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Siblings reunited after 75 years

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Together again: Henry DeSilva and his little sister Maraget Ann Stanley were reunited through AncestryDNA this month

Henry DeSilva’s story is bittersweet. For decades he searched for his little sister Margaret Ann, who went into Bermuda’s foster care programme when she was 3 and disappeared with an American family soon after.

Ancestry DNA helped connect the pair this month, however the reunion may have been lost on Mr DeSilva who, at 80, has dementia.

“My dad had longed to have this happen for years,” said Andrea Felder. “He tried to get information and was always rejected because it was a closed adoption, but he and his brothers and their mother always wondered where she was — if she was alive, if she was OK.”

The children were most likely in the house alone when social workers picked them up and took them to Government’s Ridgeway Home 75 years ago.

Their mother, Silvia DeSilva, was “in and out of St Brendan’s”; her husband, Leonard DeSilva, was living with another woman.

“I believe it may have been the reason why they were taken away from her,” said Mrs Felder, who moved to the US three years after she graduated from the Berkeley Institute in 1974. “Just because someone had a mental health problem didn’t mean they didn’t love their children.

“Back then, there was no real help for people except shock treatment and things that didn’t really work, and people with mental illness lost their children.”

Mrs DeSilva was told she would get her daughter back once she left the psychiatric hospital. Margaret Ann was adopted before that could happen.

The family does not know whether Leonard DeSilva “signed the papers or if the Bermuda Government just took her”.

“My father was 5, his sister was 3 — that was basically the last time they saw each other,” Mrs Felder said. “They told him she was adopted to a military family.

“He didn’t know if they were British or American. All he knew was what he thought was the last name, Giuseppe.”

With no leads to follow, Mr DeSilva and his siblings stopped looking.

In 1987 he left the island for Florida; he moved to Virginia to be near his daughter in 2002.

A stroke in 2001 inspired what became another unsuccessful search. In 2015 after a second stroke, Mrs Felder’s husband Lloyd “Richey” Felder encouraged her to get her DNA tested and start looking for relatives.

“My husband said, ‘Let’s just go on AncestryDNA and maybe something will come up.’”

She wrote to a man highlighted as a potential first cousin to see if he had any Bermuda connections.

Her message sat untouched for 18 months.

“On May 20 of this year something just told him to go and look and see what was going on and he saw the message from me,” Mrs Felder said.

Scott Nelms wrote that his Bermudian mother was named Margaret Ann.

Her search for relatives had unearthed a surname: DeSilva.

He had hunted down a Bermuda telephone book but was “too overwhelmed” by the number of listings under that name to start dialling.

“He sent a message back, the gentleman from Chicago, and said, ‘Oh my God, I think my mother is your dad’s sister!’,” Mrs Felder said. “Within five minutes he called and we were on the phone for several hours exchanging information.”

Still, Mrs Felder was sceptical. “I didn’t recognise the name Nelms, it’s not a Bermuda name,” she said. “We decided we weren’t connected, but I said, ‘If you really want to confirm, get your mom tested’.”

Margaret Ann Stanley felt it was an unnecessary step.

She hadn’t been back to Bermuda since she left under the surname Sasso in March of 1947.

She had four children with her first husband in Chicago. Sixteen years ago she moved to West Virginia with her second husband, who died in 2015.

“She thought she was an orphan, that she had no blood relatives except for her children,” Mrs Felder said. “She felt nobody cared about her.

“She said there was no way that we could know all this information if that wasn’t her brother.

“Once she knew he was in a nursing home and had dementia, she wanted to come right away and make a connection because time is not promised.”

The 78-year-old spent June 10 to 17 in Virginia, renewing her ties with her brother and meeting his family.

“We’d chatted on the phone and did some text messaging — I felt like I knew her already,” Mrs Felder said. “The connection was already there when we met in person and when she saw the photos of her siblings she said, ‘I just knew in my heart this was it’.”

The obvious family resemblance helped. Mrs Stanley looks “a lot like” her late mother and sister, but whether it was enough to penetrate her father’s fog, Mrs Felder doesn’t know.

“I don’t think he has the capacity to fully comprehend the magnitude of [finding his sister],” she said. “Everything I know is going on memory, things he told me before he had his last stroke.

“My father never really understood [what happened]. All he knew is that she was taken away.

“He spent a lot of time with her when she was here. Some days he would remember her and the circumstances, other times she’d ask him who she was and he’d say he didn’t know.

“The last time I left the nursing home he said he wished he could dig up his brothers and mother so they could see her too. So, there is some connection.”

The goal now is to get Mrs Stanley and her four children to Bermuda.

“That’s what we’re trying to do,” said Mrs Felder, who visits the island frequently to spend time with family here. “We’re planning for that next year. I summoned the help of a distant cousin who was able to pull up the Portuguese Registry.

“We have a copy of that, but we don’t know if that’s considered an official record or not. Her greatest desire is to have something written that tells her who her biological mother is.

“We’re trying to find out the right angle to go so that can happen.

“My aunt’s father is unknown as his name was not listed on her birth registry. Perhaps Ancestry DNA will reveal this in time.

“She’s an American citizen now, which she had to do at 21 in order to stay there and get married, but to me, she’s Bermudian.”

Goodbye Bermuda: Margaret Ann DeSilva's 1946 passport as "Margaret Ann Sasso", shortly before she left the Ridgeway Home for a new life in the United States(Photograph supplied)
Filling in the gaps: Andrea and Lloyd “Richey” Felder (Photograph supplied)
Seventy-five year wait:Henry DeSilva and Margaret Ann Stanley were reunited in Virginia — the pair were 5 and 3 when they were last together (Photographs supplied)