Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sister Xavier Cunningham and St. Joseph's Orphanage

On September 1, 1915, the St. Joseph's Orphanage just outside of Abilene, Kansas opened.  The orphanage offered a home for less fortunate children.  Inhabitants of the home were orphans or children whose parents had come under hard times and could not afford to care for them.  At the time of its opening, Sister Xavier Cunningham began work as a nurse for the home.  Sister Cunningham had poor health throughout most of her life.  After visiting a doctor in Colorado Springs, she was told that she had little time to live.  However, she would go on to live over thirty five more years and do many great things.
An illustration of St. Joseph's Orphanage.  Courtesy of the Dickinson County Historical Society.
Doctor's told Sister Cunningham to find outdoors work and to exercise to lengthen her life.  She soon became a farmer for the orphanage.  The children needed milk, meat, eggs, and vegetables, so Sister Cunningham worked to provide those things for them.  She had prior farming experience, as her father had been a longhorn beef farmer.

A family from Beloit, Kansas donated the first milk cow.  Under Sister Cunningham's care, this would eventually lead to one of the first all registered Holstein herds in Kansas.  Over the years, Holstein breeding stock was sold over a large area of the state by the St. Joseph's farm.  Additionally, a retail milk route in Abilene was established, and the orphanage was able to raise funds to stay running well past the Great Depression. 

At one time, the farm had forty registered cows, five hundred hens, and twelve brood sows.  Many vegetables were grown, as well as apples and peaches, and a vineyard for grapes.  Sister Cunningham was known as an authority on breeding cattle and had a great knowledge of bloodlines.

During the Great Depression, as many as eighty-five children were living at the orphan home.  Not only did Sister Cunningham create a means to feed the children at the orphanage, with the farm she created a way to teach the children to care for themselves and become self-sufficient. 
A photograph of the orphanage.  Courtesy of the Dickinson County Historical Society.
Sister Cunningham retired from the orphanage in 1944 due to poor health.  She died on December 28, 1948.  Before her death, she worked with a Mexican Catholic mission in Salina, Kansas.

St. Joseph's Orphanage continued to care for children until 1959, the building was closed after being deemed unsafe.  Today, all that remains is a small building on the property, and stone markers along the old entryway.  Each marker bears a cross.


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