Peggy Noonan’s Tribute to Her Great-Aunt Was Immigrant Story Told Well at Al Smith Dinner


Peggy Noonan said her great-aunt Mary Jane Byrne would have loved being among the 650 well-heeled, charitable people filling the Park Avenue Armory for the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner and proceeded to paint a word portrait so vivid it seemed like she was.

Ms. Noonan, who delivered the keynote address capping the 77th annual dinner Oct. 20, is the longtime Wall Street Journal columnist and author who won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Commentary. Early in her career she served as a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan.

Her aunt’s life had its share of struggles, as an immigrant to Ellis Island in New York by way of Ireland. She worked on Park Avenue as a maid and worshiped at St. Vincent Ferrer Church, just a short walk from the armory.  

She also enjoyed a love of history, poetry and politics that gave Ms. Noonan “a sense of the romance of life” that she has carried from her childhood in the 1950s.

Her aunt respected the work she did and also her Catholic faith. “Wherever she went, she was creating an altar,” she said of her aunt who died when Ms. Noonan was a teen. 

Even today, Ms. Noonan said, “I think I’m home” when she notices religious cards, and statues of saints and Jesus in homes of more recent immigrants to America.

Her aunt’s life wasn’t always easy (“There’s a lot of turbulence in every life,” Ms. Noonan said.)—but she said her Aunt Mary Jane would have “loved being here tonight.”

“We all have great stories, everyone in this room,” Ms. Noonan said.

The annual dinner, named for the first Catholic major party candidate for president in 1928 and a four-time governor of New York state, was attended by luminaries of business, religion, media and, of course, politics. 

Cardinal Dolan delivered the invocation and welcoming remarks. 

Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Archeparchy of Philadelphia offered the Benediction, asking guests to join hands with those at their tables. The archbishop prayed for people in families, New York City, the United States and across the world, especially for peace in Ukraine, where war has raged since Russia’s unprovoked invasion in late February.

Gov. Kathy Hochul was in attendance, as was Rep. Lee Zeldin, who is trying to unseat her on Election Day. New York City Mayor Eric Adams sat tall on the dais despite attempts of humor at his nightclubbing exploits, with one joke even comparing his “outfits” with the cardinal’s. 

It was that kind of night, as it always is. The best line by Rosanna Scotto, the mistress of ceremonies and co-host of Fox 5’s Good Day New York, wasn’t funny, rather serious, when she said, “To me, this evening is personal, a kind of family dinner.” 

Of course, Ms. Scotto couldn’t help herself entirely, such as when she described the atmosphere in the cavernous, yet comfortable, armory between 66th and 67th streets. 

“Crime is a national issue. For your safety, we’ve decided to hold this dinner this year in a literal armory,” she said.

This year’s dinner surpassed its fund-raising goal, collecting nearly $6 million for charitable organizations supporting women and children in need, with “special attention” given to refugees seeking assistance. This year’s grantees include Catholic Charities, Covenant House and the Inner-City Scholarship Fund.

“This dinner always has a great New York feel,” Ms. Noonan said. “The room is full of New Yorkers who do things big and brashly.”

Mary Callaghan Erdoes, vice chair of the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation and CEO of J.P. Morgan Asset and Wealth Management, told guests about the good the dinner accomplishes “because of you and your continued generosity.”

“The money you give goes straight to the people in need,” she said.

Introducing Happy Warrior recipient Peter T. Grauer, chairman of Bloomberg and president of the board of trustees of the Inner-City Scholarship Fund, was Susan George, who worked with him for 18 years as executive director of the Inner-City Scholarship Fund. She was recently named chief advancement and stewardship officer for the archdiocese.  

Grauer is also a member of the board of directors of the Partnership for Inner-City Education.

Ms. George, in her remarks, said Grauer has been a “champion of Catholic education” for over 20 years and has helped “two generations” of Catholic school students. She said he and his wife, Laurie, have “personally sponsored” 75 students.

Grauer, in his remarks, said he has always found the “simple, but powerful mission” of the Inner-City Scholarship Fund attractive—“providing a Catholic values-based education to children in the city’s most vulnerable communities.”

Grauer also outlined an “ambitious new commitment” he made as ICSF board president. Embarking on a capital campaign with a goal of $125 million, which was surpassed, enabled “every child who enrolls in our schools, regardless of grade, would be guaranteed a desk through high school.”

His decision to say yes to then-Cardinal Edward Egan’s offer to lead ICSF was “one of the best decisions I ever made,” Grauer said.

“To walk into a classroom and meet our students, see their enthusiasm, hear them talk about grades, it’s powerful.”