Orphanage museum brings Australian to Owatonna
Owatonna Peoples Press
25th August 2012
10th October 2012
For 58-year-old Australian Leonie Sheedy, stepping on the grounds of the Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum in Owatonna last weekend provided peace, serenity and a sense of familiarity.
Sheedy, who spent 13 years of her childhood in a Catholic orphanage in Australia, has been fighting for the survivors of a defunct child welfare system, which she believed “deprived them of their identity, self-worth and a rightful place in society.”
“Everybody has a story to tell,” she said. “I care about people and fight for the injustices they have faced.”
Sheedy applied for a $25,000 scholarship to study orphanage history around the world in 2010. However, when she didn’t get called back for the third interview, she began making arrangements to finance her own trip around the world to look at orphanages.
Her work as the Care Leavers Australia Network (CLAN) co-founder is what brought her to Owatonna.
CLAN is a support, advocacy, research and training group for the half a million children in Australia who were raised as state wards, foster children or in orphanages. CLAN was established 12 years ago, along with a mini orphanage museum in Sydney, Australia.
“I had to see the (state) orphanage with my own eyes,” Sheedy said. “I came to learn and be educated and see what I can take back to Australia.”
Sheedy contacted Harvey Ronglien, a former state schooler and founder of the Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum, in April 2011 to schedule her visit.
“I agreed to meet with her, but it was so far in advance I didn’t think it would go through,” Ronglien said.
Before she arrived in Minnesota, Sheedy traveled to New York to hand deliver CLAN’s submission on the United Nations Committee Against Torture to Gary Quinlan, the Australian ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations, on Aug. 10.
When Sheedy arrived at the front steps of the West Hills Complex on Aug. 19, she knew she was about to meet someone who understood her background.
“Once I got there and looked around at all the plaques outside, I knew I had met someone who knew how it felt to grow up in an orphanage,” she said.
Ronglien gave Sheedy, her husband and her daughter a tour around the museum.
“We were there seven hours and we just soaked it all up,” Sheedy said.
She said she was near tears throughout the tour, seeing things like orphans’ letters to their parents, a little girl’s diary and the children’s cemetery.
While there were many differences between the orphanages Sheedy and Ronglien grew up in, there were also some similarities.
Some of Sheedy’s experiences that relate to the state schoolers are beatings, loss of family, lack of love and affection, loss of childhood, lack of privacy, and being forced into unpaid labor.
Despite the fact that the orphanages Sheedy was raised in are on the other side of the world, she said the emotional toll of growing up in an institution is the same.
“The feelings are the same across all international barriers,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what race or ethnicity you are because the feelings are the same.”
Sheedy is currently lobbying to have the Australian federal government purchase land from the state to build a larger museum in the Jaalong District, where many orphanages were in the 1900s. She said she was impressed with the City of Owatonna’s support for the state museum.
“The city gave so much for the museum,” she said. “I would like to give Harvey, his wife and the city a pat on the back. They all deserve a gold star. Harvey has kept the memory of the children alive all these years”
But she was disappointed with how many Owatonna residents were unaware of the museum.
“More than 10,000 children went through the school and people are unaware of it. That’s a lot of children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” Sheedy said.
She said it would be a dream come true if Australia purchased land for a national orphanage museum.
“It would show that Australia is serious about preserving orphanage history,” she said.
Australia already recognizes those who were raised in orphanages on its currency, and Sheedy said CLAN is trying to have a postage stamp created.
Sheedy believes the history of orphans is one that needs to be told and needs to be told to by those who have lived it.
“I think children who grew up in orphanages haven’t found their collective voice here yet,” she said. “Without that voice, nobody will know about the orphanages.”
Harvey said he started the museum because he was concerned that people a generation from now would not know about the orphanage and the lives of the state schoolers would be forgotten.
To help raise awareness about the orphanage museum in Owatonna, Sheedy’s daughter is making a documentary.
“She wants the Owatonna museum to be better known across the country and the world,” Ronglien said. “We think this is the only orphanage museum in the entire country, right here in Owatonna.”
And Sheedy feels strongly about raising awareness.
“The message needs to get out about children and orphanages,” she said. “You shouldn’t carry your childhood to the grave. Share the story with other generations because it won’t be any good in a coffin.”
Sheedy said her visit to Owatonna brought inspiration and motivation to preserve the stories of those who grew up in orphanages.
“We are still alive today,” she said. “American orphans need to find their voice.”
Ronglien said that Sheedy’s visit reinforced that the work he and his wife, Maxine, are doing with the museum has had an impact.
Sheedy said a big thank you goes to her husband, Warren, and Maxine for supporting those who were raised in orphanages.
“We are who we are because we have good people behind us,” she said.
Ronglien said Sheedy’s visit was uplifting.
“She’s a doer,” Ronglien said. “This is more her story than ours.”
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