An Indomitable Woman: Margaret Haughery, The Breadwoman of New Orleans

When one thinks of New Orleans and its people, the common belief is that New Orleanians are primarily of French extraction. Although the Mediterranean influence in the city since its founding and early history — both France and Spain flew their flags over the city — is predominant, that is not to say that people of other European nationalities did not find their home there. After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, when all of that huge area became part of the young United States of America (except for the extreme eastern parishes north of Lake Pontchartrain and east of the Mississippi River, known as “West Florida” which remained in the hands of Spain), rough and tumble Americans began to drift into the hitherto French city (much to the chagrin of the refined Creoles).

Immigrants from other countries of Europe — Germany, Ireland, and the Italian States — sought a better life in the cities of the new country when times got hard in their native lands. The Irish were a relatively small number by the 1820’s. Those who came remained in the larger eastern seaboard cities because that is where the ports were, and the jobs were more plentiful. By far, the great numbers of Irish arrived on these shores during the 1840’s and 1850’s, the decades of the “Great Hunger” in Ireland, brought on by the failure of the potato crop year after year and the cruelty of the absentee English owners of these lands to supply the tenant farmers with the food grown in Ireland for export. So extreme was their hardheartedness that the English Protestant landowners would offer to feed the starving children of the poor Irish if they could take them and raise them in the Protestant religion. And so great was the Faith of the Irish Catholics, that they would rather die and see their children starve than to give up that Faith.

The Gaffneys Come to America

Many poor Irish came to America separated from their families. Mother and father would take the children they could afford to take and leave the rest behind to be cared for by relatives until they saved enough money to pay their transport across the Atlantic. So it was with the Gaffney family.

William Gaffney is thought to have been a poor farmer and sometime tailor in Carrigalen, County Leitrim, Ireland, town of Tully. He married one Margaret O’Rourke who always claimed that she was descended of Irish royalty. Life had become more difficult in Ireland because of a succession of extremely cold winters and cool wet summers. William and Margaret took their three youngest children with them, leaving behind the three older ones with his brother Matthew. Their ship was supposed to bring them to Boston, but the ocean was storm-tossed that summer making the voyage very long and difficult. Most of their possessions were lost to the sea on the way. The weather finally brought them to Chesapeake Bay instead of farther north to their intended destination. There they settled in the city of Baltimore with hardly any belongings and no money. Their second child, Margaret, was just five. Not long after their arrival, the dreaded yellow fever struck Baltimore in 1822. Both parents and the baby sister died within a short time of each other. The older brother disappeared, probably taken in by some charitable couple. Margaret wound up in the care of a kind Protestant lady, one Helen Richards, who allowed her to retain her Catholic religion, but did not teach her even to write or read her own name. In truth, she was probably used as a kind of indentured servant, only leaving in 1835 when she married Charles Haughery at age twenty one.

Charles was a dear and kind man, but in very poor health. He probably had tuberculosis, rampant in those days and incurable. The doctors suggested that they move to New Orleans where the climate was warmer. Perhaps Charles’ health would improve there. Because there was no improvement in the warm, damp climate of New Orleans, Charles was encouraged by his doctor to take an ocean voyage. So, he decided to return to Ireland for a time. He waited for the birth of their little daughter, Frances, then he left for the journey, never to return, for his health was so poor that he died in Ireland not long after he had arrived. Now Margaret was alone with only her precious newborn. Margaret’s sadness was unspeakable at losing her beloved Charles, but she was to know even greater sadness when the dear little Frances, just weeks old, died silently during the night.

The depths of her despair were boundless; what would she do now? She was truly all alone in the world. After holding her dead baby and singing to her all night, Margaret, being of an indomitable spirit, dressed the little angel in her best calico, wrapped her in blankets and walked to the Church where she had a dear friend in the pastor, Father Mullon, also an Irishman, to arrange for her funeral and burial.

