Delving deep into a fractured family-life caused by childhood trauma, David Wesley Sheppard opens up in Orphanage: Life Changes Forever, Lost Family Values
David Wesley Sheppard begins out conversation by admitting outright that he is no author. His debut published work, Orphanage: Life Changes Forever, Lost Family Values, was simply a story that needed to be told. A catharsis, not so much for the 75-year-old Lark Harbour native who now calls Corner Brook home, but to close the book on a chapter of his life that has threaded through days, months and years for so many separated from family and loved ones.
The easy thing to do
David, the eldest of four children at 10, alongside his younger brothers Jerry and Russell, both now deceased, and his sister Effie, were sent to The Church of England Orphanage in St. John’s in 1955, one year removed from the tragic death of his father, who was killed in a sewer line accident.
“I think it was the easy thing to do,” Sheppard said of his mother shipping her four children off to St. John’s. “My father died. He was the sole bread winner in those days. That’s the way it was … I think what she decided was she couldn’t support us … Back in those days the easy way out was to send kids to the orphanage. That’s what happened to us, we all went to the orphanage.”
Uprooted from his modest rural Newfoundland life, the change for the family was immense, both physically and emotionally. Whisked away to the bustling city, David now found himself as the family leader, tasked to care for his three younger siblings.
“I was certainly the commander in the orphanage,” he shared. “I had to take care of the other two (brothers), and I got more than one fat lip doing that, but we survived.”
And while much has been made about physical, emotional and even sexual abuse in similar institutions throughout the history of the province, David admits that, outside of the standard tough love at the time, life in the orphanage was relatively painless.
“I think people got preconceived ideas about orphanages, and they are really not all like that,” he says. “What goes on in an orphanage or a place like that depends fully on who was running it. If you’ve got good people running it then it’s going to be a decent place to live. If you haven’t then you know what happened in Mount Cashel.”
Life inside the walls
David immersed himself in sports and various activities with his friends in the orphanage. For five years, he built a life and identity inside the walls of The Church of England Orphanage. That was, until his mother removed the children in 1959.
Emotional wounds lingered and life back on the west coast paled in comparison to what was offered in the capital.
“My mother, any kind of bond we had with her, after the orphanage it was changed quite a bit,” he said. “We weren’t close anymore you know what I mean? It just wasn’t there. Whatever we had when we were kids was lost.
“It didn’t work. After awhile we were all at each other’s throats. There was no discipline in the family, the love wasn’t there anymore. The closeness wasn’t there and I think we sort of fell apart a little bit. I thought we got along pretty well just the same, but that family connection wasn’t there.”
Following high school, David would settle in Corner Brook, becoming a lab technician at the Bowater Paper Mill in 1963 before his retirement in 2001. He is married with one daughter and three stepdaughters. Life is good, and he has scarcely looked back at his time in the orphanage.
“(Writing the book) wasn’t therapeutic for me because I think when I left the orphanage I left the orphanage behind,” he explained. “My sister and my brothers, they probably had a bit more trouble with it than I did. My sister, I think she has finally closed the orphanage out now. I think for her it worked that way. For me it didn’t work that way. When I left the orphanage I was fine. When I look back I don’t regret it, I never lost any of my childhood. I think it was actually better.”
And while the orphanage life wasn’t the horror story we hear and see in the most tragic of cases, the Sheppards were splintered by the events of 1955.
“What we were missing was a mother and father,” David says in closing. “We were missing a family. Our family was the orphanage, but you want a family at home. That’s what was missing.”
David Wesley Sheppard’s Orphanage: Life Changes Forever, Lost Family Values is available for purchase on Amazon.