Maureen Fitzgerald on Irish Nuns and Welfare
Date: August 21st, 2016

The middle of the 19th century was a time of immense demographic, economic, and social change in the United States.  Foremost among these changes was a wave of immigration that remade the economic and political landscape of the country.  We invite Dr. Maureen Fitzgerald, an associate professor of history at the College of William & Mary, to discuss the little known history of how Irish Catholic nuns helped shepherd immigrants into this new and changing environment, and how those nuns, in turn, set the groundwork for later social welfare policies in New York City and beyond.  Prof. Fitzgerald explains the origin of her research, beginning with interest in the upper-class Protestant reformer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and then realizing how the names of a number of Irish nuns kept surfacing in her investigation of this period.  Historically speaking, these Catholic women religious did not leave as big of a paper trail of evidence of their activities as Protestant reformers, but a detailed case study of New York City by Prof. Fitzgerald did yield a wealth of other information that became the book Habits of Compassion: Irish-Catholic Nuns and the Origins of New York’s Welfare System 1830-1920.  That period of time, roughly a century, was one of major socio-economic and demographic changes in the United States, not the least of which was the massive Irish immigration in the 1840s during the period of the Great Famine.  Maureen discusses the nature of that immigration (often led by single women) and how U.S. convents and other organizations established by Catholic nuns were pivotal in offering assistance to new immigrants and keeping many of them out of prostitution.  We also discuss the role these women religious played in countering efforts of Protestant reformers to remove Catholic children from impoverished or single-mother homes and relocate them in Protestant households (something known as the “child-saving movement”).  We discuss how these early efforts were funded (largely via private donations or school tuitions) and how this shifted following the Civil War when a majority of New York City residents were immigrants or second-generation ethnic voters.  The rise of “machine politics” (Tammany Hall) allowed public funds to be directed towards Catholic charities, bolstering their position within the city and allowing them to expand.  We discuss the indirect influence that the Irish nuns had on the foundation for later welfare policies such as the Destitute Mother’s Bill.  Maureen concludes her discussion with some reflection on the craft of studying the history of individuals and groups who don’t leave a written record.  Recorded: August 8, 2016.

Note: In the introduction, Tony incorrectly notes Maureen as the author of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Woman’s Bible.  Prof. Fitzgerald was the author of an introduction to that book.  This was Tony’s error and was corrected during the conversation.



Prof. Maureen Fitzgerald’s bio at the College of William & Mary.

Habits of Compassion: Irish Catholic Nuns and the Origins of New York’s Welfare System, by Maureen Fitzgerald.

Erin’s Daughters in America, by Hasia Diner (mentioned in podcast).


David Mislin on Embracing Religious Pluralism.

John Wilsey on American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion.

Barry Hankins on Jesus, Gin, and the Culture Wars.

John Fea on the American Bible Society.

Nathanael Snow on the Evangelical Coalition and Public Choice.

Jay Hein on the Quiet Revolution of Social Work.

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