Margaret Finds a New Life

Except for her now close friend, Father Mullon, Margaret had no one. After the short funeral and burial, Father asked Margaret what she would do with herself. Being penniless, she knew she needed employment, but she had no skills to speak of, except a good strong young body and the willingness to work hard. Father pointed her to an available job as laundress at the Saint Charles Hotel. Despite her lack of education, her intelligence and spirit were evident to him. Margaret believed her calling was to work with children — orphaned children, as she had been. And New Orleans was full of them as a result of periodic yellow fever epidemics. She did take the laundress job at the hotel, only briefly, for when Father introduced her to Sister Regis, whose Sisters of Charity had recently taken over care of the girl orphans at the Julian Poydras Asylum, she knew she had found her heaven on earth. She and Sister clicked immediately, and Margaret offered herself to the sisters for room and board for the privilege of caring for the many little girls there.

Julian Poydras was a wealthy philanthropist who had willed his home to the city to become an orphanage. His house was in a section of the city called Faubourg Sainte Marie, on the “American” side of the dividing line of Canal Street which separated the original city, the Vieux Carre (Old Square) or French Quarter, from the newer neighborhoods building upriver. (“Faubourg” can be translated as “Neighborhood”) The place was run by a committee of ladies who turned over the care of the children to the dear sisters. Naturally, the sisters taught the girls the Catholic religion. There came a time when the lady managers insisted that Presbyterian teachers should be involved with the education of the children. Sister Regis and the Sisters of Charity would have none of that! Consequently, the Vicar General of the diocese decided that the sisters and the children under their care would move into a home of their own (when they could find one). But the money for such an undertaking was non-existent.

Margaret had barely arranged to move in to “some little space” in the home when her native intelligence and ability to plan for the future of the children seemed to go into high gear. First on her list was to find a way to purchase two cows so that the children would have fresh milk every day. This was accomplished via a loan arranged by Father Mullon, the first of hundreds of loans that she would make and pay back. The cows arrived and she taught the girls two by two how to properly milk the animals. Next, they needed fresh vegetables and fruit and good meat to build up their little bodies and make them strong. Margaret was a born schmoozer. She could flash a smile and have a joke with the merchants in the French Market (many of whom were Irish like herself) where farmers brought their wares from the farmlands up the Mississippi River, and return home with a wagon full of food of all kinds for her “dear little ones.” She became such a fixture in the commercial areas of the city and was so endearing to everyone, that her cart was always full on the return trip to the Asylum. Eventually, her milking herd grew to forty cows which she kept in a large barn some blocks from the Asylum. Margaret and her young Negro helper, Andrew, peddled their milk all over that section of New Orleans. Her first “enterprise” had become a money-maker, all of the profits going to the needs of the children, of course.

Soon she and the children — two at a time — began scouring the nearby blocks for an appropriate house that the sisters could own. The children were always scrubbed clean with clean ironed dresses and clean shoes. (A good first impression was important!) One morning walking on New Levee Street, which had become muddy with one of New Orleans’ frequent rains, she spotted a run-down house with an equally run-down old man standing in the front door. “Good mornin’, sir, is this your house; do you live here?” The old gent was appalled at her effrontery and made it known to her. Talking business even before he had had his coffee, yet! “No wonder you’re upset with me! Let us come in and I will make you the best cup of coffee in town!” She proceeded to tidy up the kitchen in the process of looking for the coffee and the sugar; she set up a fire to boil the water and in fifteen minutes the man had a steaming cup of sweet hot cafe noir with two thick slices of bread with strawberry jam on the side, all presented with a folded linen napkin and a proper spoon. Once he had tasted Margaret’s coffee, he asked her to work for him! Of course, she politely refused and explained her mission. The old gent turned out to be Judge Kennedy and a Catholic — non-practicing, but a Catholic. He lived with his son in a fine, newly-built house uptown. “Well, then you’ll not be needin’ this house any more! Let the children come live here and we will fix it up. When we build our own brand new orphanage, you will have a fine renovated house to sell!” “Has anyone ever told you that you have a lot of nerve, Miss Margaret?” the judge intoned.

