Irish Mission Exhibit at Seminary Focuses on Women and Their Work

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On the eve of International Women’s Day and 10 days before St. Patrick’s Day, a photo exhibit featuring young single Irish women who immigrated to New York opened in the Archives Building at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie. The yearlong exhibit tells the stories of young women assisted by the Irish Mission at Watson House in lower Manhattan from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s.

The exhibit is a project of the Archdiocese of New York and the Battery Heritage Foundation. Many of the names and related information have been digitized. The March 7 opening reception featured a talk by Dr. Maureen Murphy, a retired professor at Hofstra University who is the official Irish Mission historian.

“Most of them were Irish domestic workers,” Dr. Murphy noted during her presentation. “They received room and board—three meals a day, and so they had discretionary income that they sent back home to their parents in Ireland…so that the parents can pay rent or finish paying off land.” Dr. Murphy said that the young women were known for “their honesty, loyalty and cheerfulness.”

After being assisted by the Mission with a job search and finding relatives, usually siblings, in New York, many young women eventually obtained employment beyond domestic work, such as secretarial work and other office employment. Dr. Murphy said it was common for young Irish women—as well as young Irish men who immigrated to New York—to find jobs, settle here, get married and start families, and their parents usually stayed in Ireland.

The story, as explained by event organizers, goes as follows: On Dec. 4, 1885, Father John J. Riordan purchased Watson House at 7 State St. in lower Manhattan, and formally established the Home of the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary for the Protection of Irish Immigrant Girls. Through the pioneering efforts of emigration reformer Charlotte Grace O’Brien, Father Riordan and his priestly successors, the Mission helped more than 100,000 young Irish women, mostly 17 to 28 years of age.

The exhibit examines the extraordinary undertaking, a story of New York’s Irish Catholics. Featured are some of the original ledger books from the Mission, containing more than 45,000 names and genealogical information not found anywhere else. The exhibit also analyzes the connection of the Catholic Church to the Mission, and highlights new research being done on the women who came through Watson House. The landmark site is now home to Our Lady of the Rosary Church. The exhibit features 14 panels and a number of smaller encased photos.

Dr. Murphy spoke of the decades when Irish immigrants and others from Europe crossed the Atlantic Ocean in steamships. She gave details about steerage Irish immigrants and Castle Garden, a circular sandstone fort now located in Battery Park – known as America’s first immigration station (before Ellis Island). It is now called Castle Clinton National Monument. Dr. Murphy also stressed the Church’s long commitment to helping poor and low-income immigrants. She discussed how the young women of the Mission who went on to do domestic work were dedicated Mass-goers, putting church attendance ahead of work on Sundays.

At the end of her talk, Dr. Murphy invited the 25 people at the exhibit’s opening to look into the faces of the young women in the photos—to try to get to know them with a gaze, to imagine what they were going through in a new land, away from their families in Ireland. Each audience member was asked to “make eye contact with one of those girls.”

Kate Feighery, New York archdiocesan archivist, said the exhibit has been on display in several locations in the United States and Ireland since it was first shown at Our Lady of the Rosary in 2012.

“But this is the first time the exhibit has had original books from the Mission with the girls’ names,” Ms. Feighery noted, adding the photo display had to be restored after flood damage from Hurricane Sandy in fall 2012. She said the Mission “originally started to help Irish women (but later) helped any single woman that was traveling alone, as immigration patterns changed and other ethnic groups started to travel to America.”

In an interview with CNY after her talk, Dr. Murphy said she personally knows about a dozen people in the metropolitan area who have female ancestors whose names are on in the ledger books of the Irish Mission exhibit. They include John T. Ridge, an Irish culture historian who lives in Brooklyn, and Bridget Cusick, archdiocesan director of marketing.

“Between 1883 and 1908, 310,000 Irish girls came through the Port of New York, and they (Irish Mission at Watson House) looked after 100,000,” Dr. Murphy said. “And we’ve digitized the records for 45,000.”

Information: archives@archny.org or (914) 476-6333.

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