The Orphan’s Festival

The charity event I remember most clearly from my childhood was the annual Orphan’s Festival.

There was still a very large orphanage, run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, around the corner from St. Mary’s in Hamilton’s old “north end”… west of James and north of Barton, that part of the city that had embraced each new wave of immigration.

Orphan Pip is snared an escaped convict
in Dickens’ Great Expectations

Each year all the children in separate schools would buy a ticket and pay for bus fare down to the old Palace Theater  on King Street East to see the talent show. How we admired… and envied… the orphans. Quartets and choirs, solo song and tap dance routines, magicians, stand-up comics, skits and clowns. Live entertainment and raucous laughter, by kids and for kids… even a sing along… filling that enormous space with its gilded arches and painted ceiling. Plus the satisfaction of spending my meager allowance on a worthy cause.

We all envied the orphans in their moment of glory. Not only did they get to live together in dormitories… no doubt in bunk beds, but they had a zillion brothers and sisters… surely with so much choice there would be a few kindred spirits to choose as friends. They seemed to be having so much fun together on stage.

And their nuns were the kind and talented Sisters of St. Joseph, who taught and nursed and raised amazing children in communal bliss, while we lived in misery at home and at school were bullied and harassed by the dragon ladies, nuns of the Loretto order, humorless, talentless, serious, and mean. Oh, to be an orphan!

“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” What did we know!

But I did know, of course. There was an orphan story in my family. And, of course children’s literature, indeed all genres of literature, include example after example of the enterprising foundling or orphan. We knew this archetype even as we were learning to read.

I will talk about these later.

Meanwhile, besides Moses and Harry Potter, Pip and Heathcliff,  amuse yourself by trying to list as many literary or film orphans as you can. These may include children separated from their parents for long periods and forced to cope on their own. A happy reunion or surprise discovery at the end does not negate the theme of isolation and independent survival. Even Home Alone has some of the features of the archetype orphan story.

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One Response to The Orphan’s Festival

  1. debbierodgers says:

    Living in eastern Canada as I do, I must contribute Anne Shirley!

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