Gabe La Rosa, a former St. Aemilian’s orphan, said he owes all his success in life to the nuns.
Gabe lived in the three-story building at 60th and Lloyd Streets, where the orphanage relocated after a fire in 1930, in the late 1940’s and early ‘50s. He was 5 years old when he entered and 15 when he left. He was under the care of Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi the entire time.
Gabe’s mother died when he was 3, and his dad cared for him and his brother for a while.
“But then he went through hard times, and he started drinking,” said Gabe, who is now 77. The children were placed in the county children’s home for a bit, then his dad passed the boys around to various family members and friends until one of them decided they just couldn’t care for the children any more and took them to St. Aemilian’s.
Gabe remembers the time there fondly: the priest, Father Paulus, and his three favorite nuns, Sisters Angelita, Lois and Donna. He lived dormitory style along with several other children in rooms that provided small cubby holes for his meager belongings. The orphanage’s caretaker became Gabe’s baptismal sponsor and taught him German.
Orphanage life included attending mass and on-site school daily and doing assigned chores, but it also included a lot of fun, Gabe said.
“We were always horsing around!”
Summer meant trips to Camp Villa Jerome, biking and playing baseball, basketball and football. The boys also got to go to the nearby camp occasionally in winter, where they skated and tobogganed.
Gabe was an altar boy and, “we used to sip the wine to check it out before father came, to be sure he got the right stuff!” he said with a laugh. At night, he and his buddies would slip down to the basement cafeteria and sneak food after the nuns were asleep.
The nuns took pictures of the boys lined up at Christmas time, Gabe remembers, to use in fundraising for the orphanage. The boys could go on home visits once a month, and if they didn’t have a place to go, they were put on a list from which interested families could choose.
“We hardly ever got taken home,” Gabe said about him and his brother, then quickly added that was OK with him, because he’d just stay at the orphanage and play.
He loved football and played on a St. Aemilian team starting in third grade.
“We got in a fight once because we didn’t know better. Pastor said, ‘You boys cannot get so rough!’ ”
He remembers doing homework after dinner, with classical music in the background.
“They always had good music,” Gabe said. “It was a lot of fun there, and I relish those times … People ask me how I became such a gentlemen and I tell them I learned from the nuns how to respect my fellow man.”
After leaving the orphanage, Gabe attended different high schools, where he always played football, and graduated from North Division. He always loved music and learned to play the accordion by ear. His uncle had a club, where he started playing accordion and later drums, and ended up playing five nights a week for 10 years. He became a professional musician and at one time played in a 17-piece band.
Gabe ended up in Redlands, Calif., where he and his wife do singing engagements for private parties. He also runs a thrift store that he said really is an outlet for charitable giving. He uses donations and much of the money he earns for those in need.
“I like to help people. I go back to my roots, being raised in an orphanage. I was raised poor and I remember what it was like for me.”
Gabe was back in Milwaukee recently, to “check up on the guys” he knew from years ago. But he couldn’t resist a stop at SaintA, because of his memories.
“Those nuns were real good to us.”