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 rededication.
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 it."
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.