The Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary for the Protection of Irish Immigrant Girls


O’Brien returned to controversy in Ireland in 1883. The influential John Boyle O’Reilly, Irish Republican Brotherhood member, who himself had been transported to Australia and was now the editor of the Boston Pilot, denounced her as a British agent whose emigrant boardinghouse and plans for an American home for Irish immigrant girls facilitated the government’s assisted-emigrant scheme, the scheme that helped landlords clear their estates of poor tenants.

In fact, O’Brien opposed assisted emigration, but she would do her best for those who were sent to her. While she worked through 1883, Bishop Ireland raised support for her proposal at the May 1883 meeting of the Irish Catholic Colonization Society. The Society voted to endorse the plan and to establish an information bureau at Castle Garden, the New York State immigration depot. (When the federal government assumed the jurisdiction for emigration, Ellis Island replaced Castle Garden as the immigration reception site.)
Bishop Ireland contacted Cardinal John McCloskey in New York about providing services for Irish immigrant girls. The Irish Emigrant Society’s agent Daniel O’Connell assured the cardinal that there was indeed work for a priest in Castle Garden. Father John Riordan, the first chaplain at Castle Garden, officially established the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary for the Protection of Irish Immigrant Girls on October 1, 1883. 

The Mission had three goals: a Catholic Bureau at Castle Garden to provide information and counseling to immigrants, a temporary home or boarding house where immigrants could be safely sheltered while in transit or while waiting for work, and an immigrants’ chapel. The Mission opened on January 1, 1884. Immigrant girls needing accommodation were placed in local boarding houses until May 1st when a Home for Immigrant Girls was opened at 7 Broadway with a Mrs. Boyle, a matron from the Labor Bureau, hired to look after the residents. The following year, Father Riordan purchased 7 State Street for the Mission home from Isabella Wallace for $70,000. 

Patrick McCoole joined the Mission early in 1906 as its first agent at Castle Garden and then at Ellis Island. He interviewed arriving girls, assisted them with meeting family or friends, advised them about traveling on to destinations outside New York, and escorted those unmet girls or girls without sponsors to the Home. McCoole’s experience with the arriving Irish girls gave him insights that he passed along to immigration and to shipping officials. After McCoole’s death in 1906, Sligo-born Patrick McDonough became the Mission’s agent at Ellis Island, where he met Helen Healy when she landed in 1908; he married her the following year. In addition to his administrative work for the Mission, McDonough edited its quarterly Old Castle Garden (1931-1940). Its pages demonstrate the way that immigrant benevolent societies and programs like those of the Mission helped to acculturate new arrivals. Articles in Old Castle Garden offered sensible advice about education and employment, cautionary tales like “Bridget’s Night Out,” and immigrant literature that helped articulate their sense of loss and displacement.

At the time of the Mission’s Silver Jubilee in 1908, the Mission’s third director, Father Michael J. Henry, reported that they had seen nearly one third of the 307,823 Irish girls who passed through the Port of New York between 1883 and 1908. They found employment for 12,000. The photograph of the Irish immigrant girls in front of the Mission represents some of those 100,000 who passed through the Mission.

They are the faces of our mothers and grandmothers. The Mission’s ledger books hold the records of 60,000 arrivals; it is a priceless and unique archive of the immigration experience of Irish women. Some entries include comments. The most frequent is “seen to her,” and “seen to her” they did.

The data from 1,736 arrivals who went through the Mission between August 24, 1897 and August  31, 1898 provides a profile of the Irish immigrant girl who passed through the Mission during that year. She arrived in the spring aboard a White Star liner that she had boarded in Queenstown. The average age of arriving girls that year was nineteen and  a half. She certainly came from rural Ireland. Mayo, Galway, Cork, Kerry and Roscommon accounted for nearly half of the arrivals for whom we have a county of origin. Nearly ten percent traveled with a sister. Twenty-six percent of the girls were met by a female with the same surname; forty-two percent listed sponsors with the same surname. It was an immigration of siblings, of family reunification in Irish America.

The Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary never closed; it has continued as the Parish of Our Lady of the Rosary. Today it shares its site with the St. Elizabeth Seton Shrine at 8 State Street. Under the leadership of Father Peter Meehan, pastor of the parish, the current Watson House Preservation initiative seeks to provide funding for the completion of the building restoration project. There is a further effort to conserve and digitalize the Mission records. The final phase will be a museum and reading room for visitors and for those who wish to use the Mission archive for genealogical research, and who, like Irish-American historian John Ridge, might open a ledger and discover the names of their mothers or grandmothers among the girls assisted by the Mission. “With the archives I found and a few hours of leisure time I discovered sources of an unassuming story containing inspiration of love and service here on State Street,” says Meehan. “The genealogical, cultural, educational and spiritual potential of the
project is real.”