The Last Orphans of Holy Cross
Work, Fear and Hunger
“We were never served fresh milk or fruit. Sometimes the constant hunger would just bend me over,” she said.
The school and buildings were torn down when the orphanage was closed in 1956. The diocese of Fairbank’s website describes the early days of Holy Cross mission;
“Holy Cross became the earliest training center for Alaskans living in the remote regions of the Bush. It was staffed mainly by Jesuit priests and Sisters of Saint Ann. Besides religion, reading, writing and arithmetic, boys were trained in mechanics, carpentry and gardening; while girls were trained in sewing, homemaking and gardening. Gardening was particularly important. Throughout its history, till the closing of the boarding school in 1956, Holy Cross Mission was forced to be as self-reliant as possible, especially in producing food for staff and students.”
The official description omits the human hardships endured by the children there as they labored in the garden, caught and dried fish, skinned beaver and sewed their own clothing and mattresses.
Her overwhelming memories of her life at the orphanage are hunger, fear, exhaustion and loneliness.
The prospect of punishment was so frightening that she froze her hands at age 6 rather than risk the wrath of the nuns. Each month, the nuns showed a film inside a large Quonset hut on the mission grounds. Usually they simply showed the same film over and over again but on one winter night there was a new film and everyone was excited, Oseira recalled. So thrilled to see a new film, she forgot to go to the restroom before the show began. Rather than risk punishment over her oversight, she snuck out of the hut and made her way back to the girls’ dorm. The doors were locked, however, and she wandered the mission grounds for quite some time before finding an open restroom. When some older girls finally found her, her hands were frozen. Angrily one of the nuns placed her hands over a wood stove. Oseira screamed and fainted from the pain. When she awoke, she began screaming again because her fingers had swollen three times their size. “The nun slapped me for crying,” she recalled.
Even today, her hands bear the scars of that night. “Doctors usually think I have rheumatoid arthritis when they see my twisted fingers,” she said.
Like so many other Native children, she was sexually abused by clergy during her years at Holy Cross. She received a modest settlement of less than $5k from the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus; the long story of abuse, victims and the church’s response is described in a PBS news story, the Silence, by ICTMN contributor Mark Trahant.
Oseira doesn’t dwell on these memories but the experience has fed a lifelong bitterness towards organized religion.
“Fortunately, God made me ornery,” she laughed.
This orneriness or strength sustained her so she could survive and tell the truth about Holy Cross according to Oseira.
She shared another vignette;
She was forced to scrub the wooden floor of a large room for a now forgotten infraction of the rules.
“The nun said I had to scrub that floor until it was white,” she recalls.
On her knees, Oseira scrubbed and scrubbed. She was nearly finished when the nun announced it was time for dinner and ordered her to the dining room.
“ I only had one spot left to scrub and I told that nun, “No! I’m not finished yet! I threw that scrub brush at her!”
Oseira described a childhood vision that strengthened her and helped her survive.
“The nuns made us pick berries to sell during the summer. One day I wandered off and came to an opening in the bush overlooking the tundra. I put my buckets down and saw a beautiful tree off in the distance all by itself. It stood 20-30 feet high and was perfectly symmetrical. “Oh what a beautiful tree,” I thought to myself. But I felt so sad that it was all-alone; my heart went out to that tree. I think now that God showed me that although the tree was alone it was beautiful and strong.”
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