Mount St. Joseph Orphanage

In my intro video, I mentioned I had been raised for several years in an orphanage in San Francisco…

Mount St. Joseph Orphanage – or, The Mount, as we called it – was a formidable building high on a hill overlooking the city, often shrouded in fog.  It was run by the Sisters of Charity.  This blog will explain how it happened that my two sisters and I were taken in by the nuns there, housed and fed and educated and cared for, even though we weren’t orphans.  Although, we came close.

It has almost been forgotten now, but in the 1930’s, and for many years before even, there was a huge Tuberculosis epidemic that was actually labeled a plague.  One in seven people contracted the lung disease, which was highly contagious.  My mother, Nora Fitzsimmons, had emigrated to America from Ireland with her parents and eight brothers and sisters (!) in 1916 when she was just a small child.  Her father, my grandfather, had sold the family farm to finance the move to America.  After surviving the long transatlantic journey, they entered the country through the St. Lawrence Seaway, crossed the continent and made their home in San Francisco.  The family settled in quite well to their new life, but soon, one by one, my Mom lost her mother, her father, and FIVE of her siblings, all to “Consumption” – the common name then for Tuberculosis.

These days it’s almost impossible to imagine the enormity of that sort of loss.

But by the time my mother was 17, she had fallen in love with a neighborhood boy, Rudy Sandino, who himself had emigrated from Nicaragua.  My father played tennis in a nearby park and was quite dashing in his white clothes, with his dark complexion and startling blue eyes.  It was the era of Rudolph Valentino on the silver screen and my mother was completely smitten!  I love the story she told me that, given their young age, she had prayed every night she wouldn’t grow taller than him!  Her brothers were shooting up fast and becoming quite tall so she was afraid she would do the same.  But her prayers were answered…she never grew taller than him, and at age 18 and 20, they were married.

 

 

Many happy years followed – they had my sister Mary Ann, then Geraldine (Geri), and then me…

Then the same plague came knocking again.  Mary Ann was 9, Geri was 5, and I was just 2 years-old when my mother fell terribly ill with TB.  Her two remaining sisters caught it as well.  One went into a Sanitarium and the other, Rose, who had become a Christian Scientist, died without any care because she refused help! Mom and Dad, still young and struggling, could not afford a Sanitarium, so Mom entered the dreaded SFH, San Francisco Hospital, where it was widely believed poor people just went to die.  But Nora Sandino was determined not to die and get back to her three little girls and adoring husband.

It took her five years to finally conquer the disease.  During that time she watched every friend she made while in the hospital die!  It was that hard to cure.  Even one of my father’s youngest sisters, who they say was very beautiful, entered the same TB ward, but died soon after, still in her teens.  My mother said she would sneak out of the hospital at night and just would not take the cure!

So there was my father trying to raise three little girls with a series of housekeepers he could barely afford, working two jobs and trying to see my mother, whom he was lost without, according to very strict visiting hours at the hospital.   I am not sure who stepped in to help and plead his case to the Mother Superior at The Mount, got us accepted there…but, believe me, my father welcomed the assistance.  It was a huge relief, a godsend to my parents.

I was placed in the care of Sister Martina who was in charge of the Infirmary.  She was a very young nun and seemed to delight in taking care of a two-year old.  I remember very little except being lifted up on a counter in the infirmary and her curling my hair with a curling iron.  My sisters remembered seeing me being swung playfully between two nuns and taken up in the elevator while they had to climb the many stairways.  As the years passed, I was given pre-schooling and taught to read so early that I was placed in the 1st Grade before I was five (that’s why I graduated High School at 16).

I was terribly spoiled, I think.

In fact, all three of us were very strongly but differently affected by our placement in the orphanage.  Being the oldest, Mary Ann became “The General”!  She felt the responsibility of always keeping her little sisters in line and looking after us as best she could.  She went on to take that same no-nonsense but nurturing approach to all life’s challenges.  I loved her dearly and looked up to her.  Geri, the middle sister, I think missed our mother the most and was the most traumatized at age 5.  She has had a single-minded survivor’s determination ever since.  I, on the other hand, was given so much attention and loving care that I always had a sense of security and a belief everything would turn out okay, even when I should have been worried.  🙂

We were kept there for about four years while my mother slowly recovered, with doctors eventually having to remove one of her lungs.

