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Milwaukee Orphanage Shirt

Shirt given to a child leaving St. Joseph Orphanage, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, c. 1920.
(Museum object #2005.82.1)

Around 1920, the St. Joseph Orphanage in Milwaukee sent seven-year-old Frank D. Drewezicki to another orphanage in Marinette, Wisconsin. Before leaving, the staff at St. Joseph's, who had raised him since the age of two, gave Frank a new shirt to wear on his journey. This shirt (pictured at left) turned out to be the only memento Frank would save from his difficult childhood, storing it in a cigar box until his death in 2001.

John and Anastasia Drewezicki, Frank's birth parents, moved from Poland to Milwaukee in 1912 with two sons. Anastasia was pregnant during their voyage, but John died before Frank was born on April 13, 1913. About two years later Anastasia suffered a mental breakdown from which she never recovered, spending the next 45 years living in the psychiatric ward of the Milwaukee County Institution. Her three sons, John, Joseph and Frank, ended up in the care of St. Joseph's Orphanage.

An imposing five-story, 2 block-long building, St. Joseph's was situated on Milwaukee's South Side in the midst of the city's Polish community. The Catholic Church built the institution in 1908 on South 18th Street and it was run by the Felician Sisters. St. Joseph's supervised children between the ages of three and sixteen who were orphans or whose family could not take care of them. By 1946, the nuns at St. Joseph's had cared for over 2,500 children. In 1959 the diocese converted the orphanage into a treatment center for troubled children, and beginning in 1968 used it for the South Day Care Center of St. Joseph. It remained a day care center until 2001 when the building was razed to make way for a parking lot.

Frank's older brothers spent only a short time at St. Joseph's before the Sisters "farmed them out" to different families in Indiana. Frank remembered how the nuns would line the children up and pick which ones would be live-in farm hands, or as he put it, "slave labor," and how he and his brothers cried when they were separated. His brothers faced hard labor at their new homes. Years later his brother John described how the farmer he lived with stabbed him in the back with a pitchfork leaving permanent scars.

Frank, however, remained at St. Joseph's for approximately five more years due to a case of rickets he acquired from malnutrition. Shortly after St. Joseph's sent Frank to the orphanage in Marinette, an old Polish couple took him in as farm help. He did not receive much formal education in Marinette, and left school when he was about nine years old to work on the farm.

Frank lived with his new guardians for seven or eight years until the wife died. After her death Frank was sent back to Milwaukee where he lived with his godmother Martha Groh. There he worked as a skilled mechanic and eventually Anglicized his name to Frank Drake, all the while keeping this shirt as a reminder of his childhood.

[Source: Roman Kwasniewski Photograph Collection.]

Posted on December 08, 2005

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