Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Margaret Haughery: The Bread Woman of New Orleans

Where Camp and Prytania Streets meet in New Orleans is a small park called"Margaret Place." On it is a statue of a middle aged woman seated in a chair with a small child nearby. The plaque on the statue has only one word: "Margaret."
When the statue was built, after the death of the woman in the chair, everyone in New Orleans knew who she was. I wonder how many people, sad to say, remember who she was today?

We often forget our history, and this is a tragedy. One of the reasons for this blog is to help us remember the important but often over-looked stories of Old New Orleans.

Margaret Haughery (pronounced as HAW -a- ree) is someone we should remember for all time. In her day she was called the "Bread Woman of New Orleans" because she gave freely to the poor and hungry from her own bakery. In addition to feeding the poor, she helped fund and build many orphanages throughout the city.

When she died in 1882 thousands, including prominent politicians, businessmen, and members of the clergy, attended her funeral. Her obituary was printed on the front page of the Picayune newspaper, the main paper in the city. The citizens of the city, who adored her, raised the funds to build a statue to her. (See the photo I took above pre-Katrina). It is believed by many historians to be the very first -- or certainly among the very first-- public statues ever built to honor a woman in the USA. But many people today do not even know the statue exists.

Margaret Gaffney Haughery was born into poverty possibly in County Cavan, Ireland in 1813. (Note: Most older sources say that Cavan was the place of Margaret's birth. Some sources claim, however, that she was  born elsewhere in Ireland, such as in Tully, Carrigallen, County Leitrim. See the "comments" at the end of this story for more information and discussion on this.)

When she was five years old, her parents left Ireland --which was a land plagued by destitution, political turmoil, and oppression under British rule -- and came to America. But within a few years, Margaret was left an orphan as both her parents died of disease. She was cared for by a neighbor and later married at 21. Her husband, Charles Haughery, was not a well man. To escape the cold climate up north, the couple moved to New Orleans in 1835. Here, however, they -- like other New Orleanians -- suffered from rampant epidemics of yellow fever and cholera. Soon her husband died as did her newborn child. So, within a period of a few years, she had lost every single person in her life that she loved.

Despite these tragedies, or because of them, Margaret was determined to do something in her life to help the condition of widows and orphans -- something she understood very well. However, now she was destitute, totally uneducated and illiterate, and totally alone in essentially a foreign country.

She found work in the laundry of the St. Charles Hotel, a very fine establishment in the French Quarter which no longer exists. Then she worked for a dairy, selling fresh milk in the Vieux Carre' (French Quarter). She became acquainted with the Sisters of Charity and worked with them, specifically with a nun named Sr. Regis Barrett. It was at this point that her business experience combined with her philanthropic goals. She and the nun would work together for many years helping neglected orphans and widows in the city. Although a Catholic, Margaret made certain that all her charity work was opened to people of all religions and backgrounds.

Eventually, Margaret worked for a bakery and became the owner of businesses. She helped open the St. Teresa's Orphan Asylum on Camp Street. One of her businesses called "Margaret's Steam and Mechanical Bakery" became very popular, and she advertised her products by her first name. (Hence as in the plaque on her statue years later, everybody knew her by her first name). The bakery sold "Margaret's Bread," and she became the "Bread Woman of New Orleans." Eventually, she owned a popular store in the city called the Klotz Cracker Factory.

Some of the orphanages she built were St. Elizabeth Orphan Asylum on Napoleon Ave., the Louise Home on Clio Street for girls, St. Vincent Infant Asylum (at Race and Magazine Streets) , and an asylum and church on Erato Street that became St. Teresa of Avila Church. She donated to the Protestant Episcopal Home as well and gave to Jewish charities in New Orleans. In her will she gave to the Seventh Street Protestant Orphan Asylum, the German Protestant Orphan Asylum, the German Orphan Catholic Asylum, the Widows and Orphans of Jews Asylum, and to the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, and many others.

In her will she left everything to charities, without distinction of religion, for widows, orphans, and the elderly.

I first learned of Margaret Haughery -- as I learned about all the Irish things in this city -- from my mother and my sister. The story of Margaret is truly remarkable, and it is no accident that I chose it as the first historical story on this blog. It is a GREAT story of Old New Orleans.

To read more about Margaret see the following;
The Immortal Margaret Haughery by Raymond J. Martinez, 1956.
Great Characters of New Orleans by Mel Leavitt, 1984.
Margaret: Friend of Orphans by Mary Lou Widmer, 1996
Gumbo Ya Ya: Folk Tales of Louisiana, compiled by Lyle Saxon (This book is a great source book on all things New Orleans and Louisiana created by the WPA Writers' Project during the Great Depression.)
-- Adrian


  1. Hey

    I saw the article you wrote on Margaret Haughery and I am actually a descendant of Bernard Klotz. I was in New Orleans in 03 I think when we decided to try to see a few places that we had found related to Margaret. We stopped by St Vincent's guesthouse and were shocked to see a poster of Margaret. The front dest told us a film crew was there doing research for a documentary. I'm sure you have heard of it. Unfortunately the project is on hold now but we did speak with the producer briefly. I'm glad to see that someone is still keeping her name alive. I always wanted to know more about her a kid because the story had passed down to us but some things were unclear. Obviously, www.angelofthedelta.org is the website for the documentary but will be on hold for some time it seems. I talked to Meredythe a few weeks ago in email. If you do have acess to any other info, I'd love to know about it.