On weekends, my father would visit us, take us out for ice cream cones, and, on occasion, all the way to the hospital so we could all stand in a spot where my mother could look down from her window and wave to us, see how much we had grown.

In the summertime, we were taken to a summer retreat house in St. Helena, which is now part of the wine country.  We loved it!  It was such a break in our regimented lives.  I think the sunshine back then gave me a lifelong love of the sun.  I can remember it was at St. Helena that we were told that Mom had finally been released from the infectious disease ward and was healthy enough to see us again.  We were beyond excited – we were going home!

For the rest of her life, I think Mom had a profound gratitude and appreciation for the simple joys of life.  She loved nothing more than time with her family.  And I also realize, as gentle and kind as she was, how incredibly strong she must have been to survive such an ordeal.

A rather poignant addendum to this story…  Years later, at 18, while doing informal modeling at The Emporium Department Store on Market Street, where I just mingled with customers showing different featured outfits, I happened to see two Sisters of Charity in one of the aisles.  They are so easily identified by the starched white coronetts they wear on their heads and their blue habits.  I went over to them and introduced myself as having been at Mount St. Joseph and inquired about a Sister Martina who had taken such wonderful care of me.  I knew immediately when they exchanged a look…and sure enough one of them reached out to hold my hand and said “I am Sister Martina, and I have been praying for you all these years; I can see my prayers were answered!”  OMG!  I was totally taken aback and only managed to thank her profusely for all she had done…before she and her companion sister slipped away into the crowded store and disappeared.  I have so many “should haves” about that meeting but I attribute it to my young age that I didn’t ask a zillion questions and keep in touch…sigh!

Hmmmm!  Perhaps though, that fateful meeting planted a seed, and was when I first considered entering the convent to become a nun myself…

But…I guess that’s another blog.  🙂

Kari

Comments

  1. Sondra Hasl says:

    Kari, loved this blog! I have heard some of this before from Geri but loved reading this family history. I read this to Haley and she loved the pictures and seeing her grandmother and great aunties as young girls and seeing her great-grandparents as teenagers!!

    1. Kari says:

      Thank you Sondra. That’s great to hear! I am really enjoying writing the blogs and it is so nice when someone responds!! I marvel at what a great mother you are. Haley is a lucky girl to have you. ☺️🌹😘

      1. Annette Mulford says:

        I love your story, my Mother was also at
        SF General battling the terrible lung disease and she also survived! I wonder if they knew each other.

        1. Kari Mugavero says:

          I just read your comment and I guess somehow missed it originally.
          Actually I see that you wrote on my birthday, July 7th.
          How wonderful that your mom survived too. My mother said it was very rare that anyone survived.as she had lost so many friends there. Evidently the will to return to ones family was a powerful motive!
          I would like to think they were friends as it evidently could be a very lonely place. With the present coronavirus it really registered – what they went through!

  2. Debbie says:

    WOW Kari, I had no idea. It was so interesting to read about your background and early life. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks Debbie! I am so pleased you are reading my blogs. I find that I am loving telling stories and
      adding little things that I have learned along the way. I am very much looking forward to our get together, it has been way too long.

  3. Linda patton says:

    You’ve told me so many times about the orphanage but I never heard the whole story. It’s 8:00 am and I am crying in my coffee cup as I read this beautiful story of your life. Thank you my sweet friend, and am loving your blog

    1. Kari Mugavero says:

      Hi Linda! Thank you so much for your comment! It is wonderful to hear back about these stories from good friends like you. I miss you. Please keep reading my blog I have something coming up that you may enjoy reading. I have enjoyed doing these blogs more than I ever imagined and am actually learning something about myself as well. Best!! Kari

  4. Theresa Casey says:

    Hi Kari: I came across your blog and of course, I love it. What an incredible story. I love your writing and perspective. Seeing those pictures of the nuns reminded me of the habit worn by my Dad’s sister, Aunt Katie, in her early days of the convent. As a little kid, I found it kind of intimidating!

    1. Kari says:

      Oh Theresa, I am delighted that you found my blog! I am really enjoying writing it. Please keep checking it out. And I hope we can get together soon to catch up. Best Always, Kari

  5. Rosalind A. Scaglione says:

    My Mother Rose Sammut and her 4 sisters(Phillis, Georgina, Mary and Mickey were raised at “The Mount” My Mom went in at age 6(1932-1940) They were from The Bayview Area and saw their father once a month.

