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Emigrant Aid Societies

Organizations that care for immigrants

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Emigrant Aid Societies. —Records of the early immigration to the North American colonies are indefinite and unsatisfactory. The first legislation on immigration enacted by the United States was on March 2, 1819, when Congress provided that a record be kept of the number of the immigrants arriving from abroad, their ages, sex, occupations, and nativity. Ireland has always supplied a large proportion of those landed at American ports, the steady stream commencing in the first years of the eighteenth century. These immigrants were then nearly all Presbyterians, few Catholics being among those taking passage prior to the Revolution. Arthur Young, in his “Tour in Ireland” (1776-79), declares that “the spirit of emigrating in Ireland appears to be confined to two circumstances, the Presbyterian religion and the linen manufacture. I heard of very few emigrants except among manufacturers of that persuasion. The Catholics never went; they seemed not only tied to the country, but almost to the parish in which their ancestors lived.” In a message to the “Representatives of the Freemen of the Province of Pennsylvania and the Three Lower Counties”, Lieutenant Governor Patrick Gordon declared, on December 17, 1728, that he had “positive orders from Britain to provide by proper law against these crowds of Foreigners who are yearly powr’d upon us. It may also require thoughts to prevent the importation of Irish Papists and convicts, of whom some of the most notorious, I am creditably informed, have of late been landed in this River.”

The earliest American organization for the care of immigrants was the Charitable Irish Society of Boston, Massachusetts, founded March 17, 1737. Says its charter: “Several Gentlemen, Merchants and Others of the Irish Nation residing in Boston in New England from an Affectionate and Compassionate concern for their countrymen in these Parts, who may be reduced by Sickness, Shipwrack, Old age and other Infirmities and unforseen Accidents, Have thought fitt to form themselves into a Charitable Society for the relief of such of their poor and indigent Countrymen”. The Managers, according to the rules, were to be “Natives of Ireland, or Natives of any other part of the British Dominions of Irish Extraction being Protestants and inhabitants of Boston”. This anti-Catholic rule did not last long, for representatives of the Faith were members of the Society in 1742, and today they are in the majority on its roll.

In Philadelphia the Hibernian Society for the Relief of Emigrants from Ireland was organized on March 3, 1790. Mathew Carey was its secretary, and Commodore John Barry, Jasper Moylan, George Meade, and other Catholics prominent in those days were among its first members. The Hibernian Society for “the aid of distressed Irishmen and their descendants” was started at Savannah, Georgia, in March, 1812, and emigration from Ireland being constantly on the increase, other societies were formed in New York, notably the Emigrant Assistance Society in 1825, with Dr. William James Macneven, one of the United Irishmen of 1798, at its head. It was the canal and railroad-building era, and the aim of this society was to take care of the new arrivals and direct them where to find employment. It was the predecessor of the Irish Emigrant Society founded, also in New York, in 1841, through the efforts of Bishop Hughes, with Gregory Dillon as its first president. Out of this organization ten years later came the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank, which in subsequent years developed into one of the greatest financial institutions in the country.

As New York was the great entrepôt for aliens, the Legislature, by act of May 5, 1847, created the Board of Emigration of the State of New York to protect from fraud and imposition alien passengers arriving at New York, and to care and provide for the helpless among them. The president of the Irish Emigrant Society was ex-officio a member of this commission, and at Castle Garden, which became the official landing depot, its agents were recognized officially in their arrangements for the care of the incoming immigrant. In addition to looking out for the welfare of the immigrants, a banking department was organized by the society to transmit money to Europe, to secure passage tickets over the ocean and the railways, to exchange the money brought in by the immigrants, and safeguard their material interests generally. In this way many millions of dollars, as well as several millions of immigrants, have been safely cared for through the instrumentality of this society. The discounts and commissions in these financial transactions paid its expenses and left a surplus which is given in charity, so that it will benefit either the immigrants or their descendants. The law by which the State of New York established the Commissioners of Emigration was declared by the Supreme Court, in May, 1876, an unconstitutional regulation of commerce, and an usurpation of the powers of Congress. In the twenty-nine years of its existence it had collected by a head tax from the immigrants the sum of $11,239,329. The responsibility of caring for the immigrants was then taken over by the Federal Government, in July, 1891. The State commission was abolished, Castle Garden abandoned, and the United States landing station established on Ellis Island under the supervision of the Treasury Department. Here, as under the State control, the representatives of the Emigrant Aid Societies are accorded all facilities for protecting and assisting those who need their help in starting out in the New World.

For the protection of Irish immigrant girls the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary was founded in New York in 1881, through the efforts of Charlotte Grace O’Brien, daughter of William Smith O’Brien, the Irish patriot of 1848. At her solicitation—she was not until several years later a CatholicCardinal McCloskey appointed the Rev. John J. Riordan chaplain at Castle Garden, and he began there the work of the mission which exercises a moral influence over the steamship companies to protect the girls on board their vessels, and watches over and assists the girls at the landing depot. From its opening to the end of 1908, fully 100,000 girls were cared for by the mission, all free of charge. It is supported by voluntary contributions.

