Father Christopher C. Drumgoole
Shepherd of the Homeless Newsboys
By Peter J. Eckel, NCSA Member #321
1988 was the centennial of the death of Reverend John Christopher Drumgoole, unofficial patron saint to the homeless newsboys of New York City. A dark side of human history, the homeless newsboys were a tragic happening that occurred in the 19th century, when there lived a lost generation of forgotten street urchins children without dreams, who were victimized by exploitation, corruption, poverty and disease.
The influx of immigrants into New York City tripled the population within twenty years. Such a mass movement of people had no equal in the history of the human race. Much of the migration came from countries where conditions were poor. In Ireland, during the potato famine, 750,000 persons were believed to have died.
Many of the people seeking a new life were weak and sick when they left their native land. Many parents died during the long, hard voyage, or soon after landing, leaving children in a strange country without family or friends.
Thousands of immigrant children were driven from their home by poverty. They lived by their wits on the streets of the city. There are no relative figures, but a good estimate would be 30,000 deserted kids living in the streets of lower Manhattan; sleeping out like alley cats. These conditions existed for over fifty years.
In 1875 the increase of brutality to animals resulted in the formation of the ASPCA. But, believe it or not, there were no laws against the mistreatment of children. Finally, a law was passed one year later in 1876 for their protection.
As late as 1890, forty-six hundred kids were arrested for drunkenness and petty crimes. On a average day, one hundred boys were picked up and locked in the tombs with hardened criminals. One-half of the boys would have to be treated for venereal disease. The New York Sun was the first penny newspaper and also the first newspaper ever sold by newsboys on the streets of the city.
This was the Golden Age of the American press and saw the establishment of New York's great newspapers. Soon there were over fifty dailies creating great competition among the editors. In addition, there were thirty-two foreign papers and 120 weeklies being published in the city. This atmosphere gave birth to the newsboys and thousands of homeless tried to earn a living selling newspapers.
Many were as young as six years old. They bought the papers from dealers and lost money on any that they did not sell. They were aggressive, shoving the paper under the nose of every passerby, but who could blame them? Most were homeless and depended on the money to survive. In the biting cold of winter the newsboy could be found yelling the lead story of the day while his teeth chattered.
All the boys were known by nicknames. As a rule, these names indicated some personal characteristic. A thin fellow would be called "Skinny". A studious boy would be called "Horace Greeley", "Professor" or something similar.
Newspaper Row (which was only two blocks east of the World Trade Center), was the newsboys' headquarters, better known as Printing House Square, the location of New York's great newspapers. Directly across from City Hall, Printing House Square was the heart of the American press for fifty years. Many of the buildings had to be demolished to make room for the approaches to the Brooklyn Bridge.
The first organized effort to help the homeless newsboys was made in 1853 when Charles Loring Brace, a Protestant Minister, started a newsboys' lodging home, and founded the Children's Aid Society. In a period of seventy-five years, they sent 100,000 New York children to the Mid-West on orphan trains in order to get them away from the streets of the city.
There were a few other charity organizations and the city government provided facilities for others, but the bulk of the orphans were left to their own resources.
One of the few benefactors of these forgotten boys and girls was John Drumgoole who was born and raised in poverty and knew the needs of the poor. For over twenty-one years he was the Sexton/Janitor for Saint Mary's Church on the lower East Side where he permitted the children of the street to gather in the basement for shelter.
He entered the priesthood late in life and was ordained at the age of fifty-three. Two years later he was named Chaplain for the Saint Vincent's Newsboys' Home on Warren Street which was close to Printing House Square. It was an old warehouse that the Saint Vincent De Paul Society converted into sleeping quarters. This was located just five blocks north of the World Trade Center.
Father John circulated handbills advertising the home and walked the streets seeking out abandoned kids. In alleys and dark by-ways along the docks and rivers he found them by the numbers.
In no time the home was filled to capacity and had to be expanded. To obtain a source of income he founded the Saint Joseph's Union. Members paid twenty-five cents a year. In return, they received a certificate of membership and a newspaper called The Homeless Child. The Saint Joseph's Union reached the hearts of the people and The Homeless Child was soon published in five languages.
In 1881 Father Drumgoole purchased land at the corner of Great Jones and Lafayette Street where he built the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, a ten story building which was the highest in the district.
The following year he decided to carry out two more of his dreams: a vocational school to develop talent by education, and a home for the newsboys in the country. He purchased a farm on Staten Island and founded Mount Loretto which was the largest child care institution in the United States.
In the beginning, the farmers of Princes Bay did not like the idea of having a Catholic institution as a neighbor, but that soon changed. After plowing and planting, Mount Loretto was cultivated into the most productive farm on Staten Island. The buildings went up one after another. The kids made their own clothes and shoes, grew their own food, raised live stock and poultry. Soon Mount Loretto was able to care for 2,000 children and was free of any debt.
Everything about Mount Loretto was gigantic. The farm was more than a mile square. In the Hen House was an incubator capable of hatching one thousand chickens at one time. The barn was five stories high and housed 300 head of cattle and many horses. The barn, the largest in the state and third largest in the country, was a monument to Father Drumgoole's vision. The herd was sold in 1961 and were the last cows in New York City.
In 1882 Father John organized a brass band and, until recent years, the Mount Loretto band marched in every Saint Patrick's Day Parade. At the time the band was one of the best in the country and even performed in the White House.
Father Drumgoole was one of the first commuters between Staten Island and Manhattan. In March, 1888, on one of his trips, he got caught in the Great Blizzard. A few weeks later, at the age of 72, he died. With his death the newsboys lost their best friend.
It is estimated that one hundred thousand people came to pay their respects. The Mass at Saint Patrick's Cathedral was crowded with hundreds of priests, bishops, and thousands of the poor. March 28 of this year was the 100th anniversary of his death. Father John is buried at Mount Loretto in a mausoleum overlooking Princes Bay.
A memorial statue was erected in 1894 and placed in front of the Mission at Lafayette Street. It stayed in Manhattan for over twenty-five years before being moved to Staten Island in 1920. The statue depicts Father Drumgoole with two boys -- one well-dressed and reading a book and the other a ragged newsboy who had thrown down his pack of papers and clings to the priest for protection. The two figures represent the same boy -- before and after meeting Father John.
The church at Mount Loretto, completed in 1894, was magnificent. The steeple rose 225 feet into the sky. All of the pews, doors, and most of the trim, were made by the boys in the Mission's grade school. A memorial stained glass window was dedicated in 1898. On the right was Father Drumgoole directing his children to Our Lord. In 1972 the Baptism scene in the Godfather was filmed in the church at Mount Loretto. Throughout the years many sport figures visited Mount Loretto including Lou Gerhig, Babe Ruth and the great Jack Dempsey.
In 1941 a major highway in Staten Island was named in Father Drumgoole's honor. In 1973 the New York Board of Education renamed Public School 36 the Father John C. Drumgoole Annadale School.
To keep his memory alive, a tower was erected to the church in Abbeylara in Ireland where he was born.