The Last Orphans of Holy Cross
The memories are coming back to her now in bits and pieces. Sometimes they emerge slowly and sometimes they engulf her bringing a terrible pain she describes as a tsunami wave of hurt.
When this happens she raises her arms up in the air. “I say, dear God in heaven, please help me, and I pray. Prayers keep you in a line of goodness,” said Kim Oseira, Alaskan Native and survivor of the Holy Cross Mission Orphanage in Holy Cross, Alaska.
The boarding school, located along the Yukon River, over 400 miles from Fairbanks, was officially called an orphanage in church records. Holy Cross Mission was founded in 1880 near the village of Holy Cross, a community of Athabascan and Yupik Eskimos, according to the Holy Cross tribal website. The early mission included a day school, boarding school and church. Today, only a church remains, the Holy Family Catholic Church served by Catholic diocese of Fairbanks.
Oseira, 73, has come forward to tell her story because, she says, “It is time.” Over several hours and multiple interviews she takes us through her childhood years at the Jesuit orphanage, sharing memories that she once thought were “completely blotted out.”
Her history, she says, is the same as so many other Native children who were taken from their families and raised in religious mission boarding schools in Canada and Alaska.
“This [story] is for those who can’t speak up, for those who’ve died or gone off the edge into mental illness or addiction,” she said.
She is sharing the account in hopes that it will help serve as a memorial for those who have been silenced and guide them towards some form of catharsis and healing. And of course she is coming forward for Della Mae, always for Della Mae.
There are few adults in Oseira’s earliest memories. She seemed to be alone even at age five in Nome, Alaska, where she was the primary care giver for her sister, Della Mae, two years younger.
“I was responsible for feeding her, changing her diapers, teaching her how to go potty, everything,” she recalls. Later she learned that her birth parents, non-Native father and Alaska Native mother, were chronic alcoholics.
Oseira was five years old in 1945 when her mother was sent to a TB sanatorium and suddenly everything changed.
Her memories are returning in a series of vignettes such as the following; she is on a plane and holding tightly onto Della Mae. There is a man wearing a uniform in the plane with them but he ignores them, speaking only to the pilot.
“All I remember is desperately holding onto Della Mae. For some reason we were each wearing new dresses and carrying dolls. We’d never had dolls before. Della Mae wore blue and I wore pink,” she recalls.
Frightened, she looks down at the ground as the plane begins to descend toward a huge, stark white cross. The vision of the cross is a mark, an ominous symbol that fills her with dread.
That feeling of fear dominated her childhood during the next 12 years that she and Della Mae lived at Holy Cross Orphanage.
After the plane lands, the man in the uniform takes the girls to a dirt road and points. “He told us to walk until we came to a building, “ she said.
The man gets back on the plane and she and Della Mae begin to walk the two miles to Holy Cross mission.
“Della Mae cried and cried. I just kept walking not thinking anything, pulling her along and holding onto the doll,” she said.
In Oseira’s memory, the doll represented a small defense against her fear and she clung to it as she approached a small door at the main orphanage building.
The first sight of the nuns, in their long black robes and starched white habits surrounding their faces, frightens them badly. Instinctively she follows the nuns’ orders, cleaning Della Mae who had soiled herself during the long walk.
In her next recollection, the fine dresses are gone replaced by mission uniforms. After searching repeatedly for the beautiful dolls she finds them later at the bottom of the outhouse.
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