ST. JOHN'S (CANADA)
Saltwire Network [Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada]
February 24, 2023
By Glen Whiffen
‘I was told at the orphanage I’d amount to nothing, but I defied them,’ says survivor
The railway tracks ahead of him seemed endless but they offered a human connection for a 16-year-old alone in the woods outside of St. John’s in the 1950s.
Each step he took was one more away from the horrors of the sexual and physical abuse he had endured at Mount Cashel Orphanage — the “holy hell” he had run away from just hours earlier.
When darkness started to close in that first night along the lonely rail line, John (not his real name, which cannot be published due to a court-imposed ban), who is now 80, says that at the time he knew he would rather risk death alone in the woods over one he felt certain would come to him if he stayed at the orphanage any longer.
“I had it in my mind the railway had to lead somewhere, but I didn’t know where,” John said this week from his home in the United States.
“All I knew was that every step I took was a step further away from the orphanage. So the further I went the better I felt.”
When John was in his early teenage years he was awoken early one Christmas morning to news that his father had died.
“My mother called me out of the room and my father was lying there on the couch dead,” John said. “He’d gone out drinking with some of the neighbours and they got into it and my father ended up dead.
“Some said he was tossed off what they call in Newfoundland a bridge, we call it a veranda here. Three guys attacking him. But officially it was said he died of an aneurism, but I believe he suffered a blow to the head.”
His father’s death changed his mother, and shattered their family, he said.
In the weeks that followed he and his brothers ended up at the Mount Cashel Orphanage. He recalls being on the doorstep of the building and his mother telling them that she would be back for them.
“But she never did come back,” he said.
John said he and his brothers, over the following years, suffered both physical and sexual abuse at the Mount Cashel Orphanage by some of the Christian Brothers there.
Becoming emotional, he describes the actions of one particular Christian Brother: John was bothered in his bunk at night, he was stripped down and sexually abused and beaten, and a trampoline was pulled out from under him and his head crashed to the floor — an incident that put him in the hospital.
“Mount Cashel did a number on all us boys,” John said. “I tried suicide once. There was a little pond up the road from Mount Cashel and I went out on the thin ice knowing I’d fall through. When I fell in I panicked and something took over and I managed to get back to shore. I was a block of ice when I got back to the orphanage.”
Railroad to somewhere
John says it was late spring or summer, and around mid-day when he left the orphanage. He kept walking along the streets until he came to the railroad tracks and followed them for more than two days.
“I don’t think I took anything with me, just what I was wearing. I remember counting the tracks walking in the middle, and every once in awhile I’d try walking on the iron rails,” he said. “When it was getting dark I would get off the railroad and find a place to cuddle down, that was it. That’s all I did. I felt I was more safe there than where I was. I had my dad in my mind as if he was coaching me along. I didn’t know where I was going.”
Eventually, John says, he came to a settlement (which he now knows was Holyrood) and a convenience store, and he stood outside.
As he was standing there a boy about his age approached him, and they recognized each other from being neighbours some years before.
“He asked me what I was doing there and I said I ran away, but didn’t tell him from where. And I said I was starved,” John said. “He took me in the convenience store and bought me some food.”
John said his friend took him to his home, where John ended up staying with the family for some time.
“It was like divine intervention,” John said. “I couldn’t believe it. They treated me like one of their family.”
“They treated me like one of their family.”
Eventually, John got a job in the town, first at a farm, then at a construction site. He says he saved up enough money to move to the United States, where his uncle lived. He reconnected with his mother and sister, and they accompanied him there.
After working some time in the United States, he said, he arranged for his brothers at the orphanage to move there with him.
John eventually married and had a number of children of his own. He worked a number of jobs and eventually started his own plumbing business, and is now retired.
In the 1990s he visited Newfoundland and Labrador and became part of the lawsuit against the Christian Brothers that has led to the ongoing insolvency case of the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corp. of St. John’s.
“I was told at the orphanage I’d amount to nothing,” John said. “But I defied them. I learned to form a place in my mind to go to when those bad memories surfaced. When I’d get anxiety, I do things like think of my dad, pray and do breathing exercises and calm myself.”
John said he wants to eventually write a book based on his personal experience and what he did to find ways to cope since that day he left the orphanage with nothing but the scars and memories of years of sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
“Maybe someone else who has gone through trauma and abuse will be able to follow the steps I took, or get some inspiration from it,” he said. “Maybe they will be able to turn their life around.”