Margaret’s charm (and nerve) had won him over and he agreed to let the orphans have the house — on ONE condition. “When I come to visit, I want you to fix me a cup of coffee and some bread and jam — just like this!” So the old house, known as “Old Withers” became the new Saint Patrick’s Catholic Girls Orphanage with the determination of Margaret, prayers of the sisters, and hard work of the young men and ladies of Saint Patrick’s Parish, who did the “fixin’ and the scrubbin’ and the cleanin’” that the place sorely needed.

Margaret was so good at begging for the children that she was able to furnish the house just by spreading the word in the markets and the businesses of the French Quarter and to the homeowners in her own Faubourg. Nervy she was and enterprising, too — if it was for God and the little ones. Thus began the twenty seven year partnership between the good Sister Regis and Margaret Haughery. Sister was considerably older than Margaret, and when she died, Margaret carried on the enterprise almost another twenty years — “for God and the little ones.”

“It’s Truly God’s Work”

After spending three difficult years at Old Withers, all the while taking in more and more little girls (for the times were economically tough), Margaret came home one evening from her milk deliveries just as Father Mullon was leaving. Sister Regis had just heard the amazing news that a whole square of open city land had been willed to them nearby to build a new orphanage, thanks to the generosity of the two families who owned the property. Margaret was so excited that she could hardly wait to start moving in! BUT — first they had to raise money for the building. This they did, due to the generosity of local Catholics and a sizeable contribution from Bishop Blanc, not to mention many fundraisers along the way. A prominent architect was hired and in February, 1840, six sisters of Charity, Margaret and one hundred and nine orphans took possession of the new building — a four- story beauty with balconies and topped off by a magnificent Mansard roof. Why, they could see the Mississippi River with all of its commerce and boat traffic from the front windows and balconies!

A Bit About the New Orleans of the Time

Commerce was booming in the city. The big river was the highway from which goods and produce came through New Orleans from the Midwestern states and out to the world. Southern cotton that would be turned into dresses, bonnets, sheets and other necessary dry goods made its way to the New England states and across the Atlantic to England. The port was always busy. Plantation owners upriver were beginning to sell off their huge holdings in parcels as the city grew north, following the river, to accommodate the influx of Irish, German, and other European immigrants. In fact, there were so many Irish populating one section of the city that it is called “the Irish Channel” to this day. (A cute story of my husband’s family has it that when his mother, her brother and their parents settled in New Orleans from France early in the twentieth century, they lived in that section of the city. The Irish children called little Ninette Fabre “Frenchy” because she was not one of them. I understand that she did not take too kindly to that!)

Soon, besides the orphanage, the sisters started a Catholic school for the parish children, with classes held in the orphanage building. It was not long before Saint Patrick School was erected as a separate structure nearby in the same square of land.

A New Parish and a New Church

Faubourg Sainte Marie was fairly bursting with newcomers. By 1848, Bishop Blanc decided that the little frame chapel would no longer do. A permanent church — a new parish church — would be necessary. It would be named Saint Teresa of Avila after the patron saint of a generous benefactor. Once again, fundraisers were held with Margaret and the sisters in the thick of things. The money rolled in and the new beautiful Gothic style church was dedicated on a cold December day in 1849. Today, that church, because of its traditional style and beauty is a popular place for Catholic weddings. (You can even view a couple of them on Youtube.) The people it serves are now primarily Hispanic rather than Francophone. Accordingly, the priests are native Spanish speakers and there is a Mass in Spanish. It is still an active and thriving parish. The Church boasts the second-oldest organ in all of Louisiana. It is an attraction all its own, having been built in 1870 by Jardine and sons (pictured here). It occupies a second level gallery above the entrance of the church.

The Yellow Jack Returns With a Vengeance

Summer in New Orleans begins early. It was May, 1853. Sister Regis received a message from the local hospital to send six of the sisters to help with nursing duties because so many were coming in with “the fever.” Many diseases begin with a fever, but that word in New Orleans raised fears of the dreaded Yellow Fever which had taken many lives in the Americas since the slave trade from Africa began. Yellow Fever had its origins in tropical Africa. We now know that it is spread by the bite of the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, but it would be half a century or more before that was discovered.