  2. I am Shirley Elizabeth Little Vicich,, I came to New Orleans to work for AT & T in 1957, I knew nothing of the city, I had no family in the city, no money, I was led to the Louise Home where I was able to establish a place to live and get to know the city, I loved the Nuns that ran the home, Sisters of Charity, it was run very strict, I met my husband there, he came from Fiume Italy a wonderful man of Catholic faith, I was of Southern Baptist faith, we were married in St. Thersa Church. I was invited to a wedding there this week-end, I saw the statue of Margret, It brought back memories, the statue was at the front gate of the Louise Home, we saw it each day as we went to work. I did not know about the statue untill I researched it on the computer, God leads people to many blessings, this lady is still giving to people after death, because of her I was safe in a city that I did not know anyone. or anything. I have fond memories of this wonderful place.

  3. Thank you for your comments, Shirley.

  4. Just want to know how did you come by this information that she was born in Cavan??? I was In Crrigallen, Co Leitrim and I visited her place of birth and they now have a festival in her honor .

  5. Most of the history books about Margaret -- such as the one from 1956 by Martinez which I listed at the end of my article-- say she was born in Cavan, Ireland. Also, the Catholic Encyclopedia online says this. In fact, all of the printed material I have read about Margaret says this. But it is very likely that it is uncertain where she was actually born. So, once she became famous, different places made claims. She might not have been born in Cavan, but to prove or disprove this requires evidence. Until I see and examine this evidence, I will list her place of birth where most history books say she was born.
    Thank you for your question.

  6. Margaret Haughery (nee Gaffney) was born in Tully, Carrigallen, County Leitrim Ireland, she emigrated to the USA with her parents in 1818. For more details visit http://www.carrigallen.com/margaretgaffney.htm

  7. There is some debate as to where Margaret was actually born in Ireland. The books that I researched said she was born in County Cavan, Ireland in 1813, but other people say otherwise.
    So, I will post here comments I get from readers who say that she was born elsewhere and also present evidence.
    The one above has a link to Carrigallen which makes a good argument that she was born there.

    The Catholic Encyclopedia online, www.catholic.org, states, however, the following:"
    Margaret Haughery, "the mother of the orphans ", as she was familiarly styled, b. in Cavan, Ireland, about 1814; d. at New Orleans, Louisiana, 9 February, 1882..."

    So, it is still unclear where she was born. I will leave it up to the reader to decide.

  8. Great article. Margaret is one of my New Orleans idols.

    You said that Margaret "... found work in the laundry of the St. Charles Hotel, a very fine establishment in the French Quarter..." The St. Charles hotel was on St. Charles street, in the American sector, not in the French Quarter. The third and last incarnation of that hotel was built in 1891, an demolished in 1970.

    It had been renamed the "Sheraton Charles". A.J.Liebling, who wrote the Earl of Louisiana stayed there. He said that "it is a bit as if they had bought Grants Tomb and then named it the Sheraton-Grant's Tomb."

  9. Last evening, I enjoyed the set of Irish Balladeer Danny O'Flaherty at Logon Cafe in Beaumont, Texas. Danny spoke fondly of his heroine Margaret among others as is sharing her story wherever he goes. Indeed, after reading her story, it is much like my own, and gives me inspiration and hope. God Bless.

  10. Such a lovely account of a 'saint' of New Orleans. Thank you for this beautiful post.

  11. Thomas F. SchexnayderAugust 12, 2012 at 2:07 PM

    Thanks for the information on "Margaret"


  12. Thoroughly enjoyed history of Margaret, and the development of Orphan Homes in NOLA. My Great Grandmoher Caroline Oertling was associated with the German Orphan Society for many years, and I have a picture of her wearing a gold locket she was presented the turn of of last century. New Orleans is such a special city.

  13. Margaret's family in Ireland came from Leitrim (home of the O'Roukes) and Cavan (traditional home of the Gaffneys). Spend spent significant time in both areas. Leitrim has claimed her birth, so there you go. Her mother -Margaret O'Rouke- came from a noble family.

  14. Adrian, did you encounter a very early article about Margaret by Grace King? King might have been one of the first to honor her with a biographical sketch in a national magazine. It was in the October issue of Harper's Bazar in 1887. I am transcribing King's letters and she and her sister Nan write each other about the research. King wrote the article "Margaret" while in Hartford visiting Charles Dudley Warner and Mark Twain.