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Helena ceremony held to make sure Shodair orphans are not forgotten

Pep Jewell
Shodair Orphan Memorial Bench
Shodair Orphan Ceremony
Louise Ogemahgeshig Fischer
Wally Jewell
Shodair Orphan Ceremony
Shodair Orphan Memorial Bench
Shodair Orphan Memorial
Posted at 6:46 PM, May 27, 2024

HELENA — On Monday morning, a ceremony was held at Forestvale Cemetery in the Helena Valley, to make sure dozens of children will not be forgotten.

It marked the installation of a memorial bench for the “Shodair orphans” – more than 100 children who died over almost an 80-year period after being left in the care of what would eventually become Shodair Children’s Hospital. Many of those children were buried at Forestvale, in a section near the back and with little or no marking on their graves. An older monument to the children already stood there, but not all of the names were included. The missing names now appear on the back of the bench.

Shodair Orphan Memorial Bench
A new memorial bench at Forestvale Cemetery includes the names of 52 "Shodair orphans" who hadn't been listed on an older monument.

“I thank you very much, all of you, for taking the time out today to be here on this special day,” said Louise Ogemahgeshig Fischer, who performed a traditional tribal blessing during the ceremony. “It shows how much love our community has for these Shodair children.”

After the names of 52 children who hadn’t been included before were read out, those in attendance placed small bundles of tobacco – a symbolic tribal offering – on the bench.

Louise Ogemahgeshig Fischer
Louise Ogemahgeshig Fischer delivered a traditional blessing at a ceremony honoring the “Shodair orphans,” May 27, 2024.

Shodair began in 1896 as the Montana Children’s Home, and it initially served orphaned and abandoned children. Pep Jewell, who works in medical records for Shodair, said many of the children were brought there after the death of a parent, which meant they weren’t able to get the care they needed.

“They had trouble feeding them – which is hard for us to believe because we have programs now – but at that time, many, many of them ended up with organ failure because they were not getting food,” she said. “And when they would come to us, they'd be very young usually, and they’d die within two weeks to two months.”

Pep Jewell
Pep Jewell speaks at a ceremony honoring the “Shodair orphans” – more than 100 children who died over almost an 80-year period after being left in the care of what would eventually become Shodair Children’s Hospital. Jewell played a major role in putting together a new memorial bench in remembrance of these children.

Alana Listoe, Shodair’s chief communications officer, said she found out about the orphans’ cemetery about nine years ago. After that, she began visiting every year on Memorial Day, along with her father, Dwight Pierson, as well as Pep Jewell and her husband Wally. They placed flowers in remembrance of the children.

Shodair Orphan Memorial Bench
A new memorial bench at Forestvale Cemetery honors the “Shodair orphans” – more than 100 children who died over almost an 80-year-period after being left in the care of what would eventually become Shodair Children’s Hospital.

Last year, Pierson died just before Memorial Day. After that, Jewell told her husband she wanted to place a bench to honor the children whose names hadn’t been included before, and to memorialize Pierson as well. She then spent time going through birth certificates, death certificates and other records to find out as much as she could about the children.

“It’s pretty tearful,” said Jewell. “My husband is more apt to cry than I am. But I'm also very grateful to look at the people that came and recognized it – one of the things that Shodair did in keeping its mission to take care of children.”

Shodair Orphan Ceremony
A ceremony at Forestvale Cemetery May 27, 2024, honored the “Shodair orphans” – more than 100 children who died over almost an 80-year-period after being left in the care of what would eventually become Shodair Children’s Hospital.

In the end, Jewell said she was able to find some information about nearly all of the children. Only one remains – marked just as “Baby David” – that she is still looking for.

The earliest name on the list dates to 1901, and the latest to 1977. Jewell said it’s not clear why the original monument only had names up to 1941.