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She was Minnesota’s last survivor of orphan trains: Abused and never adopted, she lived 101 years to tell her story

SLEEPY EYE -- It was June 29, 1917, when orphan A-20913 arrived at the Milwaukee Road Depot train station in downtown Minneapolis. A 2-year-old girl was met by a couple who signed a receipt, promising to raise Sophia Kaminsky as a Roman Catholic,...

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Sophia Kral turned 100 on April 22, 2015. Courtesy of Renee Wendinger

SLEEPY EYE - It was June 29, 1917, when orphan A-20913 arrived at the Milwaukee Road Depot train station in downtown Minneapolis.

A 2-year-old girl was met by a couple who signed a receipt, promising to raise Sophia Kaminsky as a Roman Catholic, send her to school and “give her all the advantages that we would give to a child of our own.”
Sophia Kaminsky Hillesheim-Kral, the last surviving orphan train rider in Minnesota, died Sunday at the Divine Providence Community Home in Sleepy Eye. She was 101.

The orphan trains, which operated from 1854 to 1929, carried 250,000 children, abandoned in slums and orphanages in New York and other East Coast cities. Many children, like Hillesheim-Kral, went to live with families that placed orders specifying age, gender and hair and eye color, said Renee Wendinger, Sophia Hillesheim-Kral’s daughter who wrote two books based on her mother’s experiences. “Extra! Extra! The Orphan Trains and Newsboys of New York” was published in 2010, and “Last Train Home: An Orphan Train Story” came out in 2014.
Hillesheim-Kral’s first foster mother died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, and then the 3½-year-old was placed in a German orphanage in St. Paul. While she awaited transport back to the Foundling Hospital in New York, a priest from Springfield visited the orphanage. He suggested that Sophia live with a German widow in his parish who needed help.
“It was hard,” Hillesheim-Kral told the Pioneer Press in a 2015 interview. “I should never have ended up there. My growing-up years were terrible. Just plain terrible.”
The woman, who spoke only German, whipped her, dressed her in flour-sack clothing and refused to give her a toothbrush, Hillesheim-Kral said.
“Any little thing that I didn’t do right, that I didn’t do the way she wanted, she’d beat me up,” Hillesheim-Kral said. “I got beat up so much, it was terrible. … That I will never forget.”
But other families in town showed Hillesheim-Kral great kindness; one arranged for her to get a job in St. Paul as a maid and cook when she turned 18.
Her new employers, Walter and Mary Villaume, owned and operated the Minnesota Macaroni Manufacturing Co. in St. Paul and had two young sons. The couple later had two daughters.
Walter and Mary Villaumes’ only surviving child, Sister Mary Denise Villaume, arranged to meet Hillesheim-Krall last fall.
“She was very kind,” said Villaume, who is the Superior of Visitation Monastery in Mendota Heights. “I’m just so happy I had an opportunity to meet her. … She was excited to hear about what happened to my brothers.”
Three months after moving to St. Paul, Kaminsky returned to Springfield at her foster mother’s request. She married Charles Hillesheim in 1936.
The couple lived in Springfield for 10 years and then moved to Sleepy Eye, where Hillesheim owned the Sleepy Eye Poultry Clinic. Hillesheim died of a heart attack in 1966 at age 52. In 1985, Sophia married widower Ray Kral Sr.; he died in 2007.
Hillesheim-Kral lived on her own until December 2014, when she came down with the flu and had to move into the Divine Providence home.
“She often said, ‘Deepest gratitude fills my heart when I think of God’s great goodness to me, and the countless persons whose lives have touched mine and helped me to grow,’” Wendinger said. “Her legacy of kindness and her humble loving spirit are a gift to many.”
Although she had an abusive childhood, Hillesheim-Kral said her adult years were blessed.
“I think the Lord was making up for my childhood,” she told the Pioneer Press in 2015. “I try to make the best out of things. I have always tried to do what I thought was right.”
In addition to Wendinger, Hillesheim-Kral is survived by daughters Patricia Brandel of Atwater; Charlene Peichel of Dell Rapids, S.D., and Johnora “Jonni” DeGregoris of Gilbert, Ariz.; a son, Stephen Hillesheim of Sleepy Eye; 13 grandchildren; 32 great-grandchildren, and 16 great-great-grandchildren.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be at 11 a.m. today at the Church of St. Mary in Sleepy Eye.

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