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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Newsboys Revisited

By Peter J. Eckel

It has been one hundred and twenty-three years since the death of Fr. John Christopher Drumgoole, the unofficial patron saint of the homeless newsboys of New York City. We will never forget his life and the children he served.

The homeless newsboys were a tragic story of poverty, exploitation and hardship that occurred in the 1800s, when they lived as a forgotten generation of street urchins — children without dreams, who were victimized by abuse, corruption, poverty and disease.

Keep in mind, the 19th Century saw an influx of immigrants into New York City – the population tripled in just twenty years. Much of the migration came from countries where conditions were poor. In Ireland at this time, 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 to America, or soon after landing, leaving their children in a strange country without family or friends.

There are no real accurate figures, but a good estimate would be 30,000 deserted kids lived on the streets of lower Manhattan; sleeping out homeless, like alley cats, exposed to extreme cold in the winter and sweltering heat in the summer. This terrible saga continued on for more than fifty years.

Coincidentally, it was also the Golden Age of the American press and saw the establishment of New York's great newspapers. The New York Sun was the first penny newspaper and also the first newspaper ever sold by newsboys on the streets of the city. 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 children tried to earn a living selling newspapers.

Some 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.

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.

Another pastoral hero of these forgotten boys and some girls too was Fr. John Drumgoole. Prior to his ordination to the priesthood, he was born and raised in poverty and knew the needs of the poor. For over twenty-one years he was the janitor for Saint Mary's Church on the lower East Side where he permitted the newsboys to gather in the basement for shelter.

Fr. John 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 near 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 former World Trade Center site. He went on to found a number of shelters, orphanages and organizations raising funds for an increase in services for the poor children.

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 and orphaned. Father John is buried at Mount Loretto in a mausoleum overlooking Princes Bay.

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 at the church of his baptism in Abbeylara, Ireland where he was born.
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