ORDINARY PEOPLE, EXTRAORDINARY GIFTS: HOW ONE WOMAN TURNED PAIN INTO PHILANTHROPY

In the garden of the Old Ursuline Convent Museum in New Orleans are six stone statues—five women and one man on bended knees. The statues flank—three on each side—a brick path that leads to a gold statue of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. They are St. Katharine Drexel, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, Venerable Henriette Delille and Venerable Cornelia Peacock Connelly. Each came into contact with the convent during her/his lifetime. In fact, Venerable Henriette Delille took her vows at the convent and Venerable Cornelia Peacock Connelly took first communion on the premises (experts say the communion took place either at the convent or the cathedral).

It is these statues, says New Orleans Archdiocese archivist Emilie Gagnet Leumas, PhD, that inspired the “Ordinary People, Extraordinary Gifts: The Road to Sainthood” Nola4Women Women of New Orleans: Builders and Rebuilders exhibit. “People didn’t know who these statues were and why they are important,” says Gagnet Leumas.

The New Orleans Archdiocese decided to add one more important woman to the mix, Margaret Gaffney Haughery. Born in Ireland, Margaret set sail to the United States with her parents at five years old. The ship entered the Chesapeake and landed in Baltimore where yellow fever took her parents’ lives just four years later, leaving nine-year-old Margaret an orphan. This loss foreshadowed what was to come. In adulthood Margaret became known as the “Mother of Orphans” in New Orleans where she opened orphanages and shelters dedicated to serving the poor and hungry.

Margaret lost her world twice—at 5 when her parents died and again at 23 when her husband and daughter died. Barely into adulthood, Margaret experienced immeasurable loss. “She turned her pain into empathy and dedication to those who suffered similar loss as well as other vulnerable populations,” says Gagnet Leumas. Margaret worked hard and put money aside so that she could purchase two cows and sell milk, butter and cream in the French Quarter. It turned out she had a knack for developing successful businesses, which eventually included Klotz Cracker Factory and Margaret’s Steam and Mechanical Bakery. Margaret used her businesses to help feed those in need, both supplying food and funds to orphanages and also going house-to-house with a cart to give milk and then bread to all in need—regardless of race or religion.


What’s astonishing, says Gagnet Leumas, is that Margaret worked her way from destitution to becoming a heroic businesswoman and philanthropist in a male dominated world. “She is part of the fabric of New Orleans,” says Gagnet Leumas. “We all have trials and tribulations in life, but Margaret shows us that we have choice. She went through despair with the loss of her parents, husband and child, but she persevered and spent her life doing good for others.”