Vickroy: Former Chicago ‘orphans’ overcame adversity
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy February 14, 2014 9:22PM
After her mother was killed, Sylvia Huante-Chaplin, of Oak Lawn, lived at Angel Guardian orphanage for several years. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 17, 2014 11:32AM
Writer’s note: Some time ago while I chatted with my Aunt Jean about what life was like when she was growing up in Chicago in the 1940s, she mentioned that she had lived for a time in an orphanage. I was dumbfounded. Images of “Little Orphan Annie” and “Oliver Twist” formed in my head. I didn’t know that my aunt had lived in an orphanage. Recently, I sat down with her in her South Side kitchen to talk about her experience. This story is built on that conversation and interviews with others with similar experiences.
History is rife with bootstrap stories — tales of people who’ve overcome adversity and pulled themselves up against seemingly insurmountable odds.
None is as touching, or inspiring, as those formed during childhood. Not only are children innocent products of their environments, they often are aloof to the challenges they face.
“We only knew what we knew,” is how Sylvia Huante-Chaplin explained it. It isn’t until you develop adult sensibilities that you begin to appreciate your strength and resourcefulness, she said.
Huante-Chaplin’s mother was killed in July 1960. After two years of moving from apartment to apartment and sometimes living in stairwells with her siblings, the now-Oak Lawn resident was scooped up by authorities and placed in an orphanage.
Jean (McCord) Rayas, of Chicago’s Clearing community, was just a child when her father gambled away the family business in the 1940s. Her mother went from being well off enough to employ a maid to being divorced and living in a hotel. When officials discovered Rayas and her siblings fending for themselves while their father worked, they were taken into custody and placed in an orphanage.
Gloria (Zampa) Casper, who today lives in Lombard, was the youngest of three girls. After her mom died of a heart condition when Casper was 8, her father moved the family into a poor section of Little Italy. He later contracted tuberculosis, and the sisters were taken first to a “preventorium” and then to an orphanage.
Chicago’s rapid growth during the 1800s gave rise to all kinds of challenges, including deadly epidemics, financial struggles and family estrangement. Some issues were unique to that time period; others persist to this day. But today, children who are deemed to be in jeopardy or at-risk are taken into custody and placed in the foster care system. Back then, such youngsters often were assigned by the courts to live in orphanages.
According to the book “A Home of Another Kind,” written by University of Chicago graduate student Kenneth Cmiel, the city’s first two orphanages were the Chicago Orphan Asylum and the Catholic Orphans Asylum, both formed in 1849 following the cholera epidemic, which claimed more than 1,400 lives.
Ed Bara, Chicago history expert and adjunct professor of urban politics and world geography at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, said, “By 1890, there were 12 orphanages in Chicago, although most ‘orphans’ had a living parent.”
The homes, mostly run by Roman Catholics and Protestant groups, were considered safe havens for children whose parents were in financial crisis, Bara said. And as Chicago’s social problems grew, so did the number of such institutions.
By 1920, the city had more than 30 children’s homes. Some were small, but most housed between 200 and 900 children, Bara said.
Among the largest was Angel Guardian in the city’s Rogers Park community. It housed more than 1,200 children during the Great Depression, Cmiel wrote.
And that is where our focus will be. Huante-Chaplin, Rayas and Casper all lived for a time at Angel Guardian.
Established in 1865 by German Catholics, Angel Guardian was on 40 acres at 2001 Devon Ave. Initially run by the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, the home closed in 1974.
Today, Huante-Chaplin maintains a website for Angel Guardian alumni (angelguardianorphanage.com). She said all of the home’s residents have the same story.
“What makes us unique is our ‘before’ and our ‘after’ — how we ended up there and what we did with our lives after we got out,” she said.
Her “before” was tumultuous, to say the least.
Her parents had separated. Huante-Chaplin and her older brother and sister lived with their mother and spent summers visiting their father in Mexico.
Just after Huante-Chaplin’s 11th birthday, her mother was killed while she was tending bar on Madison Street. Her father came back to the United States to look after his kids, but, Huante-Chaplin said, he would disappear for days at a time, leaving the kids to move from home to home, sometimes staying with relatives, sometimes with friends, sometimes sleeping in stairwells.
Social service workers finally caught up with them and placed the children first in an Audy home and then at Angel Guardian.
