The St. Francis Orphanage: A Light in the Darkness of Orphanages

Authored by Sorcha M. Smith

An account of previous resident, Josephine Snyder Krawczyk, of the former St. Francis Orphanage of Reading Pennsylvania visiting the premises now known as Francis Hall. Francis Hall now serves as the administration building for Alvernia University.

Birgitte Soland said it best about what comes to mind to many at the mention of orphanages; “Mention the word ‘orphanage,’ and for most of us the story of Oliver Twist comes to mind…pleading, ‘Please, sir, I want some more,’” (2015, 34). There are many people, historians, and also scholars who view orphanages in a negative light, and in some cases, they are quite validated with these assessments. For example, a study was done to measure the differences in adolescent emotional, social, and educational adjustment and development with the results revealing that those who lived in orphanages had quite some adjustment differences from those who lived with family members (Kaur and Chawla 2016). Life for children in orphanages could be rough with minimal food, arguably cruel staff, and ostracization from the surrounding community (Smith 1995). With some recounting the conditions of orphanages as “horrific” and children being taken from their homes to be treated as servants, many of these institutions are quite a dark spot in history (Timsit 2018, 3).

However, that could not be farther from the truth when it came to St. Francis Orphanage in Reading Pennsylvania. Now known as Francis Hall at Alvernia University, the former St. Francis Orphanage was rich with opportunities for the children who lived there with classrooms, a science lab, playrooms, and extra-curricular activities such as stage activities and a rhythm band (Pacelli 2008, 35-41). Josephine Snyder Krawczyk was a resident at the former St. Francis Orphanage and though only having lived at the Orphanage for nine months in her childhood, she still remembers details about her life within St Francis. In an interview with Sister M. Alodia Podczasy, Krawczyk talks about visiting the University with her granddaughter and comments on how it used to be when she attended, even describing how she and the other girls would slide down the banisters for fun (Krawczyk 1999, 2). Krawczyk remembers being told to speak polish to many of the Sisters despite not knowing the language and goes on to remember a kind Sister who would help her with this struggle (1999, 2). It is clear there was a sense of true care within this orphanage with Father Joe even using his own money to buy uniforms for the first boys’ basketball team (Pacelli 2008, 77).

The days of orphanages are usually remembered as dark times for dependent children. Even after the 1920s when many institutions became more modernized with better food, programing, and improved education (Smith 1995, 121), they are still remembered as “places from which children ought to have been rescued” rather than a place of refuge (Soland 2015, 35). Whether from St. Francis or another institution, something that often gets overlooked is that many people who once resided in an orphanage recall a sense of kinship and community (Soland 2015, 46). This sense of community was quite prevalent within St. Francis and for hundreds of children in need of a home, they were able to find that sense of belonging with the Bernadine Sisters of St. Francis.


Kaur, Hardeep, and Arashmeet Chawla. 2016. “Adjustment among Adolescents Living with Families and in Orphanages: A Comparative Study.” Indian Journal of Health & Wellbeing 7 (3): 342–45.

Krawczyk, Josephine S. 1999. (Previous resident of St. Francis Orphanage). Interview by Sister M. Alodia Podczasy. 15 May 1999. Alvernia University Archives and Special Collections: Oral History.

Pacelli, Mary, OSF. 2008. Designed to Serve: The Place and Persons of Francis Hall. Pennsylvania: Alvernia University.

Smith, Eve P. 1995. “Bring Back the Orphanages? What Policymakers of Today Can Learn from the Past.” Child Welfare 74 (1): 115–42.

Soland, Birgitte. 2015. “‘Never a Better Home’: Growing up in American Orphanages, 1920-1970.” Journal of the History of Childhood & Youth 8 (1): 34–54. doi:10.1353/hcy.2015.0000. Timsit, Annabelle. 2018. “The US Has a Shameful History of Orphaning Children.” Quartz. Quartz. 2018.