Take It On Faith: Presentations on Charitable and Settlement Work in Los Angeles at the 13th Session of the National Conference of Catholic Charities, 4-8 September 1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As has been discussed here before, specifically in a post highlighting the 1915 yearbook of the Brownson Settlement House, Mary Julia Workman (1871-1964), the daughter of Boyle Heights founder and Los Angeles mayor and city treasurer William Henry Workman and his wife Maria (pronounced Mar-aye-ah) Boyle, was a key figure in Roman Catholic charitable and social work in the first years of the 20th century.

Educated at the Los Angeles Normal School, precursor to U.C.L.A., for teacher education and long a kindergarten instructor in Los Angeles city schools, Workman helped establish the Brownson House in 1901 and was a leader of the institution for many years, including long-time service as its president, while her sister Elizabeth (1872-1945) was also heavily involved. The enterprise sought to train immigrants to live as Americans and had programs, largely for Latinos, on care of the home, activities for children, social clubs for women and others that sought to ease assimilation.

Los Angeles Times, 5 September 1927.

By the 1920s, there was a change in how the house was operated and Workman was no longer involved in its management, though she was honored by Pope Pius XI for her dedication to Catholic charitable work over the years and she became president of the city’s Civil Service Commission while her older brother Boyle was president of the City Council. 110 years after its creation, Brownson House still exists, though the ways in which organizations like this seek to help the needy, especially people of color and immigrats, has necessarily changed, but the history is still both interesting and instructive.

Tonight’s highlighted artifact is the published proceedings of the thirteenth session of the National Conference of Catholic Charities, now Catholic Charities USA, organized in 1910 with a meeting of some 400 in Washington, D.C., held in Los Angeles from 4-8 September 1927 and with some 7,000 persons participating. Befitting such a large convention, there were meetings and presentations on a wide variety of subjects, including health, immigrant welfare, juvenile delinquency, challenges for families, the well-being of children, and more.

Los Angeles Record, 5 September 1927.

What we’ll focus on in this post is the settlement house, which traces its origins to Jane Addams and her famous Hull House institution in Chicago, established in 1889. First, though, it is interesting to read and digest the opening addres of the first general session delivered by Bishop John J. Cantwell, of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and San Diego. Cantwell, who blessed both the Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum in El Campo Santo Cemetery (in spring 1921) and a dedication plaque to Laua González Temple at La Casa Nueva (December 1923) at the Homestead, began his remarks by telling the assemblage, “we of Los Angeles extend a heartfelt and gracious welcome . . . we are honored by their presence.”

He went on to say that, while previous conferences were in major cities throughout the country, “it should find no place a more congenial environment or derive more inspiration for its ideals than in California, and in Los Angeles.” This was because it was here, he claimed “that the first great experiment in organized charity and social service was successfully achieved.” Cantwell invited attendees to imagine a traveler to “that elder day” who “would pause as the shades of evening enfolded one of California’s venerable missions” wheich “give shelter and home to the Indians.”

Times, 7 September 1927.

More than that, “the Mission becomes a restless hive of activity” during the day, with anvils clanging in blacksmith shops and “skillful hands are working in wool, and reed, and willow, fashioning blankets of rainbow hues, and weaving baskets of intricate pattern.” The shoemaker was kept occupied “and innocent yough gambol with the waste of the carpenter shop.” Among the mission-controlled ranchos, such as La Puente where the Workman family later settled, “the Indians are tending cattle and sheep, and breaking the stubborn soil with the plowshare.”

The Franciscan missionaries, Cantwell continued, “brought to these native children [note the word choice] of Califonria not only spiritual treasures, but temporal blessings also.” The benefits brought to the Indigenous people, the bishop claimed, meant that,

The Indians are learning self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control and obedience to Him who is man’s First Beginning and Last End. Their minds and hands are being disciplined to the dignity of labor, and to the liberty of a civilized life. These heroic Missionaries, while seeking the spiritual salvatin of their rude charges [dramatic pause], sought at the same time to instill into their minds those fine ideals of independence and self-support, that are recognized as the end of all well regulated charitable endeavors. This was a glorious work . . . It is sadly true that greedy eyes were cast upon the material wealth of the Missions. Selfish politicians in a day undid the work of three generations. The might of the secular arm, not for the first time in history, conquered spiritual ideals. The Indians put off the trappings of civilization and answered the call of the wild.

Whatever the transformations that took place in the Angel City in the nearly century since the missions were secularized (and there has been and continues to be, of course, great and often heated debate about what the missions did and did not do for the Native People of our region), Cantwell declared that “we are vain enough to think that California in the midst of great physical and industrial changes, has not been untrue to her traditions.”

Times, 8 September 1927.

Modern civilization was not measured by its trade, armies, public works, fine homes and the like “but rather from the way in which a community takes care of abandoned youth, of lonely old age, of the victims of misfortune and of human great.” He added that “a great people in its finest ideals, must not be constrained by the pursuit of wealth, or by the selfishness of ease and pleasure.” He called the missionaries of the late 18th and early 19th centuries “California’s first Welfare Workers” and noted that anyone seeking to match “the heroic achievements” of that day had to demonstate their qualities of vision, love, self-denial and organizational ability.

