Heart of New Orleans: Part 2

Heart of NOLA Segment 2

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The front-page story in the daily picayune is outlined in heavy black lines. It is a sad day of sorrow.

Friday, February 10, 1882. The headline simply reads, Margaret. A great calamity has befallen the orphans and the poor of New Orleans. Thousands pay their respects along the funeral procession from the St. Vincent Orphans Asylum to St. Patrick's Church.

Pallbearers include the city's mayor, Louisiana's governor and former governor. The city's most respected leaders and hundreds of orphans fill the pews and the aisles of the church. Within two years, the city erects a statue. It's one of the first statues in the United States honoring a woman.

Irish folk singer and songwriter Danny O'Flaherty moved to New Orleans in the early 1980's.

"I found out the Irish connections, you know, coming to New Orleans being the second largest port of entry," says O'Flaherty. "So, I took a keen interest in the people that came here as I was absolutely blown away by this woman."

O'Flaherty has tried to connect both ends of Margaret's amazing story from her life-saving work caring for a city's orphan children to her own humble beginning as Margaret Gaffney and a tragic journey from her birthplace in the small Irish town of Tully.

The Gaffney family, both parents, William and Margaret, and three of their six children, a son Kevin, five-year-old Margaret and a baby daughter Kathleen, left the family home in Ireland in 1818. The family arrived in Baltimore and after a long and difficult journey, the Gaffney's baby daughter dies. And the new world brings even more tragedy.

"When in 1822, the Yellow Fever struck and William and Margaret, that's Margaret's mother and father, died," says Bernie O'Rourke. "The little baby had already died at this stage and shortly after Margaret's brother disappeared. So, at the age of nine, Margaret was alone in a city where she knew nobody."

Years later Margaret married an Irishman, Charles Hauhery, and the couple moves from Baltimore to New Orleans where they have a baby girl named Francis. But Charles is in poor health and returns to Ireland.

"But shortly afterwards, Charles died. So Margaret is left with her little girl Francis," says O'Rourke. "Worst was to come for Margaret. Francis died shortly afterwards. So, Margaret at the age of 23, was once again alone in the world."

Margaret's life changes again when she meets Sister Francis Regis of the Sisters of Charity who encourages her to help with the orphans.

"I think Frances' engagement of Margaret, or vice versa, Margaret's engagement of Sr. Francis to do the work with the orphans is getting out of yourself saying there is a purpose for life. I didn't go through all of this for no reason," says Bonnie Hoffman.

Margaret starts a dairy business to provide milk and funding for the orphans. Then she takes over a bakery business. It was the first steam-powered bakery in the South.

"Incredible. Absolutely incredible. I mean, this woman couldn't read or write. But I think, I think her heart, her heart was taken by himself above," says O'Flaherty.

The businesses generate enough money for Margaret and the sisters to build the St. Vincent Infant Asylum and the St. Elizabeth's Home for Orphan Girls.

"I think she probably was a person who didn't really know she was setting out to build buildings or to feed the hungry. She just saw the need in front of her. She called on the phone who could get for her and for the orphans what they needed," says Hoffman.

Today, Margaret's statue stands on a small triangle of land that used to be a playground for orphans next to one of the former orphanages. Inscribed in the stone sidewalk are the names of orphanages that benefited from the gifts of Margaret Haughery.

"We have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of kids being taken from the streets. And each of those kids, those little boys and girls, each one of them being saved is a miracle," says O'Flaherty.

Another New Orleans religious order is looking for their own miracles. The Sisters of the Holy Family founded in the 1840's by Henriette Delille, a free woman of color. They are hoping the Vatican will validate two miracles attributed to their founder that could help clear the path to Sainthood for Delille.

A book contains the church's investigation of Delille's life and ministry in New Orleans.

"It was brought to the holy father, at that time was Benedict the XVI, and so he said that it proved that she has practiced heroic virtue and that she would be declared venerable. And that was in 2010," says Sr. Doris Goudeaux.

Delille was a mixed-race Creole woman, groomed to be part of the placage system where she would be mistress to a wealthy white man, but she felt the lifestyle was in conflict with her deep Catholic faith.

"She would like to become a sister and of course she couldn't join one of the communities that already existed because she was not white," says Goudeaux.

"Her oldest ministry was to take care of the sick and the elderly and then from that have Lafon Nursing Facility, which is known as the oldest continuously operating Catholic nursing home in the United States," says Sr. Greta Jupiter.

Delille and her fellow sisters made it their mission to care for the elderly, the sick and orphan children and the poor and to educate African Americans.

"It was certainly illegal for them to even have the slaves to teach them how to read and to write," says Jupiter.

Henriette Delille took her first vows at St. Mary's Church in the French Quarter and the order had its first ministry in Treme at St. Augustine Church. Years later, their convent moved to the French Quarter at what is now the Bourbon Orleans Hotel. Delille helped found St. Mary's Academy, a school for girls which stands next to the sisters' convent and nursing home in Eastern New Orleans.

"She was a social justice person who wanted to make things right and put everyone on the same plane and also to make sure that everybody's dignity was recognized," says Jupiter.

There is a small chapel honoring the venerable Henriette Delille inside St. Louis Cathedral. The Vatican is now investigating two proposed miracles. One in Arkansas and another in Galveston where terminal patients recovered after families prayed to Henriette Delille.

"And I think it certainly would be inspiring for the people of the African American people to know that there is someone of their own race who has been elevated to one of the highest, recognized positions in the Catholic Church," says Jupiter.

The Venerable Henriette Delille's faith has inspired and uplifted the city's minority community for the past 175 years.

Copyright 2018 WVUE. All rights reserved.