Many people may not realize it, but Fenton was once the home to a Bohemian orphanage. No, not an orphanage for unconventional artists and writers—a place for children of Bohemian-Czechoslovakian heritage. Bohemia was a country near Austria and Poland, and the region is now part of the present day Czech Republic.
The history lesson isn’t over yet. By the 1900s many Bohemian-Czech immigrants had settled in St. Louis's Soulard neighborhood. Four Catholic churches in that area had Bohemian-Czech parishioners and they pooled their resources to build the Hessoun Bohemian Catholic Orphanage in Fenton for their children in need. The orphanage was named after Father Joseph Hessoun, pastor of the first Bohemian Catholic church in St. Louis.
The orphanage was located out in the countryside where the nuns and children could raise cows, chickens and be as self-sufficient as possible. It opened its doors in 1908 and could house 34 children, but at one point it was home to 56.
The always knew about the orphanage, which stood where is located today. The orphanage closed in 1954 and the building burned down in 1970.
George Luebbers, the society’s treasurer, said that they had been getting an unusual amount of calls about the orphanage last year. They had no idea what the fuss was about until they were told that the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International is having a conference at the Sheraton Westport in October 2011. People from all over the country--and the world--will gather in St. Louis to discuss their Czech heritage.
Luebbers said he started writing down all the history he and a team of researchers were digging up on the orphanage after so many requests. They found several former residents of the orphanage to interview, collected photographs and copied documents related to the day to day operation of the home.
“It just started to snowball,” he said.
The research is now compiled into a book, which is for sale at the Historical Society. Luebbers said he’s never written a book before, but his first effort wasn’t too difficult as it is mainly an orderly collection documents and not a narrative.
“They shipped kids from all over the United States to the orphanage,” he said. Children typically stayed at for a few years and were taken back home after their families worked through their hardships. Not all children at the home actually suffered the death of both their parents.
He said the reason children would come from such a long distance to stay at Fenton’s orphanage was because of the importance placed on staying with people of their own ethnic background back in those days. The orphanage was run by Catholic nuns who came from Bohemia just to watch over and teach the children.
Luebbers said the ones who had it the hardest might have been the nuns, who left the sheltered life of a convent to run a country orphanage and came to this country unable to speak English.