Marilyn Nelson

Sisters of Charity

Sarah Matilda White, 1852
In memoriam, John Hughes [1797 – 1864],
first Archbishop of NY

More Irish seem to arrive here every day,
like rats fleeing a ship that’s going down.
Their women troll our streets for men at night;
their children run wild all day in shanty-town.

They come in coffin ships, with little more
than faith and hunger. Ignorant, unskilled,
they seem hell-bent on making themselves less,
like prodigal sons content to live in swill.

People who have nothing will rob the poor
to feed their children. Now I lock the house
and clutch my purse, as fearful as the rich.
They steal, they smell, they’re idlers, and they’re loud.

But I do like that flock of Irish nuns
that swoop like crows, catching truants by the ear
and marching them to school, then wake the tarts
to steer them toward respectable careers.

They are taking a thousand white fugitive slaves
who can’t imagine better lives beyond
full stomachs, work, and a hovel called home,
and teaching them to dream of a free dawn!