  6. Sherry Smith says:

    A friend of mine found your blog and sent it to me. I was thrilled to read what you wrote. I was at Mount Saint Joseph’s from the age of 3 till I was 13. I loved it there. I’m 69 now and still love finding articles on the Mount. The Sisters were so wonderful. So thank you for writing your story.

  7. Michael Iredale says:

    My mother and her sister were both at this orphanage in the 1930s for the same reason–their mom had TB. Their names were Patricia and Peggy Scanlon.

  8. Danielle Kenny says:

    My grandmother and her older sister were raised in Mount St. Joseph’s. But the intrigue doesn’t stop there. These girls were born in San Jose in mid/late 1890s to a couple who had been together for a few years, although were not married and did not live together. Their grandmother and great grandmother lived in the home so the children had family ties. The older girl was about 5 when a couple of women took them from the family home, transported them to Mt. St. Joseph’s in San Francisco, and dropped them off. They did not see their mother or grandmother again. And why go all the way to San Francisco when they lived in San Jose? The older girl said there was a brother although I’ve never found confirmation of that in the records. The father of the girls did have family in the East Bay which makes it more intriguing, but still complicated. Even the San Jose Genealogy group said this was substantially different than there background with local rehomes.

  9. Hi Kari, I really loved your story. My Mother was also at SF General with TB and she also survived, I wonder if they were friends? She always told me stories of the ladies that were there with her.

  10. Linda Clarke says:

    I too was.at the Mount in the 40’s with my Aunt. Many memories, especially the weekly day old barrel of donuts donated to the school from a locate bakery. The nuns having us sit outside on the grass and read to us, by cement plaques with bible reading engraved on them. By the way when I heard they torn down the mountl I went there and walked the grounds and found the cement plaques scattered about. I did get one and have it on my backyard here in las vegas nv. Very heavy.

    1. Fran neves says:

      We’re those cemetery headstones?

      1. Fran Robinson Neves says:

        I remember Sister Paula! I was there 1949-1952. It was still called an orphanage but only 2 orphans. Today we would call it a childrens’ shelter. Nice to see this blog. My daughter found it.

  11. Linda Clarke says:

    I wish I could attach a picture of the cement plaques I have from the Mount, which we sat arounf in the lawn while the nuns read stories.

    1. Karyn says:

      I would love to see a picture of the plaques

  12. Diane M Eddy says:

    Was there as a Pixie in 1966-1968. Sister Rita was the nun and Miss Delores was the Layperson. Had some good times, but also some health issues. Rheumatic Fever, so spent a lot of time in the infirmary. My sister Robin was a Bluebird.

  13. Judy Smith says:

    Just now found your blog!. My mother and her 3 sisters were orphaned in 1921 and placed at Mt. St. Joseph’s. My mother & her sisters always called it The Convent. They were the Casella sisters, Mary, Edith, Angela, and my mother, Harriet. She was the youngest at 4. She lived there until she was 11 when her oldest sister Mary took her out to live with her. My mother named me after her favorite nun, Sister Judith. She had fond memories of living there. I don’t know if there are any photos of the girls from the years she lived there 1921-1928, but would love to see them if they exist!

  14. Karyn says:

    Hello,
    My Mother and Aunts were at The Mount.
    I grew up with fabulous stories penny bags, the sun room with canaries, warm radiant heated floors , and the Sisters were so loving and kind. My name was chosen by my Mother during her time there her close friend.

  15. patricia timmons says:

    My sisters and I were at Mount Saint Joseph but it wasn’t an orphanage – I think it was retitled as “Home for Girls” We were brought there circa 1970. I believe it was a respite before you were put into the foster care system permanently. My parents were going through a very rough divorce and being immigrants with low wage jobs and caring for 5 girls was very stressful for them both I was the youngest at 7 years old.

    One day I will write a blog as well with all of the details of our stay there as well as St. Elizabeth’s home for unwed mothers on Masonic Ave – they had a wing for younger girls that needed a place to stay.
    Thankfully, our parents were able to satisfy the courts and reconcile long enough to get all of us out and back together.
    Thank you for providing this rich history and allowing some of us to share our experiences as well.

