by John D. Fitzmorris III
President, Orleans Parish Division 1
Archbishop Hannan Division – New Orleans
In a little park that of late has served as a haven for the homeless, a statue of a dumpy, elderly woman with her arm around a nameless child stands lonely sentinel in a gated garden beneath the approach to the Mississippi River Bridge. The first public statue to a woman in the United States bears simply the name “Margaret” on its pedestal; and at one time, the citizens of New Orleans would not have needed anything else to know that this was a statue to Margaret Gaffney Haughery, the “Mother of the Orphans.” When she passed away in 1882, the entire city mourned and even the governor of Louisiana joined the more than 10,000 mourners who paid respect as she lay in state in City Hall.
The legacy that Margaret gave to New Orleans and caused the local paper The Times-Picayune to trim its paper in black the day of her funeral is as profound as it was lasting. Born in County Leitrim in 1813, the “Angel of the Delta” was orphaned herself as a child of nine after coming to America. She moved to New Orleans in 1835 and there suffered the death of her own child and husband years later to a yellow fever epidemic. Convulsed by grief, she chose not to wallow in despair but instead work among the poor and orphaned of the antebellum city. She worked her way out the laundry at the St. Charles Hotel, started a bakery business, a dairy business, and then built four orphanages in conjunction with the Daughters of Charity. In addition, she made generous endowments for seven other orphanages. During the Union occupation of New Orleans, she even locked horns with Union commander Benjamin F. Butler over bringing relief to the starving of the city behind enemy lines.
And all this from a woman who could not even read or write her own name.
No wonder that so many mourners paid respect to her when she died, and the city commissioned a statue in her honor. Yet, the passage of time has erased many memories while grunge and grime began the slow process of covering the Mother of Orphans and obscuring her legacy. The last cleaning took place in 1989 when CeCe Tudor, who wrote an M.A. thesis on Margaret, took it upon herself to restore some of Margaret’s former luster. Since then, the statue accumulated the grime and soot from the thousands of vehicles that passed it each day for years.
In 2008, the Monumental Task Committee, Inc. collaborated with Mary Jablonski, a renowned architectural conservator from Columbia University, to do a preliminary assessment of many of the monuments in the City of New Orleans. From this assessment, MTC identified a critical need to conduct a professional conservation assessment report for the Margaret Haughery monument with treatment recommendations and an accurate restoration budget. Led by Traci Birch and Linda Stubbs of the MTC, a drive began in 2013 to restore Margaret’s statue to its former beauty. A grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation allowed them to make an assessment of the statue. Stage Two then involved hiring a contractor to reinforce the crumbling foundation that had already caused irreparable cracks in Margaret’s pedestal. Once the contractors solidified the foundation, expert restoration workers would clean the statue with meticulous care. Abry Brothers of New Orleans reinforced the foundation at no cost—no easy or inexpensive task given the spongy and sinking nature of the New Orleans land. A series of fundraisers and generous donations from the AOH and Ladies AOH, private citizens, and the Krewe of Muses—an all-women’s Mardi Gras parade organization—allowed workers to clean and polish the statue of the elderly woman giving the hand of charity to an unmade orphan child. With the assistance of Rachel Howard, a graduate student at Tulane University in architectural restoration, Margaret now shines radiantly in the sun. Stage Three of the restoration will focus on landscaping the garden that surrounds the statue, and Miss Birch and Miss Stubbs are already beating the bushes looking for more volunteers and donations.
If those who commissioned the statue in tribute to Margaret in 1882 were alive today, they would consider it almost as good as new. Even the cracks in the pedestal are hard to detect unless one looks close enough. However, those hairline cracks are a fitting reminder to those in the city and throughout the nation that forgetting the work of those like Margaret Gaffney Haughery comes at a great price and that our history is not something to be left to the grime and soot of ignorance and forgetfulness.
For those who wish to learn more about Margaret Haughery, the Mother of Orphans, please go to http://www.neworleanshistorical.org/items/show/477.
Those wishing to donate to the Restoration of Margaret should contact Monumental Task Committee, Inc. Attn: Margaret Haughery Restoration Fund, 1215 Prytania Street, Suite 333, New Orleans, LA 70130, or go to http://monumentaltask.org/margaret.html.