The increase of immigration having thus been recognized as a fact calling for charitable action, the German Society of New York offered advice and systematic assistance to German immigrants, but took no interest in their religious welfare. Its president was ex officio a member of the State Emigration Commission. In 1866, at the Catholic Congress held at Trier, Peter Paul Cahensly, a prominent merchant of Limburg, Prussia, suggested the establishment of the St. Raphael Society for the systematic protection of German emigrants, both at the point of departure and the port of landing. Three years later the plan was adopted at the Congress which met at Bamberg in Bavaria, and was taken up with much energy throughout Germany. Connection with the United States was established through the Central Verein, which, at its convention in New York, in 1868, created a committee of five for emigrant affairs. The agents of this body looked after the affairs of the immigrants at New York, but received only a waning support from their fellow Germans. In 1883 Peter Paul Cahensly crossed the ocean to New York, travelling, as Miss O’Brien had done, in the steerage, so that he might learn by personal experience the wants and hardships of the immigrant. At his suggestion a branch of the St. Raphael Society was formed in New York, with Bishop Winand M. Wigger of Newark as its president. Not much progress was made by this society until 1882, when the Rev. John Reuland was sent over from Germany to manage its bureau at New York. As an adjunct to it, a hospice called the Leo House was established under a separate corporation in 1889. It cost $95,000. The Sisters of St. Agnes have charge of the Leo House, which is the residence of the chaplain in attendance on the German immigrants. From 1889 to November 1, 1908, there were 51,719 immigrants cared for by the St. Raphael Society. Since the decline of German immigration after 1895, the Leo House has also entertained natives of France, Poland, Bohemia, and other Slavonic sections of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. The St. Raphael Society has its agents at Bremen, Hamburg, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Havre, Liverpool, and London, representatives in every diocese in Germany, and correspondents in all the large cities of the United States and of South America.

The Austrian Society of New York was founded in 1898 by a number of former Austrians to aid the newly arrived immigrants at Ellis Island, and to maintain a home under its supervision for the purpose of boarding them free of charge. Those who can afford it pay a nominal fee. Advice and help to employment is given free not only to the newcomers, but also to Austrians who have been in the country for any length of time. The Society is supported by the dues of the members and by donations including an annual subsidy of $5000 from the Austrian Government. Among the members are twenty-one priests. The Austrian Society employs three agents at Ellis Island; one of them is the missionary who pleads before the board of inquiry for the unfortunate detained, cares for the sick, and looks after the spiritual needs of all. In the ten years of its existence 721,631 persons were entertained at its immigrant house. To maintain the Catholic character of the home and of the Austrian Society at large, as originally intended by the Emperor of Austria, it has from the start been chiefly interested in the Catholic immigrants, but all others are welcome to its care and facilities.

Polish priests ministering in the Eastern section of the United States established at New York, in 1893, the St. Joseph‘s Society, for the aid and care of the immigrants of that nationality. Its chaplain and agents work on the same lines as those of other societies of the Government landing station. Its home is in charge of the Filician Sisters, and its accommodations are free. Its support is derived from voluntary contributions and a yearly grant of $1000 from the Austrian Government on account of the Poles from Galicia who may seek the assistance of the home.

Under the auspices of the Fathers of Mercy the Jeanne d’Arc Home for the protection of French immigrant women was opened in 1895, in New York. It was founded through the generosity of Miss C. T. Smith, who gave the home as a memorial of her mother Mrs. Jeanne Durand Smith. Two years later the Sisters of Divine Providence took charge of it, and they have since managed its affairs. Since its establishment 6800 women have received its care. It is supported by voluntary contributions. The inmates pay if they can, most of them are taken care of gratuitously. Employment is found for them and they are taught useful domestic arts.

As part of the great work in behalf of Italian immigrants undertaken by Bishop Scalabrini of Piacenza, Italy, members of his Congregation of St. Charles Borromeo established the Society of St. Raphael for Italian Immigrants at New York in 1891. Its home is managed by the Sisters of Charity (Pallottine). Only women and children are kept there; men are given meals and advice, but lodge elsewhere. The chaplain and agent meet the immigrants at Ellis Island. A branch of this society was organized at Boston, in 1902. In December, 1908, Archbishop Blenk of New Orleans appointed an Italian priest as chaplain to look after immigrants from Italy and open a home for them. Work here is carried on by the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

The Society for Italian Immigrants is a secular corporation organized in New York in 1901 for the aid and protection of immigrants. It has no religious affiliations. The Italian government makes it an annual appropriation equal to the amount received from all other sources, and its income is derived from the subscriptions of those interested in philanthropic work. Its home has accommodations for 200. It has founded four schools in Italian labor camps to prevent the demoralization usually attending those communities. The enormous volume of Italian immigration during recent years may be realized from the fact that from 1880 to 1908 it amounted to 2,500,000. In 1857 it was about 1000; in 1880 it was 12,000; in 1907, 286,000. It is estimated that 250,000 aliens arrived in the United States between 1789 and 1820. From 1820, when the official records begin, to the end of the fiscal year, June 30, 1907, the number of immigrants arriving was 25,985,237.

The Association for the Protection of Belgian and Dutch Immigrants was organized June 4, 1907, at Chicago, Illinois, by priests in charge of congregations in various sections of the United States, made up of those nationalities. Other priests interested in the spiritual and temporal welfare of the Catholic immigrants from Belgium and Holland assisted in its progress.


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