Edith Peterson (Sister Justina)

Edith with her new family.

November 29,1913, little Edith Peterson, only 22 months and 13 days old, was taken to Avon, Minnesota, on an Orphan Train. Years later she
learned about an older brother or sister when she received her birth certificate.

Edith was placed-out by the New York Foundling Hospital. The Bieganek family took Edith, adding her to an already large family. “In my adopted home, I had 4 sisters and 7 brothers. I had a happy life,” Sister Justina
(Edith) wrote.

Edith grew up on a farm. She loved her family and loved her life. It wasn’t until she entered grade school that she realized she was different. Schoolmates said John and Mary Bieganek weren’t her parents.

She tried to broach the subject a few times by asking her mother to explain her schoolmates’ comments. “She said, ‘I’m your mother,'” Edith remembered in a telephone interview from St. Francis Convent in Little Falls, Minn.

Bieganek realized it was a forbidden topic. She didn’t press the issue, thinking she’d tackle it when she got older.

“They were so good to me,” she said. “But when you don’t know who you are, you know that you’re different.”

When Edith turned 6, her mother died and her father moved to a new town. One of the couple’s sons, Joseph, got married and moved into the house in Avon. Eventually, Joseph and his wife, Rose, became Edith’s parents.

A social worker came every year to check on Bieganek. From those visits, she learned she was an orphan from New York, which made her sad but somewhat relieved.

As a teen, Edith attended a boarding school run by the Franciscan Sisters.

In 1929, the year accredited with being the last year the Orphan Trains carried children to new homes, Edith joined the convent and became Sister Justina Bieganek.

“Two good things happened in 1929,” she said. “The Orphan Train stopped and I went into the Convent.”

In 1969, Bieganek returned to New York to dig up details about her past. She was born Edith Peterson on Jan. 16, 1912, and was …weeks old when placed with the New York Foundling Orphanage. In the paperwork, she found the words “inability to care for the child” as the reason her mother placed her with the catholic orphanage.

Edith learned her parents’ names: Rebecca Shmidt Peterson, 26, and Magnus Peterson, 28. She thinks her mother, poor and alone, likely returned to her native Norway. She learned that her father died about six months before she was born.

John and Mary Bieganek met her in Avon as she stepped off the train. On her jacket, she wore a pin with the No. 41. The Bieganeks had paperwork to pick up child No. 41.

Those few and sketchy details provided Edith with the pieces she needed to feel like a real person.

“I was grateful to find out the little I did,” she said. “It was more than I knew for 50 years. People are wounded when they don’t know who they are. My personal healing came when I made a trip to New York. I started to live in 1969.

Bieganek doesn’t remember the train trip but got a lot of information about the orphan trains from newspaper articles. She also has spoken to others who rode the trains, meeting at reunions every year. They’ve told her of the strict discipline and a diet of many peanut butter sandwiches.

Life turned out well, Edith said. She realizes her childhood could have been spent in an orphanage. She said she no longer feels lost when people ask about her family.

She has two family, she tells them.

Today Sister Justina fills her busy life with her duties in the music department of the St. Francis Center in Little Falls, Minnesota. She also assists with the annual Minnesota Reunion of Orphan Train Riders and in her spare time searches for more biological family information.

The sibling she seeks would have been born prior to March 1911 and probably has the birth name of Peterson.

Additional Note: Sister Justina was awarded the 1998 Sister Irene award.

Editor’s Note: This story is a composite of two different articles. Neither was complete without the other.

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