The Saint Vincent Villa Catholic Orphanage closed more than 30 years ago, so unless you’re middle-aged, you probably know little or nothing about the place.
For decades it housed children from families that couldn’t afford to raise them; from families that abused them; or from families destroyed by crime. As many as 300 children were there at any given time.
Every year, the people who were raised there get together for a reunion.
In recent years, though, turnout has been light. Last year, for example, only about 20 people attended, and most were old.
In fact, Jeanne Bryers, 68, who lived at Saint Vincent Villa for five years as a child, was one of the youngest people in attendance.
Bryers is trying to breathe new life into the annual reunion, to be June 24 this year at the Queen of Angels auditorium on West State Boulevard.
It’s important, Bryers says.
Back in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, when people didn’t openly talk about society’s ills, plenty of siblings ended up in the orphanage for various reasons. Some, once they reached a certain age, would be turned out to fend for themselves.
Sometimes families would reclaim their children, but sometimes they would only reclaim some of them.
Families were torn apart.
Bryers belonged to one of those. She and a brother ended up at the orphanage while a sister went to live with her father. Later, Bryers and her brother were taken home by her mother, but she wasn’t reunited with her sister for more than four decades. She finally tracked her down, but she only met her once. Her sister died about a year after that, and her brother died about four years ago.
Bryers knows another woman who was one of four children from one family that lived at the orphanage. She found one sibling, but has never located the other two. The reunion could be an excellent way to help reunite siblings who became separated, Bryers believes.
But how do you put out the word about the reunion?
Oh, former residents do put together a newsletter, and it announces the reunion, but you don’t get the newsletter unless you ask for it, and only a handful of people receive it now.
The Saint Vincent Villa Catholic Orphanage has a Facebook page. Bryers stumbled across it by accident one day. Someone is also trying to build a web page for the old orphanage, but it isn’t done yet.
Bryers acknowledges that some people might just as soon forget their time at Saint Vincent Villa.
To Bryers, though, reuniting with old friends is important.
When children left the orphanage, Bryers said, they seemed to just disappear. In her case, she said, she had a job working in the kitchen. One day, a nun came to her and told her to come with her, handed her everything she owned packed into a bag, and sent her away with her mother. She never got to say goodbye to friends she’d made in the five years she lived there, and they had no idea where she went.
This year, Bryers said, there are plans for a tour of the old orphanage, which has since been used as a YWCA and then a charter school.
In a way, it sounds like a different quest for one’s roots by people who were uprooted long ago.