they were uncommonly quiet as they slowly stepped off the train and lined up, just as before. This time, it was Lawrence whose number matched the number on the paper. A man and a woman with a baby on her hip looked him up and down. The woman smiled weakly and said something to him, but he didn’t understand her. She spoke some other language.

Weimar water tower

Frantically, Lawrence turned to find Eugene, but he was not in the line of children. He turned the other direction just in time to see Eugene wave over his shoulder as he walked away with a tall, stooped man. When that Day of All Days ended, Lawrence curled up in his makeshift bed with an ache too deep for tears. He had never felt so alone. He missed the nuns and his soft bed and his toys. He missed Eugene.

Lawrence learned to work, but not fast enough or well enough to please his new family. The Mazocks were poor Czech farmers, still new to the English language, trying to eek a living out of the Texas soil. Something happened in those early years, but we don’t know what. Whatever it was, Lawrence went to live with the Bartosh family after a few months or years. Josef Bartosh was a respected leader in St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ammonsville, Texas. Although he was well into his sixties, with several children of his own, he welcomed Lawrence into his home. In all likelihood, Josef staged an intervention. Lawrence still worked, but the Bartoshes treated him well and gave him a new understanding of “family.”

St John the Baptist Catholic Church, Ammonsville, TX
St John the Baptist Catholic Church, Ammonsville, TX

For the next 55 years, Lawrence lived and farmed within a 50-mile radius of the train depot where he landed that Spring day in 1906. He married and raised three sons, living a quiet, industrious life. His firstborn son, Archie, was my dad. Lawrence died in 1961, never knowing who he was or any of the details of his birth family. He knew only that he had come to Texas from New York City on an “orphan train.” Lawrence grew up Czech, eating kolaches and spicy sausage, deeply steeped in the ethnic traditions of the community. A man of few words, he never spoke of his early childhood experiences, but his family will say he never felt like he belonged anywhere.

Farmhouse Family Photo
Lawrence & Frances Bartosh, with sons Archie, Harvey and Douglas

Fifty years after Lawrence’s death, when Archie was 80 years old, the three brothers learned their father’s identity. Lo and behold, Lawrence was Irish! Both his parents were poor Irish immigrants, trying to make a new life in the teeming chaos of New York City. When his mother, Delia, became pregnant, she turned in desperation to the New York Foundling Hospital, a mission of the Sisters of Charity. Hours after giving birth, she relinquished Lawrence to the care of the nuns.

By this time, the Sisters of Charity had been serving the desperate in New York City for many years. It was 1869 when they first opened their doors and hearts to serve abandoned infants, known as “foundlings” because they were often found on the steps of a church. In the first month, before the building was even ready, they took in 45 infants. And oh, what difficult work!

“Infants were left faster than cribs, clothing and nurses could be obtained for them — and now our troubles and discouragements really began.” Dr. James B. Reynolds, the hospital’s first attending physician.

An iconic feature of The Foundling, as it came to be known, was the cane bassinet located in the foyer. Here desperate mothers could leave their babies, no questions asked, knowing they would receive the best care possible.

New York Foundling Cradle
Bassinet in the foyer of The Foundling

In those early years, the mortality rate was greater than 50%, as many infants arrived malnourished, sick, and suffering from exposure. Conditions had greatly improved by 1902, the year Lawrence was born. The Foundling took in 3,333 infants that year. Without enough local adoptive families, The Foundling worked through local parishes all across the United States to find homes for their babies. The children traveled by rail on what became known as “orphan trains” or “baby trains.” Lawrence was an orphan train rider.

At a glance, Lawrence’s life resembles a small pebble dropped into a lake, the ripples almost imperceptible. But the people and culture that shaped him instilled strong values of faith, hard work, and family. Those values have been passed down through each generation as surely as DNA, and the great, great grandchildren Lawrence never met reap the blessings of his struggle today.

Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbon
Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbon

If it had not been for Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbon and a host of other sisters, and if it had not been for the kindness of Josef Bartosh, even those small ripples of Lawrence’s life would have been lost. But these angels of mercy stood in the gap. They provided shelter, instruction, care and love at great personal cost. And when my sister and I finally solved the mystery of Lawrence’s identity 50 years after his death, we wept for his pain, offered prayers of gratitude for the gift of his life, and vowed to tell his story to the next generation.

Marjorie Bloom

The wind blows cold and constant in Cheyenne, Wyoming in January. On this particular January day in 1914, two siblings, Otto and Marjorie, ages 8 and 5, would not be deterred by the cold. They were on a mission. With their little red wagon in tow, they approached the house where they had lived with their mother for the last 4 years. So many things were unclear now, since Mama had been taken to the hospital and they had been placed…somewhere…until…. They could not have known what would happen to them, but even at eight years of age, Otto knew they were never going home. So today, he opened a window to their house and shimmied through it. He quickly grabbed a few of their things, handing them out to Marjorie who carefully placed them in the wagon. One of the treasures Otto salvaged was Marjorie’s baby picture.

