Sister Justina Bieganek was petite and slender, but her reach was wide.
A better description puts her in action: a spunky Franciscan nun darting around the campus of St. Francis Convent in Little Falls, Minn., without her walker -- and often with a nun chasing her down to try and get her to use it.
On July 20, the woman known as the "cool, hip nun" died at the age of 100 at the convent, her home of 82 years.
Early in her life, she was one of the 250,000 children who came to the Midwest on the "orphan trains" that ran from 1854 to 1929.
Often a skimmed-over element in history, the orphan train defined Sister Justina's life.
"She had every reason to be bitter and she wasn't," said Deanna Boone, director of community relations at the convent.
"She lived 100 years and seven months and she used all that time to be gracious and loving."
Love was a rarity for orphans arriving on the trains from the East Coast. Some were auctioned off like animals or worked as servants until they were 18. But for Sister Justina, coming to Minnesota as a 2-year-old was a blessing.
Arriving in Avon, Minn., as "Edith Peterson," she soon became Edith Bieganek and was accepted into John and Mary Bieganek's family. When Mary died of cancer, their son, Joseph, and his wife, Rose, took Edith into their home.
At 18, Edith Bieganek came to the St. Francis Convent and joined the order a few years later. She considered the convent her home, but she counted as family the other orphan train passengers she bonded with at annual reunions.
"She knew when she met another orphan that she had met someone from her family -- family used in a larger context than blood," Boone said.
Sister Justina made it her goal to reach out to as many riders, family members and strangers connected to the orphan trains as possible. She acted as a living history exhibit, sharing her experience with school groups, at historical events and producing a DVD on the history of the orphan trains, said Kate Ingalls-Maloney, a family friend and former program director for Adoptees Have Answers.
Each year she organized a reunion for orphan train passengers and their families at the St. Francis Center.
"That educator voice was powerful in her," Ingalls-Maloney said. "She didn't beat around the bush. She wanted the story to be the real story."
About six of the original orphan train riders are still living in Minnesota and many of them are more than 95 years old, said Ingalls-Maloney.
Sister Christelle Watercott was 4 years old when she met Sister Justina at her family's parish. In 2004 she started helping her organize the orphan train reunions and got to see, first-hand, the nun's passion for her work.
"It was her life," she said. "Maybe none of us can understand what it is to be an orphan unless we are one."
She'll always think of Sister Justina as a "legend" of the orphan train.
Robyn Gray, director at the St. Francis music center, was with Sister Justina in her final moments and said she lifted her hands toward heaven before taking her last breath. One of Sister Justina's greatest mysteries was who her parents were, and Gray said she's thankful that her friend is now with her family.
Her funeral mass will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday at St. Francis Convent in Little Falls.
Asha Anchan • 612-673-4154
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