Forty-four faces stared out at us from a six-by-eight-foot enlargement of a black and white photograph taken in 1908. The images of young Irish immigrant women in their teens and twenties were both solemn and hopeful. These young women would become workers, mothers, and grandmothers, and would be the backbone of the Irish American community in New York and the United States.
Wednesday, February 29, 2012 was the official opening of a new exhibition produced by the Mission at Watson House at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in lower Manhattan. During the Ellis Island era, roughly 1890 to 1924, millions of European immigrants arrived in the United States. The church and the accompanying Watson House at 7 State Street provided greetings and safe haven for more than 100,000 young Irish girls who came to New York and the United States to work as servants. If there were no family members to greet them on arrival, they went to the mission that was popularly known as "Home of the Irish Immigrant Girls." The mission, which was founded in 1883, assisted any immigrant girls without discrimination, providing help in locating relatives, temporary lodging, and even jobs.
The exhibit is the result of the rediscovery of records of 60,000 young Irish women at the mission and Our Lady of the Rosary. The idea of a mission to greet new arrivals was conceived of by Charlotte Grace O'Brien, an Irish Protestant, and supported by Cardinal McCloskey and local Roman Catholic clergy. Its initial director was Father John J. Riordan. The church and Watson house were located near Castle Garden where Father Riordan met arriving immigrant ships each day. Later when the immigration depot moved to Ellis Island, mission agents greeted the girls and escorted them to the mission.
The exhibit, the work of the mission at Watson House committee chaired by Reverend Peter Meehan, is based on the historical research and archival collections of Maureen Murphy of Hofstra University and John T. Ridge. Tracy Turner designed the stunning twelve panels that hang like curtains in the exhibition area. The production manager was Turlough McConnell. The exhibit was supported with a grant from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs.
The Watson House is one of New York City's great historic buildings. Constructed in 1792 by a colonial merchant James Watson, it is located next to St. Elizabeth Seton Shrine. It is the last remaining federal-style house in lower Manhattan. Speakers at the opening including Dr. Murphy, Noel Kilkenny, Consul General of Ireland, and Kathleen Lynch, an Irish Minister of State for Equality.