Courtesy Kim Oseira
Kim Oseira with her great grandsons Kaiden, 5, and Ethan, 7.

The Last Orphans of Holy Cross

Mary Annette Pember

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.

Graves in front of the Holy Cross Russian Orthodox Church (Library of Congress)

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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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
How many Natives who have been persecuted by religion have adopted the religion that persecuted them? I'm a devout Agnostic, but if I'm going to worship it won't be under the guidance of anyone who has done such horrible things.

Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
I am so sorry for what was done to you Kim. Know in your heart that the Creator can heal that pain in time even if it takes a lifetime. It says in the Christians Bible that at the end of time every tear will dry & all memories of this life will be no more. I hope that is so my friend. Sometimes our pasts are a painful thing even decades later. I know as I have listened to some of our elders older than myself I have seen their tears & the pain they feel even after almost a lifetime of those terrible events suffered at the hands of those some of us were sent to take care & educate us. I also believe that those monsters have a special place in Hell waiting for them. Our Creator is a loving, kind, gentle spirit who can take that pain away in time. Sometimes He sends special people into our lives who show us daily just how special we truly are, loving us, showing us the compassion of He who made us all. Take care my friend & may Man Above send a spirit of kindness your way this very day.

odawak66's picture
Submitted by odawak66 on
It took a lot of courage for this woman to share her story. So many are silent because of the degree of trauma they experienced. It has been proven though the more we can talk about it the more we can recover from the residual effects. There is a annual school that is conducted in Albuquerque, NM each year by the Native American Training Institute. The school is designed and conducted by Native people. This will be my sixth year (the school use to be conducted under the name "American Indian Training Institute." The school addresses some of the residuals of historical trauma effectively.

Stands on Hill's picture
Stands on Hill
Submitted by Stands on Hill on
This story made me want to cry. God bless you for stepping forward to share your story. And I hope that it touches and helps others who have gone through the horrors of being taken from family and put into a boarding school where they have had an abusive life. or perhaps even the children/grandchildren of those who have endured such trauma - and will help them understand what that person went through. Cannot understand what is WRONG with people who present themselves as "religious persons" and commit such acts against children! My prayers go out to you - yes, the Creator will come when you call Him - and he will touch and help you. My prayers also for your sister who struggles with the past. May God bless you and your entire family.

marten's picture
Submitted by marten on
I went to Holy Cross Mission, as an orphan. Many people from the Yukon River villages, did. To my knowledge, we never suffered physical abuse at the hands of the sisters, brothers and priests. We were allowed to visit the villagers in Holy Cross once in a while. We were allowed to run in the woods after the school day was over. We did have to work at the woodpile; we worked in the garden. We had different movies to watch. It wasn't a place for so much entertainment. There were all sorts of fun. We were in bunks, and kept warm. We celebrated holidays like Christmas. Above all, we were educated. We were told constantly, that we were equal to other people who happened to be rich. We were equal in the eyes of God. I never forgot this, ever.

marten's picture
Submitted by marten on
I went to Holy Cross Mission as an orphan. We were treated very well considering how poor we were. We were allowed to visit with the Holy Cross villagers, occasionally. We went on holiday trips to the beautiful meadow, by pickup. It was a hard life, but we had 3 meals a day. We were allowed to play in the woods in the hills above us after the school and work day. Most of all, we were told time and time again, that we were/are equal to everyone else. This served many of us very well when we entered the mainstream for a lifetime.

marten's picture
Submitted by marten on
I have to give a more complete report: I did witness abuse on very infrequent basis. The abuse was more mental, than physical. And it was based on the ignorance of the period. Always remember it was the times. And our people had no way of raising their orphans, adequately. So, Holy Cross Mission was a godsend. Our people were dirt-poor. Also, many of us had relatives who could come to visit their children. Even a trip like that was many times more than our families could afford. What was the abuse? Shame, for what we did. We were humiliated in front of our peers. This humiliation stemmed more from ignorance. How were these caucasian people to know that natives had innate intelligence, sensitivity, and vulnerability which were overlooked? After all, these men and women were highly educated in the formal ways. They just didn't realize what Will Rogers meant when he said: "We are all ignorant; except in different ways!"

Kathleen Reed
Kathleen Reed
Submitted by Kathleen Reed on
Misunderstanding This article uses an image from a Russian Orthodox Church, also called "Holy Cross"--a frequently used name--but the Roman Catholics split off from the Orthodox about a thousand years ago. They are not the same Church, though we all hope for reunion, which will bring reforms.

Kathleen Reed
Kathleen Reed
Submitted by Kathleen Reed on
Misunderstanding This article uses an image from a Russian Orthodox Church, also called "Holy Cross"--a frequently used name--but the Roman Catholics split off from the Orthodox about a thousand years ago. They are not the same Church, though we all hope for reunion, which will bring reforms.