Margaret Gaffney: The Bread Woman of New Orleans
The Angel of the Delta, The Bread Lady of New Orleans, The Celebrated Margaret, Margaret of Tully, Margaret of New Orleans, Mother Margaret-these are all titles for a remarkable woman, who was considered by countless thousands of all creeds to have been a living saint. A woman of unsurpassed charity, she was a champion of the underprivileged and the destitute. She had been a washerwoman and a peddler, yet when she died she received a state funeral.
Margaret Gaffney was born in 1813, the fifth child of William and Margaret Gaffney. Her siblings, starting with th eldest, were Annie (probable), Mary (Mamie), Thomas, Kevin (probable) and Kathleen, who was reputedly named after her father's grandmother. William and Margaret were from Tully South, in the parish of Carrigallen. William was a small farmer and possibly a tailor; however, Nellie Smith, Clooncorick, Carrigallen (originally O'Rourke from Tully), stated in 1937, that the Gaffneys owned a shop, but there is no other evidence to corroborate this. His wife's maiden name was O'Rourke and she was a direct descendant of the O'Rourkes of Breiffne.
There has been some confusion as to whether the Gaffneys lived in Tully, Carrigallen, or Tully, Killeshandra. The parochial records in Carrigallen have some entries relating to both the Gaffney and the O'Rourke families. One entry, dated October 3rd 1843, refers to the baptism of Mary Gaffney, whose father was Thomas, Margaret's older brother. Further evidence comes from the Anglo-Celt, dated September 17th 1937, where Peter Carney, Augharan, then living in Tully, Carrigallen, replying to a feature on Margaret in the same paper on August 28th stated that he was her nearest living relative in Ireland. He also adds: Margaret Gaffney was born in the townland of Tully in the parish of Carrigallen. In the early 19th century, Killeshandra was an important market and posting centre. Margaret would have remembered Killeshandra and its associations. This fact, recalled in later years in conversation with her friends, could have given rise to the impression that she was born in Co Cavan.
The year 1818 was one of high emigration due to a succession of wet summers followed by extreme winters. A meteorological report, appended to the 1851 census, states that in 1816: The quantity of rain which fell in this year... nearly 31 inches...142 wet days...principally in summer and autumn months...Rain so severe that scarcely any corn was left standing; great thunder storms; eight weeks of rain in succession; corn remained uncut...The year 1816 was traditionally recalled as 'the year without a summer'...In 1817, conditions were equally unfavourable-it became known as 'the year of the malty flour'. Corn reaped in November in the snow...with fever adding to the general distress.
William, his wife Margaret, and three of their six children-Margaret (then five), her older brother Kevin, and her baby sister Kathleen, were among those who emigrated to the States. The three eldest children were to remain temporarily with their uncle, Matthew O'Rourke (Tully), until such time as they could be sent for. The final parting was so distressing that friends had to draw the children staying in Ireland aside. It is reported that before they left they knelt to receive the curate's blessing.
All sources would suggest that it took almost six months to reach America because of severe storms that drastically affected the ship's progress. In fact the passengers despaired of ever reaching dry land again. As month rolled into month provisions became so scarce that one passenger recalled that each person was allowed just one cracker a day.Almost all luggage was destroyed including the Gaffney's trunk, whose lid William then used to rock his children.Eventually they reached Chesapeake Bay and then New Brunswick, where they took on food and finally Baltimore. They were there only a short time when the baby died.
Like all small tenant farmers of his era, William Gaffney was ill-equipped for city life so his job opportunities were limited. Nevertheless he succeeded in securing employment as a carter in the Baltimore docks and was soon in a position to send money to his brother-in-law, Matthew O'Rourke, for the upkeep of his three children. In fact he had almost saved enough to send for them. Then disaster struck. In 1822 a yellow fever epidemic ravaged Baltimore, claiming among its victims both William and Margaret Gaffney, who died within days of each other. They are buried in St Patrick's cemetery in Baltimore and their death is recorded in the church archives. Their household effects were burned, as was the custom, to prevent spread of the infection, with the exception of a prayer-book, which was found 27 years later and returned to the family. Margaret, now nine, was homeless and soon alone as her brother disappeared and was never heard from again. It's thought he may have gone out west.
During the long six-month voyage, a Welsh lady, Mrs Richards, became aquainted with the Gaffneys. She lost her husband to yellow fever and, hearing of Margaret's plight, took her in. There she remained for some years, where she worked for her keep. In fact she may have been little more than a servant. She received no formal education. There is very little on record of her time with Mrs Richards and Margaret seldom spoke of it. When old enough, Margaret went into domestic service. which was the norm for Irishwomen in Baltimore at that time. She worked as a hungstress. On October 10th 1835, Margaret married Charles Haughery. The Rev A. Elder officiated at the ceremony in Baltimore Cathedral and these facts are recorded there.
