Nfld. & Labrador

'Are you sitting down?' Elderly brothers meet after decades-old secret revealed

Pat Hickey and Fred Anderson were both in their 80s when a DNA test and some diligent detective work revealed a family connection no one was expecting.

DNA test, detective work bring 2 families together in Newfoundland and Labrador

Pat Hickey, left, and Fred Anderson may not look alike, but according to their families, they share many of the same characteristics. (Submitted by Bonnie Hickey)

Patrick Hickey was almost 10 years old when he went to live at Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John's — and what he remembers most about his four-year stay at the now-infamous home for boys is the food.

"The pea soup was kind of watery. It took me a long time to drink pea soup after I got married ... I never eat bologna first nor last," said the 83-year-old, who lives in Gander with his wife of 60 years, Dora.

"He still won't eat it," she chuckled sitting around the kitchen table of their son Dave Hickey and daughter-in-law Bonnie Hickey's home in Topsail.

Pat wasn't an orphan. His mother, Katherine Hickey, who went by the nickname Kitty, was a young, unmarried woman in 1935 when she chose to keep her baby and raise him herself.

Pat Hickey with his mom Kitty in Flatrock in the early 1940s. (Submitted by Bonnie Hickey)

Kitty and baby Pat lived with her elderly parents in Flatrock, a small fishing community about 12 kilometres from St. John's. Pat's father was never in the picture, and Kitty never spoke about him.

"Not a thing, not one word. Back then, you didn't talk about stuff like that anyway," he said.

By 1940, her parents had died and Kitty found herself in a tough situation — on her own with a young child to support.

Pat and Dora Hickey. (Maggie Gillis/CBC)

Pat was sent to Mount Cashel in 1945 so he could get an education while his mother, who had a Grade 3 or 4 education, worked as a live-in domestic helper. 

"I can't remember any feelings I had at that time. Survival mode, I guess."

He went to school there and learned to swim, and Pat still had his mother looking out for him during his stay at the orphanage now remembered for a child abuse scandal and a coverup that involved the police, the government and the Roman Catholic Church.

Bonnie Hickey has always been interested in her family history, and has traced her Newfoundland roots to the 1600s. (Maggie Gillis/CBC)

Kitty visited Pat at Mount Cashel nearly every Sunday, taking along a home-cooked meal. At the end of the school year, he would spend the summer with Kitty's brothers and their families in Flatrock, driving there and back in a taxi driven by his mother's boyfriend, Harry Lawrence.

Though he never asked, and his mother never said so, in later years, Pat assumed Lawrence was his father.

'Are you sitting down?'

Bonnie Hickey fell in love with genealogy in the pre-internet 1980s, ordering documents from libraries and archives and writing to genealogy groups to grow her family tree. 

The lack of certainty around Pat's paternity always bothered her, so in the 1990s, Bonnie went on a mission to put the issue to rest. She and her in-laws drove out to Flatrock to meet with an old friend of Kitty's.

As Bonnie recalls it, the elderly woman confirmed with a nod that Harry Lawrence was indeed Pat's father. She told them at the time that Kitty just didn't want to get married.

The conversation removed any doubt for Bonnie, and for the next 20 years, her family tree included a branch labelled, "Lawrence."

By 2017, there was a tool opening up a world of information for genealogy enthusiasts like Bonnie, and she and Dave gave Pat an Ancestry DNA test kit for his 82nd birthday.

"It was a Sunday morning that the results came in, I remember it well," said Bonnie.

As expected, Pat's ethnicity estimate was Irish from Kitty's side of the family, followed by a complete surprise — Scandinavian.

"She phoned and said, 'Are you sitting down?' I got some startling news," said Pat.

There were no matches with anyone connected to Harry Lawrence's side of the family.

"I said, 'Harry Lawrence is not your father. It's not possible. I don't know who is, but I'm going to work on it,'" said Bonnie. 

Meeting the Andersons 

Pat did share DNA with three other Ancestry users, and they all had one thing in common: a couple who lived in Chicago around the turn of the 20th century, Carl and Alma Anderson.

Bonnie started searching census records for an Anderson living in St. John's in 1934, and quickly found a man named John. She just had to figure out if he had a brother named Carl.

John Anderson circa 1920. (Submitted by Bonnie Hickey)

Tracking John Anderson and his children led her to a family in Mount Pearl, and Bonnie did what she had often done in the past when looking for information about the past — she showed up and knocked on their door.

Fred Anderson answered, and his wife Florence invited Bonnie in.

"I would let anyone in. I'm terrible!" said Florence, who has been married to Fred for 70 years.

"I knew this was going to be special, just finding them living at that house, I knew they would be in their late 80s," said Bonnie, who was "high on adrenalin" when Florence invited her inside.

Florence and Fred Anderson with their daughter, Donna Holloway. (Maggie Gillis/CBC)

Bonnie soon discovered Fred was John Anderson's son, and John did indeed have a brother named Carl.