They had seen a lot in their few years of life. The youngest members of the Bloom family were both born in Pinedale, Wyoming, where their daddy was a prosperous rancher. Marjorie was not even a year old when a tragic accident took her daddy’s life and threw the family into chaos. Within a few months, a legal guardian from Cheyenne had been appointed to oversee their mother’s financial affairs, and the three of them had moved away from home, settling into a little house in Cheyenne. Their two older sisters stayed with their married half brother for several months, but within a year, both girls were placed in the Cathedral Home for Children in Laramie, Wyoming.

The years in Cheyenne were difficult. Otto and Marjorie were too young to understand their mother’s mental illness, but they certainly felt the effects of it. By the time the state intervened, no telling what they had seen and experienced. At a “sanity hearing,” a jury of six men heard evidence, including a doctor’s assessment testifying to Mrs. Bloom’s paranoid delusions. The court determined that she could best be helped at the Home for Defectives in Lander, Wyoming. She was admitted January 23, 1914, the same week Otto and Marjorie were admitted to the Cathedral Children’s Home in Laramie, Wyoming.

If the move to the children’s home was traumatic for Otto and Marjorie, it was offset by three factors: 1) trauma was somewhat normal for them, 2) they still had each other, and 3) they were reunited with their big sisters, Florence and Jennie. More than seventy years later, Marjorie still remembered that first day.

“Florence said when she and Jennie came home from school my first day at the children’s home, I was on top of the table in the play room dancing. I was told to get off or get a spanking. I’ll bet I got the spanking.” 

And so began Marjorie’s less-than-cooperative tenure at Cathedral Children’s Home, a tenure that would span nine years. In her handwritten memoir, she admits that she wasn’t a model child, even to the point of running away more than once.

“At the home, I must have been quite a problem. People couldn’t understand me, because of my cleft palate. I had a temper. I think a lot of it was because I was so frustrated.” 

Her memoir includes details of several of the matrons who served at the home, including one that was cruel and abusive. This matron enjoyed four meals a day, while the children were so hungry they resorted to digging through trash cans in search of food.

But she also tells of another matron, Mrs. Corse, whose love literally changed her life.

“She loved us kids, and would eat in the dining room with us. At night, there was three batches of kids going to bed at different times. She’d always go turn down the beds and when you were in bed, she’d come tuck you in and give a kiss. As I said before, I had a temper and this matron did more to straighten me out. One time I’d been exceptionally ornery, she talked to me, real quiet and low, said it hurt her to spank me so she gave me a ruler and said for me to spank her. You guessed it – I couldn’t do it. I broke down in tears.”

This dear woman somehow arranged for Marjorie to go to Children’s Hospital in Denver, CO for a series of surgeries to correct her cleft palate. Marjorie lived at Children’s Hospital off and on for three years, a period she recalled as one of the happiest of her life. In addition to the physical benefit of the surgeries, the people and connections she made there changed the trajectory of her life.

Marjorie was my grandmother, and I loved her dearly. In spite of the terrible hardships of her life, she was a sweet woman with a deep faith. I honored her profound influence in my life by naming my youngest daughter after her.

What if Mrs. Corse had not stood in the gap for Marjorie? What if she would have seen only a naughty, headstrong little hellion instead of a frustrated and lonely little motherless girl? I am forever in debt to Mrs. Corse for her loving intervention.

Oh, and that baby photo that Otto salvaged when their little world came crashing down? He hung on to it for years before passing it down to my mother. To my everlasting delight, this photo that survived against all odds graces my home, a constant reminder of the redeeming power of love.

The door with Granny's baby photo

The Long View

For those of you faithfully standing in the gap for vulnerable children today, thank you. I hope my mountaintop view over four generations gives you courage to face whatever challenges may be weighing on your heart and mind. On behalf of future generations, we can’t thank you enough for standing in the gap.

ComeOnAileen

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6 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing the long view. May we never forget that God is working all things out for our good. God’s grace never disappoints!

  2. I really enjoyed your story. One of my uncles, William O’Connell was also on an orphan train and was taken in by my grandfather, Victor Slavik likely in a later time period. Josef Bartosh was my maternal great grandfather . He also took in my mother for some period of time during her early years. She used to say those were the happiest years of her childhood. Great grandfather Josef and great grandmother Mary obviously were good and caring people.

    1. Leonard,
      Wait, what? We have the same great grandfather AND you have another relative who was an orphan train rider? How cool is that! I’m dying to know more about your branch of the family tree. Also curious about how you found my blog post. We need to swap stories, ASAP! I’ll message you privately to follow up. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and introduce yourself!

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