Charles had been in very poor health and Margaret persuaded him that a change in climate might be therapeutic. They left Baltimore on the ship Hyperion and reached New Orleans on November 20th. For a time Charles's health showed a slight improvement but it was short-lived and medical advice recommended a sea journey. He decided to go to Ireland, which, sources claim, was his native land. This trip was delayed by several months pending the birth of their first child, a girl. They named her Frances. Eventually, Charles made the voyage, but after some months Margaret received word that he died shortly after reaching his destination. This was a cruel blow but worse was to follow, for within months Frances became seriously ill and died. This was the second time that Margaret's family was wiped out, yet she was still only 23. As she herself said: 'My God! Thou hast broken every tie: Thou hast stripped me of all-Again I am all alone'
At that time in New Orleans, the Sisters of Charity, under the guidance of Sr Frances Regis, managed the Poydras Orphan Asylum. Margaret was deeply moved by the plight of the orphan children as recounted to her by Sr Regis and she offered her assistance. At this time Margaret was working in the laundry of the St Charles Hotel, a position she left in order to help with the orphans. Her first job was the collection of food from any available source. The Sisters of Charity withdrew from Poydras Street at the end of 1836 and moved to a new location in New Levee Street, to what was considered a haunted house. It was vacant for many years and in a very poor state of repair. According to records, this was the first Catholic orphan asylum in New Orleans. It was Margaret's intention just to help the sisters get established. However it was here that she found her true calling. She showed great energy and business acumen and was made manager of the institution. She confounded everybody by proving this location habitable, none more so than the landlord who promptly put the building up for sale. So, within two years, they were again seeking a home.
Margaret knew of a house on a deserted plantation not far away and managed to persuade the owner to give it rent free (along with his best wishes). She had now succeeded in fulfilling her ambition to get the children out of the city and into the countryside. Not only were they taught to read and write, but also to sew; and they were given general preparation for entering the outside world. To provide milk for the orphans, Margaret purchased a few cows. The surplus was sold and, finding this quite profitable, she increased her stock and began selling cream and butter. Within two years there were40 cows and huge profits were being made. Margaret's popularity became widespread. She was known amongst all classes as a businesswoman but also from selling her produce through the community from her hand-cart. It was Margaret's great ambition to provide a permanent home for the orphans and in 1840 work on the St Theresa's Asylum on Camp Street commenced. The site was donated by Mr F. Saulet. The project was funded largely by herself, but with help from a few others who gave donations as a result of her persuasion. Nevertheless it took 10 years to clear the debt and Margaret still supported the orphan asylum at the plantation at this time.
Around the mid-1800's, yellow fever was again rampant. The epidemic of 1853 rendered thousands of children homeless. Margaret visited the homes of the sick-Protestants, Catholics and Jews, Negroes and Whites alike. Such were the numbers of orphans she encountered that she embarked on a new project in the form of (as she called it) a baby house. All her profits were channelled into this new endeavour, which soon took form in the shape of the imposing St Vincent de Paul Infant Asylum at Race and Magazine, which opened in 1862. It took 16 years to clear the debt, a burden shouldered mainly by herself.
As a result of money loaned by her to a baker, Margaret discovered she had become the main shareholder in the business. The business became bankrupt, and Margaret realised that the only way she could recover her money was to take control of the bakery and operate it. The bakery, then known simply as Margaret's Bakery, became an overnight success, and it is from this that she made the greater part of her fortune. As well as providing for the home market, her produce was exported. All the asylums in New Orleans were supplied with bread from it and at such a low price as to be virtually free. Improvements to the bakery were always a priority-in fact it became the first steam bakery in the south and it was said to be "a marvel", providing employment for many. It was situated in New Levée Street, and was so successful that even the destruction so widespread in the South as a result of the civil war had no effect on it.
The winoes and beggars of the city used to converge on Levée Street, knowing they wouldn't be turned away byMargaret. She would always give them a loaf of bread-but would cut it in half so that they could not sell it to buy alcohol. The civil war had a profound effect on New Orleans and greatly increased the number of orphans and people in need. In 1862 Margaret negotiated with General Butler of the Union Army, then occupying New Orleans, for permission to cross the lines with aid and to get flour to her bakery. This she succeeded in doing. Her bakery flourished, as did her charitable work. Other homes opened in the 50's and 60's included the Louise Home for working girls at 1404 Clio Street and the St Elizabeth House of Industry at 1314 Napoleon Street.
It is estimated that the amount Margaret gave to charity in one form or another was in the region of $600,000. Despite the vast sums at her disposal, she spent little on herself, and was reputed never to own more than two dresses-a plain one for everyday use, while on special occasions she wore a plain silk dress and mantle. At all times she wore a Quaker bonnet, which became something of a trademark. At the age of 69 Margaret contracted an incurable disease, the exact nature of which is not recorded. She lingered many months under the care of her friends, the Sisters of Charity. People of all classes and denominations visited her in this her last illness. Pope Pius IX sent his blessing and a crucifix, which was presented to her by Fr D Hubert SJ. She died on Tuesday, February 9th 1882. Her body was taken to St Vincent's Asylum, where it was embalmed and laid out in state. The New Orleans newspapers were edged in black to mark her passing.
