Haughery, Margaret (1813–82), philanthropist, was born on Christmas Day 1813 in Carrigallen, Co. Leitrim, fifth of six children to William Gaffney, tenant farmer, and his wife Margaret (née O’Rourke). In 1818 the Gaffneys moved with their three younger children to America, leaving the three eldest with an uncle. After a gruelling six-month journey at sea, they landed at Baltimore, Maryland, where the youngest girl died shortly afterwards. Further tragedy followed when, during the 1822 yellow fever epidemic, both of Haughery’s parents succumbed to the disease. Shortly afterwards her older brother Kevin disappeared. Only nine-years-old, orphaned and alone, Haughery was taken in by a Welsh family named Richards who employed her as a domestic servant. There was no money or time for school, so she grew up illiterate.
In 1835 she married Irishman Charles Haughery and the couple had a daughter named Frances. When Charles fell ill they moved to New Orleans, but again tragedy awaited. Within a year Haughery had been widowed and her daughter was dead. These early tragedies left her with a strong charitable drive. She never remarried but dedicated the rest of her life to the poor. After a brief period as a laundress at Saint Charles Hotel, she moved into an orphanage run by the Daughters of Charity and worked as a volunteer in exchange for food and board. Feeling she could be more useful working in the outside world, she never became a nun, although she lived with the Daughters for the next twenty-three years and financed their charity all her life.
Arranging a loan through the parish priest, she bought two cows to provide milk for the children and began selling the excess from a cart. This enabled her to buy more cows and she discovered that she had entrepreneurial ability and within a few years she owned a dairy of forty cows. Her milk cart was a daily sight in New Orleans and as she did her rounds, she begged spare vegetables for the children and collected subscriptions on their behalf. With her help $36,000 was raised between 1838 and 1840 to build a new orphanage and in 1843 the New Orleans Female Orphan Asylum was opened, housing over one hundred orphans.
Haughery invested her money smartly and was able over the next decades to contribute to the building of new orphanages and ‘houses of industry’ for older children. Her only regret was that running the dairy left her little time to devote to the children; she did however nurse many of them through the yellow fever epidemic of 1853.
Her next major enterprise was the takeover of a failing bakery in New Levee Street. She sold her dairy and finally moved out of the orphanage into a small flat above the bakery. Hers was the first steam bakery in the southern states, and it soon extended over four buildings and employed forty people. She also co-invented a more efficient oven and created a method of packaging crackers that kept them fresh for weeks. She distributed bread to the poor, opened a soup kitchen and during the civil war forced her way through army lines to get flour, which she used to feed confederate and, occasionally, union soldiers. Despite these handouts, her business prospered, and she was respected throughout New Orleans for her acumen. Seated in her widow’s weeds in the doorway of her bakery, she freely dispensed business advice. Unfailingly modest, she was amazed to receive a crucifix from Pope Pius IX.
Her death on 9 February 1882 at the Hôtel Dieu hospital was announced in specially black-edged newspapers as a public calamity. Funeral mass was celebrated in Saint Patrick’s Church and her pallbearers included the current and former governors of Louisiana, the mayor of New Orleans and the archbishop. All stores and offices were closed for the day and the city was thronged with mourners. She was buried in Saint Louis cemetery in the same plot as Sister Francis Regis Barret, the nun with whom she had started her first charity work.
Haughery’s philanthropy continued after her death and she left large bequests to all the city orphanages, regardless of colour or creed, although she left the bulk of her estate to the Daughters of Charity. Her will was signed with an ‘X’. The idea of erecting a statue to her memory was raised immediately, and on 9 July 1884 a marble statue by Alexander Doyle was unveiled in a small park named Margaret Place. Although not the first statue erected to a woman in the US, it is the first publicly erected one, the first monument to a female philanthropist and the only known statue of a baker. A Margaret Haughery Club was founded in New Orleans in 1948 and revived in 1992. Its members are women of Irish catholic descent, its aims are charitable, and it also selects the New Orleans candidate for the annual ‘Rose of Tralee’ title.