Because New Orleans is a port city with ships coming from every country imaginable, and also because of the vast salt marshes south and east of the city — perfect breeding grounds for the insects — she was doubly vulnerable to exposure to Yellow Jack. City authorities were hesitant to raise alarm, as it could be a false one and needlessly frighten the locals while keeping visitors away. However, when several dozen a day began to die of the “black vomit” as it was called in Spanish-speaking countries, the truth could no longer be hidden.

Yellow Jack threatened every summer, but rarely became epidemic. This time it did. The cause of the disease was traced to the ship Augusta which had been docked next to another ship in Jamaica. That country was experiencing a serious outbreak of the fever. Several sailors died on that neighbor of the Augusta, which eventually set sail and docked in New Orleans. The epidemic in New Orleans began with a few sick sailors visiting the city and was one of the worst in her history. By August, more than two hundred people a day were dying. Common treatments such as bleeding and purging did no good. Artillery was fired nightly hoping “to clear the air.” Tar barrels were burned, rendering the air acrid, in the hopes of killing whatever germs were causing the fever. Of a total population of 150,000 people, fifty thousand fled the city for the Mississippi Gulf Coast or the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain. Of those remaining 100,000 who could not leave, ten thousand died — one-tenth of the population. Unclaimed bodies lay on the sidewalks and the grass in front of the hospitals. Twice a day, the “death wagons” passed to pick up the dead. Margaret was told that they were taken out of the city, put in a pile and burned; there were just too many to bury.

Sadly, five of the heroic nursing Sisters of Charity succumbed to the fever. Miraculously, none of the children in the orphanage died, but their ranks swelled because so many had lost their parents to Yellow Jack. Margaret remained healthy although she, too, lent herself to the hospital to assist the sick and dying. With the first cold snap in the fall, New Orleans knew the danger was ended — at least for that year.

It wasn’t until 1879 that a Cuban doctor, Carlos Finlay, suggested that the disease might be mosquito-borne. Building upon the work of Dr. Finlay, the famous Dr. Walter Reed and his team of Army doctors confirmed Dr. Finlay’s hypothesis during the Spanish-American War, when more men died of the disease than from the fighting. Yellow fever was the first disease proven to be carried and spread by mosquitoes.

The Changing Face of the City

The original city, the Vieux Carre, home of the French Creole population, is confined to a relatively small area nestled in the crescent bend of the River. Across Canal Street, however, in the “American section” New Orleans was growing by leaps and bounds and her face was changing. Instead of the closely-built homes that are found in “the Quarter,” rich merchants and entrepreneurs bought whole city blocks, built sprawling mansions with wrap-around galleries and huge lawns. It was the era of Greek revival architecture and New Orleanians boasted that there was more Greek architecture in their city than there was in Athens. Margaret’s home was in this newer area, although very close to the Mississippi River and never as wealthy as the elegant, live oak-lined avenue that would become known as Saint Charles Avenue and the Garden District.

Margaret Becomes a Bakery Entrepeneur

The word “entrepreneur” is not used lightly here. In 1859, Margaret had lent so much money to a baker who couldn’t keep himself in business, that she was forced to buy him out or lose her investment. To complete the purchase she had to sell her milk business. Margaret never did anything in a small way. She decided that she would have the most up-to-date baking equipment available, the best recipes, and produce the best bread in New Orleans. She purchased the equipment, remodeled the building, fixed up a little apartment above the store and fulfilled her plans even beyond her own expectations. In the process, she became a wealthy woman. By the end of the first year she had forty employees — bakers, mechanics, drivers, salespeople. Her products were superb, but the main attraction was always Margaret herself. She took her daily break at midday sitting in her rocker near the front door of the bakery with her palmetto fan to ward off the heat and the bugs.

