NEW YORK - During a major, historic wave of Irish immigration
to the United States at the turn of the last century, a
tenacious Catholic effort helped one-third of the young,
single Irish women who arrived in the Port of New York.
An exhibit celebrating that aid was rededicated March 11 in
the Lower Manhattan building that hosted more than 100,000
newcomers between 1883 and 1908. The display originally
opened in early 2012, but had to be restored after flooding
from Hurricane Sandy caused extensive damage.
It traces the work of the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary
for the Protection of Irish Immigrant Girls, which operated
from 1883 to 1954 in Watson House, now a landmark.
"The emigration of single women from Ireland was a unique
phenomenon in Western civilization," according to historian
Maureen Murphy, the exhibit's lead researcher. She said it
was an emigration of siblings whose families did not "re-form
in the United States." The women sent money home to help
relatives stay on the land, which distinguished them from
other groups, Murphy said.
Other emigrants from Western Europe "came out as families,
or, as the Italians, the men came out first and then sent for
the women," Murphy said.
Murphy is a member of the board of the Battery Heritage
Foundation: The Watson House. It promotes the early religious
history of the Battery area of New York, including Our Lady
of the Rosary Parish, whose present church building includes
the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Shrine.
Watson House, built in 1792, is used as the parish house and
rectory for Our Lady of the Rosary. The three-story house and
adjacent church are surrounded and dwarfed by glass-and-steel
skyscrapers, but maintain a commanding spot overlooking
Battery Park and New York Harbor.
The mission was established close to the Castle Garden
immigrant landing depot. Its goals were to provide
information, counseling, temporary shelter, employment
referrals and spiritual support for young women.
Murphy said an "agent," a mission representative, met
arrivals at Castle Garden and later Ellis Island, when
immigration processing was transferred from state to federal
jurisdiction. The agents helped women locate the relatives or
friends who came to meet them and brought those who needed
further assistance, or a place to stay, to the mission.
Murphy said the most comprehensive surviving records of the
mission cover its first 25 years
From 1883 to 1908, she said almost 308,000 Irish "girls,"
ages 14 to 44, immigrated through the Port of New York and
approximately 100,000 of them were cared for by the mission's
staff. Each newcomer's name and age was written in a bound
ledger, with notations for the arrival date and ship, county
of origin, anticipated final destination and the relationship
to the person at the destination.
Murphy ticked off the statistical highlights: "The average
age of the girls was 19. Ten percent of them traveled as
sisters and 25 percent were picked up by someone with the
same last name. The five counties with the greatest
representation were Mayo, Galway, Clare, Kerry and Cork."
She said the most common phrase in the ledger notes was "seen
to her," a multipurpose phrase that might have included
connecting a young woman with her family or providing train
fare to get to her destination out of New York and sending a
telegram with the details of her travel. Murphy said the
mission found jobs for approximately 12,000 Irish women in
its first 25 years.
The mission was envisioned by Charlotte Grace O'Brien, a
Protestant emigrant activist in Ireland and the daughter of
Irish patriot William Smith O'Brien. After crossing the
Atlantic in 1882 on an emigrant ship and living for a month
with the family of a New York longshoreman, she enlisted
Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minn., a native of
County Kilkenny who won moral and financial support for the
project from Irish and church groups.
Young women who came through the mission returned to
socialize with others and to support its work, Murphy said.
Mission services were provided free of charge and the mission
was funded by Our Lady of the Rosary, former residents,
fraternal organizations such as the Ancient Order of
Hibernians and the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick and by
contributions from other parishes.
Murphy said an annual fair in New York raised money for the
mission. On one occasion, Frances Folsom Cleveland, the
attractive young wife of President Grover Cleveland, presided
at the fair's flower booth and sold roses for $25 each. An
early history of the mission recounts, "This gracious and
kindly gesture increased the proceeds substantially, and
pleased beyond measure thousands of citizens interested in
the fair and in the Irish immigrant girl."
The exhibit, "The Irish Mission at Watson House," was
organized with grant assistance from the Irish Department of
Foreign Affairs. It opened in the basement of Watson House
Feb. 29, 2012, and eight months later sustained serious
damage when Hurricane Sandy filled the museum space with 13
feet of water. A second grant from the Irish Department of
Foreign Affairs helped restore the exhibit.
"The exhibit pays tribute to the mission and the Archdiocese
of New York, who set the gold standard for welcoming
immigrants to the United States," Murphy said at the
Our Lady of the Rosary pastor Father Peter Meehan said, "The
Irish are an example of real immigrants: They come here,
invest the capital of their life in the culture and transform
Joan Burton, Ireland's minister for social protection, said
she looked forward to "Bring the Girls Home," the exhibit's
traveling component visiting Ireland in May. She said it
illustrates the route that many young women took to win
financial independence for themselves, their children and
their grandchildren and underscores the value of education.
Noel Kilkenny, Ireland's consul general in New York, told
Catholic News Service the exhibit is a woman's story as much
as a Catholic story. "It's a great story about the church and
the role it played as a sanctuary," he said.
"The Irish are the only ethnic group of European immigrants
where the females outnumbered the males. It's a story of
great strength. Maybe the information can be found elsewhere,
but here we can all visualize our families coming through
this place. It's very real for us," Kilkenny said.
Five bound ledgers, with mission history from 1897 to 1940,
were digitized. They include 35,000 records and can be
searched at watsonhouse.org, which also displays information
and pictures from the exhibit.