Marie-Grace and the Orphans

Published in 2011; author Sarah Masters Buckey; illustrators Christine Kornacki and Cindy Salans Rosenheim


Marie-Grace is staying up late one May evening, waiting for her father to return home from visiting patients. She's startled by a knock at the door, and Argos seems insistent that she see who it is, despite the late hour. When she opens it, there's a basket on the front step, and a woman darting away into the dark. She's left behind a baby boy, no more than a couple months old! Her father comes home almost immediately after, and determines that the baby is healthy--but hungry. He mixes up some sugar water to tide him over until morning, when he'll ask the neighbor, Mrs. Lambert, if she can nurse him with her own baby. He's clear that they won't be able to keep the baby because they're too busy to properly care for him, but Marie-Grace can't help indulging in pretending that she has a baby brother again. Mr. Gardner will put a notice in the newspaper about the baby and if that offers no leads, there's a good orphanage nearby. Because he was found on Philip Street, they call him Philip.

A short time later, a man shows up to answer the newspaper notice. He explains that he works for a plantation owner and a slave woman ran away recently, having just given birth. He thinks the baby is hers, and has come to claim the plantation owner's "rightful property." Marie-Grace can hardly believe it when her father callously says that he's glad someone finally came for the baby, who's sickly and causing trouble. Now if the man will just pay this medical bill... But the man balks at the cost. The baby's just a slave! He's not worth that sort of money! He storms out, and Marie-Grace sees that her father was bluffing. Philip is fine, gaining weight nicely with the neighbor nursing him. And neither Marie-Grace nor her father want to see Philip end up a slave, so Mr. Gardner decides it's time to talk to Father Sebastian at the nearby Holy Trinity Orphanage. The only potential roadblock is that Holy Trinity for white orphans. Philip's heritage isn't obvious. His skin looks relatively pale but his dark tight curls might indicate that he is of African descent and simply light-skinned. There is another orphanage for minorities, but if they take Philip there they risk the plantation owner trying to claim him again. Marie-Grace goes to fetch something her father needs from the pharmacy and sees Cécile. She remembers how they switched places at the ball, and thinks Cécile can help her keep Philip from slavery. Because she doesn't want to interrupt Cécile's time with her family--or tell them her plan--Marie-Grace gives Cécile a note asking her to talk the next time they're both at singing lessons.

Marie-Grace's plan is to dress Philip in fine clothes rather than the worn ones he has now. Surely no one will think him a slave if his clothes are new, clean, and elegant! Cécile knows she can trust her Aunt Octavia and secures a bonnet and baby gown that Réne has long outgrown. The girls also let Mlle Océane in on the secret and she gives Marie-Grace some fine cotton fabric to hem as a baby blanket. She also reveals that Marie-Grace's uncle proposed! If her father approves, they'll be married in late summer--it'll take that long for a reply from France to arrive. Cécile politely but earnestly cautions her to reconsider the wedding date. Sickness often spreads in late summer, and Mlle Océane has only been living in New Orleans since last October. She's not used to the diseases common there, and should try to stay out in the country.

Too soon, it's time to take Philip to Holy Trinity. Marie-Grace's heart nearly stops when Fr Sebastian says Philip "shouldn't be here" but he only means that the baby is clearly from a wealthy family and there must be some sad story--he's allowed, it's just unusual that a well-off family would surrender a child. Marie-Grace knows it's for the best, but she's devastated to see Philip go (and really, it's a very sad part). The kind nun who takes him, Sister Beatrice, promises Marie-Grace to take good care of him, and tells the girls that they can come visit. Marie-Grace vows to come the very next day. True to her word, she's there right after school. She sits with Philip for a while as he sleeps, and then plays with some older children who call her Marie-the-Great. She starts coming after school every Tuesday and Thursday. As June arrives, the weather grows hotter and rumors of yellow fever abound. July brings rain, which allows the mosquitoes carrying yellow fever to multiply (but in 1853 it was thought that yellow fever was spread by direct human-to-human contact). With the disease spreading, Sr Beatrice is happy that a Mrs. Finch has offered to take Philip to another convent in Chicago. Marie-Grace's father agrees, and notes that the distance will further protect Philip from the plantation owner. But Marie-Grace can't bear to let him go, and lies to Sister Beatrice that her father thinks Philip's mother might return--he did say those words, but prefaced them with how unlikely such an event would be.

On Saturday, Marie-Grace arrives at Mlle Océane's only to learn that her lesson is cancelled. Mlle Océane's friend is ill, likely with yellow fever. Her building's watchman, Louis, is gone today too--his granddaughter is very ill. And a young opera singer came down with yellow fever on Monday. And died Friday. Suddenly yellow fever isn't a distant threat. Marie-Grace goes to the orphanage and confesses the truth to Sister Beatrice. The nun is kind and understanding. But Philip will still leave tomorrow with Mrs. Finch. Marie-Grace tearfully says goodbye to Philip, knowing he won't remember her (it's heart-breaking). Her dreams of visiting him often and acting as a sort of big sister are gone. But when the older children see her, Marie-Grace puts on a brave front. They still need people to care for them, and so will the thirteen other children recently orphaned by yellow fever. Even though Philip will be long gone, Marie-Grace will continue her visits.

Looking Back

Today large orphanages are rare in the United States, but in the 1800s there were all over the country. Some parents surrendered their children to orphanages after devastating events, if one parent died and the family had no money to care for the children, for example. When epidemic diseases ransacked communities, many children were truly left orphans. Before antibiotics, antivirals, vaccines, and proper sanitation, disease could run rampant through a city, killing thousands. Orphanages were usually run by religious orders, and while some were very strict, they all at least tried to help children. Often, an orphanage was the only place a poor child could receive an education. Most orphanages during Marie-Grace's time housed only white children--most black children were slaves. New York City had the New York Colored Orphan Asylum, started in 1836. A few years later a group of nuns from the Order of the Holy Family opened a similar orphanage in New Orleans. By the 1900s, it also operated as a school for minority girls.


This book is dedicated to Alexandra and Jessica.
Speaking of wet nurses, there's an organization that started just a year or two ago that takes donated breast milk (mothers can also sign up to be paid for the milk) for babies who need more than their own mothers can produce, usually children in the NICU. If you have an overabundance of breast milk and want to check it out, the website is http://www.mothersmilk.coop/. I had more than enough with my second daughter (too little with my first...if only I'd had a time machine) and donated 300 oz to it, and gave another 200 to a friend who has a baby the same age and supply issues.

Yellow fever, a viral infection that causes fever, aches, nausea, loss of appetite, and sometimes liver damage, is spread by mosquitoes, although the method of transmission wasn't known until 1881. Most people survive it with no lasting effects, but it can sometimes causing internal bleeding. When it gets to that stage, the disease can be fatal, and it more commonly progresses that far during epidemics. A vaccine exists for it, and surviving a bout with yellow fever provides lifetime immunity, but it still kills thirty thousand people every year, mostly in Africa.

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