Orphans taught us well
BY FR. FRANK JASPER, OFM
The Daughters of Charity ran St. Vincent Sarah Fisher Orphanage and Marillac Home for Unwed Mothers in Farmington Hills, Mich. The friars at Duns Scotus College served as the chaplains for most of their history. The stories of the children really touched us and tended to stick with us because they all had somewhat sad and painful backgrounds. Some were horribly abused in their early years and had a lot to overcome.
Recently, Evangelical Homes of Michigan bought the 31-acre property to develop a senior center and retirement village. A short article that Fr. Bill Farris sent me triggered memories of ministry at Sarah Fisher where many priests, brothers and clerics ministered over the years.
Fr. Tom Speier served as one of their favorite and most loved supporters. He planned elaborate and innovative liturgical celebrations for the children. "My goal was to make the Sunday Mass a holy and enjoyable experience for the kids," Tom says. One of his most famous was on Palm Sunday when he rode in on a donkey that he scrounged up from Sr. Susan, an old farm girl. Of course, that led the friars to speculate which one was really the donkey.
Tom recalled, "On Ascension Thursday one of the boys always got to play fireman and put out the Paschal Candle with a fire extinguisher and a big cloud of carbon dioxide at the words in the Gospel: ‘He ascended from their sight in a big cloud.’ All the kids got to take a helium balloon hanging from the chapel ceiling with a long string hanging down with a message attached, and we all processed outside after Mass to let the Risen Savior carry their messages to the neighborhood."
Another time, Tom took a cue from Mission Impossible and he had a trough at the front edge of the altar with water and dry ice. The smoke billowed over the edge to the floor where the Sisters had separate missions for each of the kids which they pulled out of the smoke. Tom definitely knew how to get the kids’ attention and make the point in his homily.
By the time Fr. Carl Langenderfer worked at St. Vincent, all the orphans were gone. The kids became wards of the State because foster parents were unable to control them. So, they squirreled around in their pews and had the attention span of a hyperactive gnat on steroids. They were some of the wildest kids I have ever encountered. One Sunday morning Carl lined up a group of fourth- and fifth-graders to offer the petitions when one girl backed into a candle.
"That girl’s hair’s on fire!" screamed a girl from the back of chapel. Carl quickly lunged toward the girl and clapped out the flames. A nun promptly escorted her out, but the smell of burnt hair lingered.
One Palm Sunday I attempted to use incense which set off a chorus of loud coughing among the kids who had never experienced incense before. The nuns opened all the windows to let in a cold blast to clear the air. I never used incense there again.
For the Gospel that Palm Sunday, I used my book of "Mellow-Dramatic Bible Stories." The kids were calm, quiet and very attentive to the reading of the Passion. I was talking with Sr. Mary Francis after the service and commented on their unusually attentive demeanor. She said, "They understand the Passion because that’s their story, too. They know what it’s like to be beaten, hurt, taken advantage of and tossed aside." The kids taught me many lessons about suffering along the way.
Sr. Mary Patricia Larabel was the director when I became guardian of Duns Scotus in 1987. I came crying to her many times with problems I didn’t have a clue how to handle. Being a seasoned administrator from the age of 28, Sr. Mary P., as everyone called her, calmly told me how to handle the situation and she put me in touch with great administrators who could help me. I’m indebted to her and to the Daughters.
The Daughters closed St. Vincent Sarah Fisher in the 1990s and attempted to sell it then, but the sale fell through for some reason or other. Evangelical Homes will begin their construction on the site in 2018 and hope to have the senior complex completed by 2020.
St. Vincent Sarah Fisher Orphanage traces its roots to 1844, when the Daughters of Charity first came to Detroit and opened a kindergarten for orphaned children. They acquired the Farmington Hills site in 1923 and built a facility to house children in 1929.
The children were removed from the home and placed in foster care in 1972 when Michigan ended institutional care for infants and preschoolers. "In 2006, the St. Vincent and Sarah Fisher Center moved back to Detroit and started children and adult educational programs and services," according to the Center’s website.