    God Bless!

    1. Marcia Faber says:

      I was in Mt St Joseph, Sister Paula was our nun and Inez was our helper, she was from Malta, I was a difficult child and was placed there instead of juvenile hall this was in the 60’s I was about 13 or 14. I still remember the smell of the slaughter house as we walked down the hill to school. We slept in a dormitory setting, I remember Sister Paula always used to smell like violets, she was young and a lot of fun.

      1. Fran Robinson Neves says:

        I remember Sister Paula! I was there 1949-1952. It was still called an orphanage but only 2 orphans. Today we would call it a childrens shelter. Nice to see this blog. My daughter found it.

      2. Fran Robinson Neves says:

        I remember Sister Paula! I was there 1949-1952. It was still called an orphanage but only 2 orphans. Today we would call it a childrens’ shelter. Nice to see this blog. My daughter found it.

      3. Fran Robinson Neves says:

        I remember sister Paula. I loved her. I was there 19 49–19 52. There were only two orphans. It was really like a children’s shelter, but I didn’t know that then. Thank you for your blog.

    2. Marcia Faber says:

      Yes it was call home for girls, when I wrote my comment I forgot that!

  16. D.D. says:

    Kari, I really appreciate reading this entry on your blog. I loved Aunt MaryAnne very much. I am grateful my Uncle Timmy married her and had my Cousin Pamela. Aunt MaryAnne would always bring our family together in such loving, inclusive and delicious ways (she was such a brilliant entertainer). It was usually one of the few times I had the opportunity of catching up with my Chreisten cousins. Thank you for sharing this amazing story, I am sitting here in tears. I know that everyone has an amazing story to tell I am certainly grateful I happened upon this particular chapter of your life and knowing and loving your eldest sister as I do made this story touch my heart very deeply. What a time in your lives, I am grateful the three of you had each other. Much Love, Darlene Rose DeMaria (D.D.)

  17. Leslie Johnson Marcell says:

    Kari, thank you for your blog. I have been looking for any information on The Mount. I was placed there by Catholic Social Services in 1956-57 (not quite sure of the exact date). I was not an orphan but a child of divorce with parents unable to care for me or my younger brother. I was there for approximately 2 years until a Social Worker decided I needed a family environment and placed me in a foster home (my first of three in five years). Oh how I prayed to go back to The Mount. I was safe, fed and cared for there. I would love to learn any information about The Mount. It has taken me many years to look for this information – I am searching for my files and those of my brother. Any information you may have or any direction you can give would be so appreciated. You may not have any information at all but I do so appreciate your blog. Thank you.

  18. Kari Mugavero says:

    Hello Leslie, thanks for reading my blog and responding! Your story is similar to mine although you do not say how old you were. I was brought to the Mount at two years old much earlier than you. I am wondering if the Sisters of Charity were still in charge?
    It is especially gratifying to learn that your experience there was positive. I wish I could add more information. All I know other than what I have posted in my blog is that eventually the Mount was torn down but surely the records were saved. Good luck with your search and please let me know what you find out. My very best to you and your brother! Kari

    1. Joanne Keim says:

      My recollection of The Mount was that the nuns were very nice to me . I was there from age 4-7 from 1935-1939, my name was Joanne DuBarry then and the only negative memories are of the food – hot food had dead ants and cold food had live ants but at least it was something to eat .. my mother was unable to find work…overall I have fond memories, but I was very lonely

  19. Melodie Cabrera says:

    I am so glad to find your blog!!
    I lived at the Mount for many years. I started with the Pixies, then Bluebirds, then Debs(?). I also remember going every year during the summer to Mt. St. Helen’s to swim, horseback riding, and all the orchards. What I remember most is all the horses’ names: pixie, misty, buck, beten, ziggy, candy and foggy ghost. I also remember the Mac Menamies. Not sure of the spelling. They ran the summer place.
    I have fond memories of the Mount and even remember the song we sang when Michael (?) Drove us in our own bus. Would love to hear from others that were there with me, i.e. Gail, Phyllis, Toni, etc.

    1. Fran Robinson Neves says:

      What years were you there? I remember Mt St Helen too especially swimming.

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