Tucked away in a narrow point where Camp and Prytania streets meet in the Lower Garden District is a little green park lying in shadows below the high-rise Crescent City Connection. In the middle, sits this larger-than-life statue of Margaret Gaffney Haughery, an Irish immigrant who rose from poverty and heartbreaking tragedy to amassing and leaving a fortune to support the city’s orphans. She is one of the most remarkable and saintly women in New Orleans history.
In her 2014 book “The Irish of New Orleans,” Tulane historian Laura Kelley describes Haughery as “a widowed, penniless, young woman, a laundress, a peddler, a dairywoman, a baker, and finally, a highly successful business entrepreneur and philanthropist of extraordinary generosity.”
Margaret’s tale begins in Ireland where she was born in 1813. Seven years later, the family emigrated to Baltimore, Maryland, where her parents soon died of yellow fever. Reared by family friends, Margaret eventually married Irish-born Charles Haughery. Hoping a warmer climate might help his poor health, the couple moved to New Orleans in 1835 where she soon gave birth to their daughter Frances. Within a year or so, Charles and Frances died.
Destitute, Margaret supported herself doing menial jobs at the St. Charles Hotel. She lived with the Sisters of Charity, saved her money, bought a cow and soon began selling milk. The business went so well she bought several more cows and eventually owned a dairy, and a bakery that reportedly became the largest commercial bakery in the nation, all the while using her growing fortune along with money and gifts she begged from local merchants to support orphanages across the city, including the Female Orphan Asylum seen here. Reportedly, Margaret never learned to read or write.
When Margaret died on Feb. 9, 1882, her estate was worth millions by today’s standards. She left it all for the care of orphans. Attending her funeral at St. Patrick’s on Camp Street was a who’s who among local political, religious and social circles. The “Daily Picayune” claimed, “the streets, sidewalks, balconies and windows were thronged with mourners.” She was buried in St. Louis No. 2 Cemetery.
A memorial committee soon formed to honor her life. It hired sculptor Alexander Doyle to design the statue, which was made in Italy and shipped back to New Orleans. The unveiling ceremony took place July 9, 1884. According to the “Daily Picayune,” thousands of people, including black and white “fatherless children” from local “asylums,” turned out for the dedication. Former Louisiana Gov. Francis T. Nicholls ended his remarks saying, “She asked no praise, had sought for no reward, and moved along unconscious of the grandeur of her daily life.” In a long tribute, the newspaper described Haughery as “Margaret the Bread-Giver, the Orphans’ Friend, True Charity.”
“While Heavenly charity lives in the world,” the paper continued, “Margaret will not be forgotten.”