Saturday, May 16, 2009

The more things change, the more they stay the same.


I've spent a bit of time lately at the former St. Vincent's Infant Asylum in New Orleans. There aren't many infants here these days; the old orphanage has been converted to a guesthouse, with hostel, hotel, and rental rooms. Here I learned about Margaret Haughery, the "bread woman" of New Orleans. There is a statue of her down the road, labeled only "margaret," supposedly because she was so well known, and said to be the only statute to a bread maker. She was born in Ireland in the early 1800s, came here as a child, was orphaned at a young age, and then grew up only to lose her husband and child to yellow fever. Instead of sitting and whining about her fate, she worked where she could and eventually owned her own very popular bakery, where she gave freely to the poor and refused to distinguish between them on the basis of class or religion. Along with a nun from the Sisters of Charity, she built and set up several orphanges, including St. Vincent's, to house the many children who were given up by their parents or orphaned by frequent epidemics in that swampy area. This humble, illiterate woman, who died in 1882, gave over $600,000 to the poor in her lifetime.

But many of the people who live in and near St. Vincent's today are in need of just as much help as were the people in Margaret's day.