St. Joseph's Orphanage: Doing The Devil's Work

On Monday, the spotlight fell off of the priests of the Catholic church (if only for a minute) when BuzzFeed shared what was probably one of their most well-researched and most informative articles, ever, detailing the horrific, and often times graphic, ways that the nuns treated children living in Catholic orphanages. St. Joseph’s orphanage in Burlington, VT was where everything took place, although similar cases were mentioned to have taken place all over the world.


For 120 years the orphanage was in operation and every child that came in was cared for by an order of nuns called The Sisters of Providence. While reading the years that some of the orphans were residing at St. Joseph’s, I realized that some of these victims were around the same age as my parents which, for some reason, made their experiences even more disgusting due to the fact that it did not take place nearly as long ago as one would like to think.




The survivors of St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphanage were almost unaware of the fact that they were, in fact, surviving victims of torture due to the fact that many had blocked their memories out and chose to never speak about their experiences in the orphanage. Despite the fact that they did their best to avoid their past, they also admitted it that some of the things they had to do while living in the orphanage remained habits well into their adult life. Two women, Patty Zeno and Sally Dale, remarked that they both still sleep with their hands tucked under their head as if in prayer. This, of course, is much milder compared to the fact that an anonymous victim could not enter a closet if it had a hanging light. What would someone have to experience in order to have a deep fear of free hanging light bulbs in tight spaces? Well, it could be this person experienced the torture of Fred Adams, a layman who would often work at the orphanage. Adams would use America as an excuse to torture the boys by telling them that one day they would need to fight for their country and if captured they would need to be able to tolerate torture. He went so far as to hang one boy from the ceiling, tie a string to his penis, and swing the boy back and forth into a hot bulb.


Now, you may be wondering how these children were never able to come forward while this was taking place and actually, some did try to get help. The office of Vermont Catholic Charities was next door to the orphanage and Patty Zeno had reported Sister Priscille. Not long after, Zeno was washing windows with Sally Dale and was shoved from the window by Sister Priscille. Zeno remarked, “She mouthed You will pay for it while shoving me [Zeno].”  To this day, Dale believes that this was an attempt to kill Zeno. Dale, who was the longest person to reside at St. Joseph’s from the ages of 2 to 23, had seen many other children murdered by the nuns as well. Dale had been walking with another nun when she recalls hearing the sound of glass smashing only to look up and see a boy falling from a fourth story window and a nun standing there with her hands in front of her, in a position that one would be in had they just pushed someone. The nun Dale was with did not try to help the boy and instead grabbed Dale by the ear and tried to convince her that she had just imagined the scene that played out only seconds before.




Believe it or not, this case was not started by Sally Dale, but was actually by Joseph Barquin in 1993, decades after he had left St. Joseph’s. Barquin had recently gotten married and the memories of his time at St. Joseph only came back after his new wife was alarmed by the scarring on his penis and had encouraged him to go to a therapist to work through the memories he had stashed away nearly 40 years ago. When the diocese would not offer him financial assistance to get the help he needed, he decided to take matters into his own hands and take them to court. Barquin enlisted the help of Phillip White in order to sue and together they worked to arrange a reunion with as many St. Joseph’s survivors as possible in order to gather as many memories as they could.


The reunion brought together more survivors than they could have imagined and the case quickly became too much for one lawyer to handle. Barquin then seeked the assistance of Robert Widman, an attorney near where he was living in Sarasota, FL. From there, they set forth to sue the defendants listed: Burlington Diocese, Vermont Catholic Charities, the orphanage, and Mother Jane Doe because Barquin did not know the name of the nun who had abused him and left the scars on his penis.


Reading the stories of the victims is incredibly heartbreaking and then going onto their Facebook support group and putting faces and personalities to these horrific stories is completely gut-wrenching. People who are now parents and grandparents recount times when they were lowered into water heaters, locked into chests, thrown down stairs and pushed out windows, and even forced to eat their own vomit on many occasions were innocent children when these incidents took place. They were in the orphanage due to poverty, illnesses, and simply because their parents felt they could not give them a good life. They were not there because they chose to be. Some were dropped off there while their parents worked to get more money to care for them with every intention of coming back for their child only to find out their child was either dead or from the nuns denying them their child back.




Torturing the children was despicable enough, but that was never enough for some of the nuns at St. Joseph. Many children died there each year. Some, I’m sure, were accidents, but most seem to have been on purpose. Sherry Huestis was regularly pulled out of bed to keep the seamstress, Eva, one of the few people that most of the orphans felt safe with, company while she checked the doors and made her rounds. One night while they were walking, they heard awful screaming. Naturally, they followed the noise. Hidden from sight, Huestis watched as a nun gave birth to a baby of color. The next day while working in the nursery, she saw the same baby in a bassinet alive and well before a nun came up to the baby, picked up a small pillow, and suffocated the baby.


As if the nuns were not already capable of such horrific levels of torture with their own devices, in the 1950s many orphanages were rebranded as asylums. This provided nuns with all of the same tools that mental institutions had such as medication and various restraints while still leaving all of the power in the hands of the nuns who were now labelled as (untrained) psychiatric nurses. Now the children of the orphanage are suffering from even more abuse and are also no longer receiving any education due to the new title of the orphanage and some 5,000 children who were once seen as people of normal intelligence are now labelled as “mentally handicapped.”


Ultimately, the survivors of St. Joseph lost the trial in the late 90s with most of the cases being dismissed due to the statute of limitations. However, at that time there were documents that were publicly available but were withheld from Widman that could have greatly helped their case. Among those documents were death certificates signed by the doctor that said he knew nothing of the deaths while being interviewed on trial. There were also newspaper clippings that prove different events took place inside of the orphanage that members of the diocese had also denied. And, as seems to be the norm in the church, there were letters about the priests that worked inside of the orphanage that were known to sexually abuse children. Among those priests was Father Foster who had gone to the St. Luke Institute in Maryland, a place where many priests go after being accused of sexual abuse.




Growing up in Catholic school, I had always heard stories about my father’s generation being hit by nuns with rulers. Never had I heard of children being tortured and murdered by the very nuns who were in charge of the well-being of these children. I had originally found everything so hard to stomach that I thought it was all a lie or an over exaggeration. However, the more research I did, the more I realized just how true it was. As the week has progressed, I still find myself completely shocked and disgusted knowing that there were people that were aware of this happening while it was happening and had the power to change it, but instead opted to stay silent. I hate speaking negatively about the church, but at this point it is becoming harder and harder to say something positive about the people that chose to live a life doing God’s work and instead completed the Devil’s work to children that they always believed were made in God’s image.


Source: Buzzfeed News Investigation