The funeral took place on the following Saturday morning. At 9.30am, the cortege assembled at the asylum. Among those present were 13 priests and pall bearers, including the governor, the former governor, the mayor and some of the city's wealthiest men. Orphans from all the city's asylums were present, along with the Mississippi fire brigade (of which she was an honorary member) and nuns of numerous orders, as well as close friends and admirers. The streets, sidewalks, balconies and windows were thronged with mourners. These included three generals, clergymen of all denominations and city representatives. The cortege passed the New Orleans stock-exchange at noon: members suspended proceedings, left the room and came down to the sidewalk. St Patrick's Church was so thronged that the pall-bearers had great difficulty getting the remains through the centre aisle. Requiem Mass was celebrated by Most Rev Monsignor Allen with Archbishop Perché reading the prayers after Mass. Her friend Fr Hubert gave the sermon. She was buried in St Louis Cemetery beside her great friend Sr Regis. Margaret's will was filed for probate on the following Monday. She left all her wealth to charities with the exception of the bakery, which she bequeathed to her foster son, Bernard Klotz. Margaret signed her will with an 'X', a poignant reminder of her humble beginnings.
Almost immediately a committee was appointed to oversee the erection of a statue in Margaret's honour. A site was purchased between Camp Prytania and Clio Streets. Alexander Doyle, a young sculptor, was commissioned. The statue was fashioned from old photographs, first in clay. This was sent to Italy where it was reproduced in Carrara marble. The statue was returned to New York from Italy after a time, but the commissioners of the monumentd eclined to accept it, owing to imperfections in the marble. The sculptor at once procured another block and assured the commission that a perfect statue, according to model, would be shipped so as to reach New Orleans by May 1884.
The monument was formally unveiled on Wednesday July 10th 1884, fittingly enough by children from every orphanage in the city. Ex-Governor Francis T Nicholls delivered a speech. Also present were the lady commissioners, the executive committee, Mayor J V Guillotte, members of the city council and many others. It cost $6,000 which was donated in nickels and dimes-'No large sums would be accepted'. The statue bears one word only: MARGARET. It was the first monument to be erected in the US in honour of a woman. As one leading New Orleans newspaper editorial put it: 'She was the most deservedly eminent, the most justly famous, of all the women of New Orleans, of our generation or of any other, in the whole history of the city'.
Three of Margaret's brothers and sisters remained with their uncle, Matthew O'Rourke, in Tully, Carrigallen: Mary, Thomas and (probably) Annie. Two men named Matthew O'Rourke died in Tully, in 1856 and 1859 (Carrigallen parish records) - they were cousins and one or other is the aforementioned uncle. Margaret's older brother, Thomas, was married about 1840 to Catherine Healy of Ardlougher. In accordance with the local custom, the ceremony took place in the bride's home. An entry in the parish records, dated October 3rd 1843, refers to the baptism of their daughter Mary. The first two-storey house in Tully was built by him and was for a time his residence.
During the 1840's, Thomas and his family emigrated to America and settled in Baltimore. On arrival, Thomas enquired of the whereabouts of Margaret. Through the Sisters of Charity, he learned that she was in New Orleans. He began corresponding with her, and copies of letters exist. In one dated January 7th 1852 Margaret writes. I enclose a cheque for a sum of money. I will share it with you and yours as a New Year's present. I wish you, my dear brother, a very happy New Year, your wife and dear children the same.
Another letter dated April 13th 1852 states:
My Dear Brother,
I received your kind letter, or rather that of my dear sister Mary, and a few words which you kindly wrote at the end of hers. I was truly pleased with the manner in which she expressed herself-so much Christian resignation from the beginning to the close of her letter...I will write to her as soon as you give me her direction.
Peter Carney in his letter (Anglo-Celt) states that Margaret also had another sister, Mary, who lived and died in Tully and is well remembered by the writer. Local tradition has it that Mary's only source of income was from the sale of apples at the local Arva fair. To this day there is a field known as the Orchard Field. It is adjacent to where she is known to have lived. Mary is buried in Errew graveyard. In the winter of 1857 Thomas visited his sister in New Orleans-it was the only time they met. He died in 1877. Edward F Murphy in Angel of the Delta quotes Archbishop Perché in his eulogy to Margaret: 'I have already been asked whether Margaret Haughery, who lived and laboured so long and well amongst us, was a saint. It is not for me to make a pronouncement. But, if you put this same question to yourselves, dear brethren, you may find an answer similar to that which a little boy once made when a sister in our Sunday school enquired that somebody define a Saint. 'I think' said the child, remembering the human figures in stained glass windows that a saint is one who lets the light shine through'.
Last Updated: March 27, 2012