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The Orphanage: Part 1 - The Past

(WLUC)
Published: Jul. 25, 2016 at 6:49 PM EDT
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Just over a hundred years ago, the Holy Family Orphanage opened its doors to Upper Michigan children, and for roughly 50 years, 15 nuns looked after about 150 children, at any given time.

And if you've been to Marquette, odds are you've seen Phil Niemisto ... washing windows of downtown businesses or tending to flowers in his pocket park off Washington Street.

What you might not know is that Phil developed his love of gardening during his time living at the Holy Family Orphanage.

"I used to have a little flower garden here," said Phil. "This is where I learned about flowers, and what the names of the flowers were and everything."

Phil will be 87 this October. He arrived at the orphanage as an infant in 1929. Like many of the children there, Phil wasn't technically orphaned; his parents were still alive. He and his sister lived at the orphanage, while his oldest sister stayed at home.

"In more cases than not, it was a financial need," said Rosemary Michelin, research librarian at the John M. Longyear Research Library. "Families were very large; we were heading into the Great Depression and a lot of times, families could not care for all of their children."

That's where the Catholic Diocese of Marquette stepped in. The orphanage opened in 1915 and from day one, the mission was clear: to raise disciplined, hard-working and religious children.

"Well it was kind of like an army style, like being in the service," said Phil. "Everything was at a certain time, a certain hour. and there was a lot of praying going on. Praying when you got up, praying when you went to bed, praying when you went to eat."

"But we have no way of knowing how harsh their home life would have been," said Michelin. "So in a way, the Catholic Diocese and the nuns and priests, they helped these children survive, in a strict environment, but still, they received everything they needed."

That is until the children reached the age of about 13 or 14. At this point, the young women were asked to either join the order or to leave and find a job.

"The same thing with the young men, some of them became priests," said Michelin. "Others were asked to work at farm situations."

That's what 12-year-old Phil Niemisto was asked to do.

"Well because during the war, there weren't any men around to work on the farm," said Phil.

Some parents visited their kids on Saturdays or Sundays.

"Matter of fact, my own dad and mother came to visit here, but they didn't really mean too much to me, they were just somebody coming to see me more or less," Phil said.

"The church would ask for donations, for the children, to help with their upkeep, and sometimes that was not able to be met," said Michelin. "So in a case that I know of, the family did not go and visit their children because they could not afford to pay anything for their upkeep."

Times have changed though. Many orphanages around the country moved away from asylum care to foster care. After the orphanage shut down in the 1960's, it was used by the diocese for office space; however, the building has sat abandoned for decades now, and will soon have new life.

In part two, TV6 gets a rare look inside the old orphanage in its current condition.

The architect on the project will also tell us more about the steps required to turn the structure into Marquette's newest affordable housing complex.

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