January 15, 2020

Former Orphanage Resident To Tell Her Story of Healing

A POIGNANT STORY: The open space of St. Michaels Farm Preserve was once the site of an orphanage where Josephine Allen lived as a small child. Now a volunteer with D&R Greenway, which preserved the land, Allen will speak on January 22 about how she finds solace spending time at the site. (Photo by Carl Geisler)

By Anne Levin

A few decades ago, Josephine Allen was riding her motorcycle through Hopewell Borough when she was overcome with a strange sense of nostalgia. Stopping at a gas station in town, she asked the attendant if there was an orphanage nearby named St. Michael’s — the place she had lived as a small child.

There had been, the attendant told her, but it was no longer standing. He pointed her in the direction of the former St. Michael’s Orphanage and Industrial School, which had been operated by the Catholic Diocese of Trenton from 1896 to 1973. Allen was a resident from age 5 to 8.

She followed the directions and found the place where, despite the obvious trauma of being separated from her family, she had many good memories. Since that day she rediscovered St. Michaels, Allen has repeatedly returned to the site to recall its setting on an expanse of farm fields and forests, and the peace that it brought her.

“For years after that, I would go back, park my car, and walk through the woods,” said Allen, who is a real estate agent with Weichert in East Brunswick. “It would heal me, just being there — for years.”

Today Allen is a volunteer with D&R Greenway, the organization that preserved the more than 400-acre property in 2010. She will tell her story at an event on Wednesday, January 22 from 7 to 8 p.m. at D&R Greenway’s headquarters at 1 Preservation Place. Also scheduled to speak are D&R Greenway CEO Linda Mead, and Story Clark, the founder and CEO of TravelStorys, which has developed a free mobile app about the site and its history.

“I understand why St. Michaels is so important to her,” Mead said of Allen after hearing her story. “This was the last place she saw her father, after he dropped her off there. But also it was a place where she found healing through the land.”

Allen spent years in foster care, but chooses to
focus on the positive aspects of her life. Chief among them are her years at St. Michaels. “Because of the friends at the orphanage, and the nuns, it felt like my home,” she said. “It was my first connection with nature. I would walk around the farm, and the smell of the hay and the cows was amazing to me. I loved it. This sense of wonder started to heal me, even though my family wasn’t there.”

It was on a hike through the acreage a few years ago that Allen discovered D&R Greenway’s role in preserving the land. After the orphanage was sold, the building where the children lived and went to school was torn down and most of the land was leased to a local farmer. Before the diocese divested themselves of the property through development, they offered one last chance for preservation if D&R Greenway could raise the funds to purchase the property.

Over $11 million was raised, and in 2010 D&R Greenway succeeded in purchasing the land through a public/private partnership.  It is now preserved as open space forever. The largest amount of the purchase price came from the state Farmland Preservation Program. Six miles of farm roads provide walking trails throughout the preserve.

“I saw a sign for D&R Greenway, and I called them,” said Allen, recalling the day she made the connection. “They told me about Willing Hands, which is the volunteer group that helps with managing and taking care of the preserve. So I joined. I helped them plant baby trees, which made me cry because I am so happy to give back. I can’t with money, but I can with time. So they just kind of threw me in, and I love it.”

Mead said, “We were so fortunate that Jo reached out to us and we were able to engage her in this, and have her be willing to share her story. Having people like Jo who had trauma and have found healing through being on the land — that is the story of land preservation. This could have been a thousand houses, but instead, we’re farming and preserving it. It’s a part of the community and a treasure, and for people like Jo, it’s really personal.”

Doors open at 6:30 p.m. for the January 22 event. Admission is free. Visit drgreenway.org for more information.

“This might not work for all the people who lived at St. Michaels, but for me it has been transformed into a place of peace and joy,” Allen said. “I hope it will help others through the pain and take those tears away.”