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Life has left Josephine “Jo” Allen with many battle scars, but she found healing in the land which once held turmoil for her.
From 5 to 9 years old, Allen was a resident of St. Michael’s Orphanage and Industrial School in Hopewell. Closed in 1973, the orphanage’s land has since become the St. Michaels Farm Preserve — an area of more than 400 acres of farm fields and forests preserved in 2010 and expanded in 2017 by D&R Greenway Land Trust.
Allen shared her story Jan. 22 at a lecture hosted by D&R Greenway in Princeton. This was her first time speaking in public, said Linda Mead, CEO of the trust.
For 31 years, D&R Greenway Land Trust has been working to preserve land in the state, with an emphasis on Central Jersey. In those years, nearly 21,000 acres — 25 times the size of Central Park — have been permanently preserved. The nonprofit land preservation organization works with state and local partners.
The transformation of the orphanage into a permanent nature and farmland preserve has had a positive impact on her life, Allen said. Now living in East Brunswick and working as a Real Estate Associate at Princeton Weichert Realtors, Allen volunteers with D&R Greenway, helping manage and steward the preserve that once held her childhood home.
In the middle of the night …
A precocious, lively child, Allen found herself at age 5 being dropped off at St. Michael’s Orphanage in the middle of the night. Life as she knew it with her family — which was not a pleasant experience — was over.
While Allen said living at the orphanage was a “bittersweet” experience, it eventually led her to a new family and later, peace.
It was her father who brought Allen to the orphanage. The man she always looked to as her hero — and still does — left her there.
“I remember him crying, sobbing,” said Allen, now in her mid-50s. “My father — in the middle of the night — made a decision — a drastic, drastic decision — to drive me to the orphanage. The last thing I saw was my father crying out in the blackness of the night. It was so dark. The nun carried me away and I was crying my eyes out because I had no idea what was going on — he didn’t tell me. I saw him on his knees crying like a baby near a statue of Mary. That’s the last I saw of him. I cried for three nights straight.”
Before being adopted at 9, Allen was in and out of a few foster homes.
Today, Allen prefers to focus on the positives. For instance, as an adult, she understands what her father did was in her best interest. Allen’s mother, who most likely suffered from severe post partum depression, was abusive and made her dislike for her then-youngest daughter obvious, she says. By removing Allen from that situation, her father was saving her life.
“I was too much for her,” Allen said. “I was a happy, hyper kid, always running around. She couldn’t handle it and did some very bad things to me. It was bad from the time I was little. If he had left me home with my mom, she would have killed me. She told him that. Some people called him a coward, but he wasn’t a coward. He had to support the family and he was the only one who could. He was supporting four kids at the time — and then they had another daughter after I was gone.”
At the orphanage, Allen became close with the children, particularly other little girls her age, and some of the nuns. One was like a mother, looking after her as if Allen was her own child.
“I developed a positive feeling about the orphanage,” she said. “There were a lot of bad things — a lot of things happened — to me, to other kids. I was in and out of the foster homes, but I couldn’t wait to get back to the orphanage because my friends were there. I adored them. I was also waiting for my father to come back. I had heard him say he would come back. So every time I left to go to a foster home, I was worried that if he came back, I wouldn’t be there.”
As a young adult, Allen tried to find her birth family, particularly her father.
Two days before she and her father were to meet again, he died in a hospital. Allen had been unaware he was ill.
Saved by a love of nature
It was Allen’s love of nature that always kept her grounded. From a young age, Allen found solace in the outdoors — it “called to her,” she said. She felt happiest outside, whether it be a wooded or meadow area — it did not matter.
This remains true to this day — and it was St. Michaels Farm Preserve — where the orphanage once stood — that helps her. A few years ago, Allen accidentally found her way back to the area.
“I was riding my motorcycle and I was getting chills — goosebumps — I didn’t know why,” she said. “I stopped at a gas station and asked if there was an orphanage that used to be around here. And the gas station attendant said ‘Yes, St. Michael’s, right down the road.’ After I filled up, I went right there and started walking around. Ever since that day I have never stopped going there. I didn’t know there were people trying to preserve the land. I was in my own little world trying to heal myself.”
From 1896 until 1973, the area was the home of St. Michael’s operated by the Catholic Diocese of Trenton. After the orphanage was closed, 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. More than $11 million was raised and in 2010, D&R Greenway purchased the land through a public/private partnership. It is now preserved as open space forever.
Six miles of farm roads provide walking trails throughout the preserve and according to D&R Greenway, there are four types of plant communities on the preserve — agricultural fields, shrub and scrub, hedgerows and forest.
Each holds memories for Allen and her escapades as a young child. Now an adult, she often finds herself walking and hiking on the land, marveling in its beauty.
As Allen said, “childhood trauma does not go away.” But, she has chosen to plant herself in happiness and hope — and in the land she called home as a little girl.
Allen is a member of Willing Hands, the D&R Greenway volunteer program, helping to steward others to find similar healing through nature.
“I love nature and its magical qualities that heal my heart and soul,” Allen said. “I healed myself being outside at St. Michael’s. I was drawn to this land. I feel that being outside was the only thing that ever saved me. This was a place where I could go and I could find peace and get in touch with my emotions and things that have happened to me. It’s a very meaningful place for me. I survived cancer last year and decided I’m going to live out my dreams. Working with them — that is part of living out my dream. I will do whatever they need of me.”
And they needed her to speak. Mead said the standing room only program was “beyond anything we could have imagined.” A second former St. Michael’s orphan, Robert Brewer, also chose to speak that night.
“I wish that other people who were at the orphanage would come to the preserve and find healing and peace there,” Allen said. “I’ve tried to inspire them to come, but I can’t make them. Many don’t see how I can find any joy anywhere near that land. But, some have told of great memories. Others have not come around — they have not made peace with the past. You just have to find a way.”
Our Mission: To Preserve & Care for Land and Inspire a Conservation Ethic, Now and Forever