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.)