19th century New Orleanians knew Margaret (Gaffney) Haughery by several endearing terms. The "Bread Woman," "Friend of the Orphans," "Mother of the Orphans," "Our Margaret," and "Angel of the Delta" are the best known. Personal tragedies experienced both as a child and later as a parent shaped her life-long devotion to serving New Orleans' poor, especially orphans.
Margaret's life began in Tully, Carrigallen County Leitrim, Ireland in 1813. (Efforts are underway to establish a museum in her hometown.) When five years old, she emigrated to America with her parents and two of her siblings. The Gaffney family ended up in Baltimore, Maryland, but an 1822 yellow fever epidemic killed both of her parents. Once orphaned, Margaret was taken in by a woman who required that Margaret earn her keep, which started Margaret on the path familiar to many Irish women: domestic service. In 1835, she married Charles Haughery, and a month later they moved to New Orleans. They had one daughter they named Frances. Charles soon fell ill and went back to Ireland to regain strength. He died a short while later. A few months later, Frances became sick and died.
The life of an Irish widow in antebellum New Orleans was not easy. Single women threatened notions of sexual morality and social control. During this period, anti-Irish jokes were commonly published in the newspapers. To support herself, Margaret worked as a laundress for the St. Charles Hotel. She became acquainted with the Sisters of Charity and volunteered her time to the orphans they cared for. She also contributed as much as two-thirds of her earnings to the orphans.
In order to better care for the orphans, Margaret purchased two cows to provide milk. These two cows developed into a dairy herd of forty and a prosperous dairy business. She was often seen making deliveries with her mule-drawn cart. Her success allowed her to contribute a great deal of funds to construct a new and larger orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity. She also helped open St. Teresa's Orphan Asylum.
Margaret's business endeavors did not end with the dairy farm. Most New Orleanians are unaware of her dairy business, but "Margaret's Bakery" remains known for the bread she distributed to orphans and other needy city residents. Hers was one of the early "steam bakeries" in the South. "Margaret's Steam and Mechanical Bakery" survived through and beyond the Civil War.
Margaret was the second woman in the United States to have a statue erected in her honor. Citizens of New Orleans commissioned a statue in her likeness soon after her death in 1882. Sculpted by Andrew Doyle using Italian marble, the statue has stood since 1884 in the Lower Garden District at the intersection of Prytania and Clio Streets.
For more information, please see the "Margaret Gaffney Haughery" entry in Knowla.org, the Encyclopedia of Louisiana.