For Margaret, though, there was one large downside to spending all her time at the bakery. That was that it took her away from her beloved children. They often came to visit for a little treat or to take bread to the various homes for the orphans (always free, of course). She even hired some of the teen agers from the older girls’ orphanage to sell the bakery goods. Her Sundays were spent going to Mass at Saint Teresa’s and spending the day with the sisters and the children. No one was ever turned away from Margaret’s bakery for lack of money, and during the War Between the States, she fed Confederates and Union Army alike.

War!!!

For some time during the 1850’s there had been rumblings of war. When Lincoln was elected in 1860, he pledged that slavery would not spread to any new states or territories. Many intelligent Southerners disapproved of the institution of slavery, but even one as uneducated as Margaret could wonder what would happen to all the slaves if there were immediate abolition. The entire economy depended on getting the cotton and other products to market, much of it using slave labor. She thought of her Andrew, a slave. What would happen to him? He was like her own son, and she worried about the thousands who would have no place to go and no work to do. She thought that it should be a gradual process of education and introduction into the free society. Sadly and foolishly, this policy was not followed.

Louisiana seceded from the Union in 1861. New Orleans’ own General P.G.T. Beauregard resigned from West Point and came home ready to lead the Confederates into war. New Orleans was a vital port. If the Yankees blockaded the mouth of the River, no ships could go upriver to the city or leave the city to take goods through the Gulf and to the world. The Yankees did just that. The economy ground to a halt. Then in April, 1862, Admiral Farragut’s flotilla broke through the boom spanning the Mississippi between Forts Jackson and Fort Saint Phillip and steamed into the Port of New Orleans. She became an occupied city. All regular Confederates left under the belief that if there were no soldiers to defend the city, the Yankees would not fire on it. New Orleans was one of the few major cities of the South that was not left in ruins by the Union Armies. This was the up side. The down side was that Yankee soldiers were all over the place now!

General Benjamin Butler was put in charge of keeping the peace in the city. His first action was to hang in front of the United States Mint one William Mumford who had lowered the American flag and raised the Confederate flag within sight of the Yankee fleet, whereupon Butler became known as “Beast Butler.” The haughty Creole ladies greatly resented his presence and his actions. One of them took it upon herself to spit upon a Union officer passing her on the street. General Butler then issued “The Woman Order” which gave the Union officers the right to treat any woman on the street “as a streetwalker plying her trade.” Needless to say, this did not endear him to the locals.

Margaret’s immediate problem was getting her flour and other supplies that she needed to keep the bakery running. She quickly learned that while New Orleans was blockaded, the towns along the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain and along the Mississippi Gulf coast were not. She found a way to run past the enemy lines with enough carts for many barrels of flour. On one run, a young Yankee private blocked her way across the lines. She promptly got out of her wagon and physically lifted the young fellow and put him out of her way so that she could move through the lines. This incident caught the attention of the Beast who summoned her to his office. Father Mullon went along as her reinforcement, for she feared she would share poor Mumford’s fate. The General seemed to find the incident somewhat amusing, and when she reminded him that she fed the hungry on both sides, he gave her a pass signed by himself to go through the blockade. As difficult as it was, she graciously thanked him.

It was on the same night that the Union fleet entered the city that Margaret’s friend of twenty-seven years left this vale of tears. Andrew brought her the news that Sister Regis had died in her sleep. Margaret could barely contain her grief, for here was her very dearest friend who had given her a reason to live when she had none, now gone to God. The woman had led a heroic life.

The Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul

Vocations were many in those days. The Sisters of Charity had recently become the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul and had adopted their distinctive habit. The nursing sisters wore all white with the “sailboat” (cornette) on their heads. The teaching sisters wore the white cornette with dark blue/gray habits. Their contributions to the city of New Orleans were many and great. As we have seen, they built orphanages, schools, churches, and hospitals, including the great Charity Hospital of Louisiana of which I have written previously. Margaret would have been proud of that other indomitable woman who accomplished this task, Sister Stanislaus, an Irish lady herself. They were heroic during the Yellow Fever epidemics, and as a continuing thank you to the religious who served during these times, priests, sisters and brothers in habit were given free passage on any public transportation in the city — small reward for selfless service.