“The worst was the Audy Home (juvenile detention cener) because there were bars on the windows,” she said. “I remember looking out and seeing people going about their lives, and asking, ‘Doesn’t anybody know we’re here? Doesn’t anybody care?’ ”
At Angel Guardian, she said, life was very structured. Children were awakened at 6 to begin their day with Mass, then breakfast, then either school or work. Half the day was devoted to studies, the other to chores. Girls tended to cooking and cleaning jobs, while boys handled carpentry and painting work.
“I was brought up to just accept what came your way,” she said. “When I talk about it today, it’s like I’m talking about a third person.”
Huante-Chaplin said her years there were mostly positive, although she often hears from people who didn’t have the same experience. The website helps bring alumni together and rekindles memories, some of which are painful for people.
“I get mad when people blame their lives on the home,” she said. “For me, Angel Guardian meant three positives: a warm bed, three meals a day and clothes on my back. It was a safe place where basic needs were met.”
She added: “I feel very strongly that you are in charge of your own life. Don’t blame the home for how you turned out.”
Rayas was sent to the home after her father’s gambling habit wreaked financial havoc on the family.
For a time, Rayas’ father did well for himself. His appliance store brought in enough income for the family to employ a maid. But gambling was a weakness that he couldn’t overcome. After her parents divorced, Rayas said, she, her brother and her sister were sent to a boarding school in Wisconsin.
But their father stopped paying the tuition when Rayas was about 9 or 10, and the kids were sent back to Chicago.
“They dropped us off at the Garfield Arms hotel, where my mother was living, but she wasn’t home, so we just waited in the lobby until someone finally gave us the key,” she said.
The children ended up living with their father. But one day, while he was at his new job as a cab driver, a neighbor saw the kids home alone and called authorities. They first were taken to the the Audy Home and then to Angel Guardian.
“We were at Angel Guardian for three years,” Rayas said. “My dad never came to see us but my mom did. She’d take us out to dinner or to the show on Sundays.”
Boys were housed on one side of the complex; girls on the other. Each side was then divided into smaller cottages. The children slept dormitory-style.
“The older kids looked after the younger ones and everyone had chores,” she said.
Some of the nuns were kind, she recalled, but others were very strict and intimidating.
“To get along, I’d do favors for people, curl a girl’s hair or stuff like that,” Rayas said. Her sister, Dorothy, was not as compliant and often found herself in altercations.
Rayas stayed at the home until she graduated eighth grade. By then her mother had remarried and could afford to raise her children again.
“After I left the home, I missed it so much,” she said. “I wanted to go back.”
What she gained from the experience was a sense of her resourcefulness. She’d learned how to get along with people and how to avoid troublesome situations. Even though her experience at Angel Guardian was positive, Rayas said, you never forget what it feels like to be taken from your parents.
Today, a mother of five and a grandmother, Rayas said: “I knew no matter what happened in my married life, I wasn’t leaving. I would never want my kids to go through something like that.”
She has been married 61 years.
Zampa Casper was at Angel Guardian from 1945 to 1954. Compared to the shack above a coal shed that the family had been living in, the orphanage was a blessing, she said.
Before she and her sisters were sent to live at Angel Guardian, they spent a year at a place called Ridge Farm, where undernourished children could be brought back up to speed. Despite the abject poverty she’d been living in, Casper said she missed the security of her home.
“I have this memory of just crying and crying and a woman holding me on her lap for hours, until I fell asleep,” she said. “That sticks with me.”
One day, a paddy wagon arrived and hauled the girls off to the Audy Home.
“That was horrendous because they didn’t tell us anything,” she said. When they finally were brought to Angel Guardian, she said, the sisters were relieved.
Zampa Casper thrived at Angel Guardian, although she knows others did not fare so well.
“From what I understand, the priests didn’t spare the rod with the boys, but they were phenomenal with us,” she said.
“When I look back now, those nuns didn’t have any child development training,” she said. “They never thought to explain things to you. You just did what you were told.”
She recalls how each child was given a number that had to be attached to all of their clothing and shoes.
Children were only allowed to stay at the home until they turned 18. Graduates, she said, tended to stick together on the outside, getting apartments and secretarial jobs together.
“I was very, very lucky,” she said. She got a scholarship to study nursing at St. Ann’s Hospital, then part of Loyola University.
On the downside, she said, life on the outside was an adjustment.
“I didn’t know how to cross a city street,” she said. “I had to learn a lot of basic life skills.”
But she went on to marry and raise three children.
Like anyone who thinks they had a difficult childhood, you make choices about how that will manifest itself, she said.
“You become very resourceful,” she said. “I got a great education and had lots of people help me along the way.”