"'Oh yes, Uncle Carl in Chicago,' he said," said Bonnie.

In that moment, she was sure she had found Pat's half-brother living just 11 kilometres away from her own home in Topsail.

"I'm screaming 'yay' inside, but of course I didn't want to tell them. It seemed kind of big news to drop on an elderly couple."

Bonnie looked at some old pictures with the Andersons that afternoon, and left them thinking she was doing research for a family tree. She also left her phone number for their daughter.

Fred looking at some of his father's old documents. (Maggie Gillis/CBC)

A suspicious Donna Holloway called Bonnie the next morning.

"I just didn't know what to say," said Donna, of the moments after learning the shocking news that her father might have a brother no one in the family knew about.

Mixed feelings 

Donna told her mother Florence first, and initially they were both worried about what the Hickeys might want and what the news might do to their family.

"I was shocked, really shocked. And upset. And I cried," said Florence. "It just seemed like something like that couldn't happen, you know. I thought it was going to interfere with our family."

Dave Hickey changed the plate on his truck from the Irish flag to the Swedish flag after the DNA results came in. (Submitted by Bonnie Hickey)

But though Fred, the last remaining of his three siblings, was surprised, he took the news in stride.

"He said, 'Now I'm not alone.' Which to me was beautiful," said Donna. "Now I'm not alone."

Bonnie invited Donna over to talk, and her husband Dave Hickey — Pat and Dora's son — answered the door.

"When I saw him, I mean, all I could do was cry," said Donna. "It was unreal. I could see my dad's brother, Uncle Carl, in him right away. And I just kept looking at him."

Bonnie had the results confirmed by a private DNA lab in Ontario, and the first meeting between the two brothers happened at a gathering at the Andersons' house in Mount Pearl on June 30, 2017.

Pat was 82 years old and Fred was 89. 

Close encounters 

The brothers both remember skating on Mundy Pond in St. John's when they were kids.

They had come close to meeting in the 1970s, when Fred was installing stained glass windows in a church right next to Pat and Dora's house in Gander.

"He was there for a month. He even boarded with friends of ours," said Pat.

Bonnie Hickey sitting between Fred and Pat at their first meeting. (Submitted by Bonnie Hickey)

Johan Andersson — a Swedish sailor who "jumped ship" in Newfoundland and later went by John Anderson — would have fathered Pat while he was married to Fred's mother, but the Andersons don't believe he ever knew Kitty Hickey was pregnant.  

"Florence says that Mr. Anderson was a wonderful man, and she said if he had known that he had a son, he would have never gone into Mount Cashel," said Dora.

"He would have seen that he was well looked after. That's nice to know, isn't it?"

John Anderson's Certificate of Registration of Alien Seaman. It describes him as 23 years old with his 'height in boots' listed as 5 feet 11 inches. (Maggie Gillis/CBC)

The brothers are now quietly making up for decades of lost time. They phone each other regularly, and Pat and Dora stop by Mount Pearl for a visit every time they come to town.

They may not look alike, but according to their families, Pat and Fred share a lot of similarities. They're both men of few words and they don't show a lot of emotion.

"You have to draw the words out of them," said Donna. 

They're both funny, they often cross their arms the same way, and share an aptitude for mechanics.

"Their hands, and the way they move, and personalities are very much the same," said Dave.

The family gathers to celebrate Fred Anderson's 91st birthday. 1:02

At the same dining room table where Bonnie Hickey discovered the truth about Pat's father, the family gathered in February to celebrate Fred's 91st birthday.

"It's just like you've had them all your life, you know ... I think they feel the same way," said Dora.

They do.

"It's just a blessing that they're part of our family," said Donna. "I just think, you know, why couldn't they have found out even 20 years sooner?"

Expect the unexpected 

The question of Pat's paternity has finally been answered, but Bonnie still checks the Ancestry website most days.

She's hoping for a clue to help solve another mystery. Her own grandfather had a child she still hasn't been able to find.

"My mom and her siblings have a half-brother out there that no one knew about until I stumbled across it in the late '90s. It fuels a lot of my DNA stuff now, hoping to find a link."

Bonnie Hickey at the table where she solved the mystery of Pat's paternity. That's a photo of Pat and Fred's Swedish grandmother, Anna Marie Olsdotter, propped up on the old typewriter behind her. (Maggie Gillis/CBC)

Fred and Pat might even have another brother or sister out there that could be revealed as more and more people get their DNA tested.

"If John Anderson had one child out of wedlock, it's possible he had another," she said.

"You have to be open minded to find anything. You have to be willing to find out that the people who you think are your grandparents, one or both of them might not be. You have to be willing to find a sibling. It happens."

Both couples after meeting for the first time. (Submitted by Bonnie Hickey)

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About the Author

Maggie Gillis is a news editor/presenter with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador in St. John's.

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