The Irish in New Orleans – Margaret Haughery
Margaret Haughery: “The Bread Women of New Orleans”
By Kevin Brown
Turning Tragedy into Triumph
At the intersection of Prytania and Camp Streets, near Clio, stands Margaret Place. In the midst of the Park is a statue simply labeled: “Margaret.” Erected in July of 1884, it honors Margaret Haughery, known as the “Bread Women of New Orleans.” Only the second statue erected in the United States honoring a woman, it was crafted by artist Alexander Doyle who also did the statues of Robert E. Lee at Lee Circle and P.G.T. Beauregard at the entrance to City Park.
Margaret was born in 1813, in Tully, Carrigallen County Leitrim to William and Margaret O’Rourke Gaffney. They left Ireland in 1818, landing in Baltimore. The six month ship journey was besieged by storms and those aboard were limited to one cracker per day as rations diminished. Shortly after landing, Margaret’s younger sister died.
Four years after their arrival in the New World, Margaret’s parents died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1822. Young Margaret, now nine, was an orphan and was taken in by a Welsh woman who met her family on the ship journey to the United States. She became a domestic, washing clothes for the wealthy. Margaret never learned to read or write.
At age 21 she met and married Irishman Charles Haughery. Charles, in failing health, moved with Margaret to New Orleans in pursuit of a warmer climate. As his health continued to fail, he traveled to Ireland, promising to send for Margaret and their newborn daughter, Frances at a later date. He died soon after. Then Frances died, and Margaret was alone again.
Margaret went to work in the St. Charles Hotel as a washerwoman. While there she had an epiphany: she would spend the rest of her life dedicated to the cause of the orphans of New Orleans. She made contact with the Sisters of Charity and began to divide her days between work and the Poydras Orphan Asylum serving alongside the Sisters of Charity. She proved so effective as a fundraiser that the Sisters hired her full-time. Ultimately she became an administrator of several orphanages.
Meanwhile, Margaret purchased two cows and began selling milk from a cart. Within two years she had purchased a herd of 40 cows and was running a highly profitable business. She took over a bakery that was in financial trouble and it also became a huge success. Upon converting the bakery to steam power she created the first steam-powered bakery in the south, which led to her moniker “The Bread Woman of New Orleans.”
As her businesses flourished, Margaret’s philanthropy increased. She fed orphans and those down on their luck. She opened new orphanages and contributed to others. Her wisdom and counsel were sought by many throughout the city regardless of race, class or gender. At her life’s end she donated approximately $600,000 to charity, a formidable sum at that time. Despite her prosperity, it was said that she never owned more than two dresses, one for daily wear and the other for church.
Some of the charities she either founded or supported include:
- St. Teresa of Avila Church and Orphan Asylum
- Protestant Episcopal Home
- 7th Street Protestant Orphan Asylum
- German Protestant Orphan Asylum
- German Orphan Asylum
- Widows and Orphans of Jews Asylum
- Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent DePaul