The assimilation of Irish Catholic immigrants into American society was a turbulent process in New York City before, during and after the Famine. In 1835, more than 30,000 Irish arrived annually on the waterfront, and during the Famine years, from 1845 to 1855, the influx of victims escaping Ireland’s Great Hunger caused the city population to grow from 371,000 to 630,000.
The impoverished immigrants who flooded New York disrupted the dominance of the Anglo-Protestant elite, who responded with nativist backlash that intensified as immigration swelled.
The champion of the Irish immigrants was Archbishop John Hughes, who emigrated from Ulster a generation earlier. The visionary Hughes saw the Catholic Church as a civic institution to promote Irish assimilation through the strengthening of democratic ideals.
However, the transformation of New York City as a haven for immigrants needed an infrastructure, which was built through the strength, the courage, and the unwavering commitment of the Sisters of Charity of New York, who were the driving force that enabled the Irish newcomers to build new lives in America.
Transforming New York into a safe place for this immigrant population was a monumental task that would require schools, orphanages and hospitals. The city at that time was concentrated in Lower Manhattan. Areas such as Five Points, near City Hall, overflowed with impoverished Irish and exploded with crime and prostitution; it was home to 17 brothels and countless saloons,
Hughes called Five Points’ predominantly Irish residents “the poorest and most wretched population that can be found in the world -- the scattered debris of the Irish nation.” In 1842 the English author Charles Dickens, another authority on urban poverty, described Five Points as “loathsome, drooping, and decayed”; the Londoner had to be accompanied by two policemen to ensure his safety when he visited America’s first notorious slum.
Thousands of abandoned and orphaned children of Irish parents roamed, or prowled, the city’s streets. Violent Irish gangs, with names like the Forty Thieves, the B’boys, the Roach Guards, and the Chichesters, wreaked havoc on their neighborhoods.
And how they rioted. The anti-abolitionist riots of 1834 took place over four sweltering summer nights in July. Then, in 1849, came the Astor Street Riots, which began over anger at who could play Macbeth better, the American actor Edwin Forrest or the Englishman William Charles Maccready. The outcome of that riot left 25 citizens dead.
Later, in 1857, came the Dead Rabbits Riot on Bayard Street in the Five Points, a full-fledged riot in which an estimated 800 to 1,000 gang members took advantage of New York's disorganized police force. The anger of these immigrants seemed ready at any moment to ignite an firestorm of rage.
The notorious Civil War Draft Riots followed in 1863 when over 1,000 people were killed in three days. That riot is still on record as America’s worst.
The Sisters of Charity prevailed in this atmosphere of urban terror. The nuns had been a presence in New York since 1817, when their founder, Mother Elizabeth Seton, sent the first sisters from the motherhouse in Emmitsburg, Maryland, to staff the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum, later known as St. Patrick’s Orphanage to care for the stream of destitute and impoverished children.
The situation grew increasingly dire, and by 1846 the sisters made the difficult decision to break from their order in Maryland and start a new congregation so they could concentrate their efforts on this desperate local population. In choosing to break with their order these women had everything to lose and nothing to gain, but they knew how much was at stake.
One of those nuns, Sister Mary Angela, was Hughes' younger sister who entered the Emmitsburg novitiate in 1825, was sent on missions to Cincinnati and St. Louis before joining her brother in New York in 1846 to direct St. Joseph’s Half Orphan Asylum for children. (A half orphan was a child who had lost one parent.)
Following the decision to form their own congregation in1846, and spurred by the desperate needs of the Famine Irish, Sister Angela and the Sisters of Charity created a lasting social infrastructure that continues to this day. They created the first social service “safety net” before welfare or public assistance existed.
By 1850 the city’s Catholics had become so numerous that Pope Pius IX made New York an archdiocese and Hughes its first archbishop. A few years later, Hughes conceived a plan to build a great cathedral, three miles out of town, on Fifth Avenue, to serve as a spiritual home and a haven for his beloved Irish America. He died in 1864 before his vision was realized.
His sister, who successfully ran orphanages, schools, and with three other sisters began St. Vincent's Hospital died two years later. She had been elected superior of the congregation in 1855, and ably oversaw the construction of the motherhouse, known today as Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale.
Though it ceased operating as a school in 2010, St. Patrick's School at 32 Prince Street stands as a monument to the work of the Sisters. Over the years those classrooms served thousands of students; one of those boys was director Martin Scorsese, whose 2002 film, The Gangs of New York, based on Herbert Asbury’s 1928 book, tells a violent tale of gang warfare during those early New York days. According to city historian William J. Stern in his brilliant 2003 essay “What Gangs of New York Misses,” it ignored the real drama of the moment -- the transformation of the city’s Irish underclass into mainstream citizens.
Though the film's historical accuracy may be arguable, the storytelling expertise of the director cannot be contested. He is remembered as a storyteller in his student days as well.
“Martin loved to tell stories,” his eighth-grade teacher, Sister Marita Regina Bronner, told me recently. This lively woman, aged 91, is now retired at St. Patrick’s Villa in Nanuet.
“In my English class Martin Scorsese was forever jumping up and asking if the class could act out the stories that we read. I told him to sit down. ‘Martin, the other children must first learn to read before they can act.’”
That the sisters made an enduring impact on the landscape of New York is unquestioned. Their efforts, motivated by compassion, empowered generations of Irish immigrants to survive and thrive in a nation dedicated to tolerance.
Yet the nation that eventually embraced them remained intolerant. At the time when the sisters made official their decision to form their own congregation, Congressman Daniel Gott from New York gave an impassioned speech to the House of Representatives against the proposed emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia. He described the actions of abolitionists in the North as "impertinent interference with the slaves."
Though his speech expressed the sentiments of few New Yorkers, it joined a chorus of intransigent Southerners determined to preserve a lifestyle held in place by oppression and cruelty. Irish Americans, who struggled for freedom a decade earlier, served their Union as enlisted soldiers in the American Civil War. Many made the ultimate sacrifice for a nation that was still reluctant to accept them.
And yet, the Sisters of Charity, the women behind the story, continue the work of serving undeserved populations, those immigrants and minorities determined to get ahead in America. Though their numbers have fallen greatly in recent decades, the sisters who remain today in New York and as far away as Guatemala are fiercely committed to education, health care, child care and social justice.
Their work and their struggle deserve as prominent a place in the history books as the wars that claim the lives of those immigrants and their children.
* Turlough McConnell is curator/producer of the exhibition, A Monumental Legacy: Archbishop John J. Hughes and the Building of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Originally shown at the Consulate of Ireland New York in 2014, panels from the exhibition are on view at the gallery of the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, 345 Mulberry Street, New York.
The Archbishop Hughes Commemorative Committee, a collaboration of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick and Ancient Order of Hibernians, is pleased to announce that a lasting memorial has been commissioned to honor and perpetuate the life and legacy of Archbishop John J. Hughes -- Ireland's greatest immigrant of the 19th century and unsung American hero. The memorial will be unveiled at a ceremony celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in November of 2015 by His Eminence Cardinal Timothy Dolan. For more information see www.archbishophughes.com.