Margaret’s Last Days

Margaret’s life after the end of the war continued to be one of work and giving. She was at her bakery every morning before seven, ready to open to customers who were awaiting freshly-baked bread. One Monday morning in 1881, her best helper and foster son, Bernard Klotz, was alarmed when he didn’t see her behind the counter when he came in to work. He rushed upstairs and knocked on her door. To the question, “Margaret, are you ill?” she feebly replied, “Yes, but I’ll be better soon.” When he touched her brow, he felt she was burning with fever. He rushed off to get the doctor. Margaret was very weak and had a terrible headache. The doctor tried several remedies, but Margaret did not get better. She was age sixty-eight now, and no one could remember her being sick a day in her life. She was brought to the Sisters’ Charity Hospital for tests, but, medicine being what it was in those days, nothing definitive could be determined. The sisters insisted that they take her to their private, “pay” hospital where there were doctors who were specialists. Margaret spent many months in Hotel Dieu, but never got better.

She had many important visitors during those months. One was New Orleans’ own hero, General Beauregard. One of the questions she asked him was why the Yankee Army occupied New Orleans for fourteen years after the War. He laughed and simply told her he was praying for her. Another visitor was Thomy Lafon, a very wealthy free man of color who was an architect and philanthropist. Why, she even received a beautiful ebony crucifix with a silver Corpus from Pope Pius IX who knew of her work with the orphans of the city.

Margaret closed her eyes for the final time on February 9, 1882. The cause of her death was listed as “mental cancer” by which I suppose was meant brain cancer. Her dear friend Father Mullon preceded her in death. She had been grateful that he did not witness the terrible years of Reconstruction in the South. Her funeral was one of the biggest New Orleans had ever seen. Stores were closed so that her hundreds of friends and admirers could attend, and Saint Patrick’s Church was filled to overflowing. Her funeral procession was led by the mayor of the city and two former governors of Louisiana were among the pallbearers. She was buried near her dear friend, Sister Regis in the large tomb of the Sisters of Charity.

Margaret’s worth at her death was about half a million dollars. She left her entire estate to the Sisters of Charity for the orphans except for specific amounts to particular charities, among which were the Protestant orphanage and the Jewish orphanage. Her love for her “little ones” knew no religious bounds.

If you visit New Orleans today, you can see her statue, only the second in the nation of a woman, in Margaret Park, adjacent to the original orphanages and Saint Teresa of Avila Church. The name on the base says simply “MARGARET.” It depicts her in her later years with her knit shawl and one arm around a small child.

For a woman who had no money, could neither read nor write, lost everyone she loved by age twenty-one, Margaret’s legacy could not be more impressive. Her love knew no bounds — for her “little ones,” for her Catholic Faith, for her dear friends and for her adopted city. May she rest in peace.

  • Eleonore

    I should include a bit more about my dear mother-in-law. Her family was not Catholic; she always said they were Huguenots. I believe they were basically unchurched. It was only when she and her widowed mother met my father-in-law to be that both converted to Catholicism. She always said when they waited for the bus on the corner, they could hear the beautiful singing from the nearby Catholic Church. That and my father-in-law’s firm faith convinced them to become Catholic.

  • Brian Kelly

    Truly an inspiring story. Lifted up from such poverty and loss of dear ones by the grace of God it is astounding what this stalwart woman accomplished.

  • M.

    As a fellow native New Orleanian, I have always loved the story of Margaret. The libraries USED to have a few books about her. I tried to read them all! Thank you for such a beautiful piece on this dear lady. Margaret is an inspiration. As an aside, I like to point out that three of the four “public” statues of women in New Orleans depict CATHOLIC women.

  • Eleonore

    Thank you, M. I recently read that the statue of Margaret is the second oldest of a woman in this country. For a long time, it was thought to be the oldest; however, the statue of a valiant colonial woman stands on an island in the Merrimack River here in New Hampshire, and it is older that Margaret’s. She and her family killed the Indians who were holding them captive and escaped.
    Please tell us who the other public statues depict. As a New Orleans native, I would love to know that.