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Rather than a hard-knock life, orphan alumni recall good times

By most accounts, Dolores Goble's life hasn't been much of a picnic.

In the midst of the Depression, her mother died. By the time she was 3 years old, she found herself living in a dorm with more than 25 other girls in the Immaculate Heart of Mary Orphan Home in Cheektowaga.

Although her two older sisters were there, too, she didn't get to see them often because the children were grouped by age. Her little brother was sent to an infant home. And her father, a brakeman on the railroad, came to visit when he could -- but that wasn't always very often.

But ask Goble -- the former Dolores Goc -- about her childhood, and she's quick to roll out the stories -- the Christmas celebrations that lasted for two weeks, the piano lessons, the day she gave a speech at Liberty Park for Cheektowaga Supervisor Chase Zalemski.

"I choose to remember the good times," she said.

And so, too, did more than two dozen of the children who grew up in the same orphanage on the corner of William Street and Kennedy Road in the 1930s and '40s. They gathered Monday afternoon in Polish Villa II to reminisce and rekindle friendships from decades ago.

"Did you ever expect to see people who were raised as orphans be as happy as we are?" Goble asked. "It's like finding brothers and sisters."

They recalled the successful 1945 boys basketball team, the tatting and crocheting lessons, the Polish songs, the bountiful holiday feasts -- and, yes, the system of credits and demerits, and the swats from the nuns, which were more frequent for some children than others.

Some of their childhood friends want nothing to do with the orphanage, some at the reunion said. But the group who gathered Monday revelled in their memories.

Most, like Goble, were put in the orphanage after one of their parents -- usually the mother -- died, leaving the other parent with too many kids and not enough money in the depths of the Depression.

They found themselves living in a place founded in 1895 as the Immaculate Heart of Mary Orphan Asylum -- later called the Orphan Home, then the Home for Children. The orphanage housed 360 boys and girls at a time.

Often, the orphanage run by the Felician sisters was the option of choice for large families who didn't want the children split up among several relatives or foster homes.

Sister Mary Gracille Ryby, who taught and did social work there in the 1940s and '50s, helped organize Monday's reunion, with the help of several former residents and their spouses: Ben and Clara Wojtowicz, Clara and Ed Koczanowski, Eleanore Pruski, Sue Byrne and Walter Cehulic. One former resident, Robert Bond, whose last name used to be Hartenstein, came in from Williamsburg, Va., for the reunion.

Mary Garcia and her four siblings went to the orphanage when she was 8, after her mother died. She remembers crying into her pillow every night at first, longing for her mother. And the Sunday afternoons waiting for relatives to visit, only to be disappointed many times when no one came.

But Garcia, the former Mary Siepierski, relishes her memories -- trips to the Shrine Circus, annual outings to Delaware Park, a box of candy every Valentine's Day donated by the local confectioners. She and her sister Clara Koczanowski attended the reunion.

"It was a good experience. I don't regret it," Garcia said of her childhood. "I got the best values at the orphan home. I wish to goodness they had it back again."

Many credited the orphanage with exposing them to activities that shaped their adult lives.

Ben Wojtowicz arrived at the orphanage when his mother died in 1937, when he was 7 -- one of 11 children. He and six of his siblings went to the orphanage, while the older children went to live with an aunt in Niagara Falls.

Besides playing baseball and basketball, he spent a lot of time making airplanes out of balsa wood -- something that helped foster his love of carpentry, he said. He is now the president of Benjamin Homes.

Those who attended Monday's reunion are among more than 8,000 children who lived in the Immaculate Heart of Mary Orphan Home over the years.


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