Cantwell told the attendees that it should “be the mission of all charitable workers to foster the spirit of fraternal love between all classes of citizens” and “it is on these broad principles that the Catholic Welfare Bureau of Los Angeles has been established.” He offered that the organization abided by its ideals, noting that the scientific training of the day could not overtake common sense or “the natural tenderness of heart” found in volunteers “whose unselfishness and compassion” countered the trend of seeing “unfortunate men and women as so many cases or problems” studied and treated in cold clinical terms under the guise of social science.

Later in his address, the Bishop spoke about “a special consideration for the problems that have come to the great communities of the Southwest from the strangers that are within our gates,” meaning, of course, “the great influx of Mexicans.” Uttering words we would do well to remember today, Cantwell declared,

The Mexican in large numbers has in recent years come across our borders. He is here to help us to do our work. He has in return a right to expect that we permit him a share in our own pursuit of happiness. The American of the past spared neither blood, not treasure, nor civil strife for the emancipation of the slave. The American of our day must not permit the development of voluntary slavery or a peonism in our industrial, commercial or agricultural life . . .

Neither capitalism, nor industrialism, nor agriculturalism has any right to use the labor of these people for the achievement of its end, and by indirection force a charitably disposed public to supply the deficiency in a living wage. . .

It should be the aim of a great benevolent organization to succor the stranger in a strange land, to help him work out his spiritual and social salvation, that he may get not only a square deal, but a chance in this land, so idealistic in its outlook, to develop unto the full stature of American citizenship.

These are powerful words and to whatever extent the settlement house was a direct inheritor of the work of the missionaries of bygone days, the Bishop’s remarks provide a notable context to the other papers covered here.

Times, 8 September 1927.

In his address, “Development of Settlement Work in Los Angeles,” the Reverend James Dolan, the assistant director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau, today’s Catholic Charities of Los Angeles, in the Angel City, began by noting that “to fully understand the present developments in Settlement Houses in this city, it is well to recall that the last ten years have seen an enormous growth in our cosmopolitan life,” with a tripling of population. Naturally, this made the work of these institutions more challenging, especially as “this growth has not been confined to white races alone, but also includes a very substantial increase in our Mexican population.” It should be added that the federal census bureau had always defined Latinos as white, but this bureau did otherwise.

Dolan added that “like any other immigrant group, these people with their customs need a guiding hand in directing their activities, so that they may assimilate the ideals and practice the customs of this country, and yet preserve the wealth of their own traditions,” but at least this paternalism recognized some value in the cultural practices of the homeland. Of the half-dozen houses operated by the Bureau, half were in communities “in which the Mexican race predominates,” while a fourth was 85% Latino and 15% Italian.

There was also the latest facility, the Watts Community Center in South-Central Los Angeles, and where the majority was also Latino, “but there is a substantial nmber of the Caucasian race, as well as Japanese and Negro children.” The last of the six was St. Victor’s Community Center (located at 16th and Essex streets in the Black neighborhood of that era and where St. Turibius’s Church is today) and it “is engaged in work to aid the colored people.” In fact, the church was the first Catholic house of worship expressly built for Black parishioners in the city.

Turning to history, Dolan notd that “in the latter part of the nineties two small centers were founded and dedicated to this work” of helping “to improve the social, intellectual and religious interest of the people which they serve.” But, “it was in 1901 that the first of our clearly defined settlements was established,” as Brownson House opened, and Dolan professed that there was no need to discuss its history because “the work of its founders,” including Mary Julia Workman, “and their able volunteers is known, I may say, nationally.”

The next facility to open was the Santa Rita Center and Clinic, which launched in 1919, and the other four followed, with the Watts facility opened within the last year. Dolan referred to the fact that, two years prior, “realizing that with the new conditions and influx of population, new problems were being presented . . . and an effort made to remodel the programs presented in these houses.” This led to a plan in which “the resident workers of each settlement [developed ideas] for the purpose of discussing the problem and programs best suited to their needs.” It was at that time that Workman, after about twenty years, stepped down at Brownson House.

In developing programs, the idea was to work with residents so that “they are taught to assist themselves, primarily o acquire valued knowledge,” including in the areas of “preservation of health” with houses having fresh air and sun, learning “the art of cooking,” “the making of new garments or remodeling of old ones. The Red Cross alo taught homemaking and first aid courses, while clubs were also vital for the social element of the settlement. These latter also looked to provide an environment that “emphasizes likenesses and ignores differences” and sought “to counteract racial, religious and industrial conditions that would otherwise produce an unsocial class.”

Also important was the kindergarten program that worked with youngsters before they entered public school, while older students had courses in commercial art, literatre and others and small libraries were maintained, though there were plans to have branches of the city public library system in the settlements. There were drama classes, as well as “wholesome entertainment” in the form of trips and dances,, and home visiting was also featured, so that workers could see the children at home and help tailor programs for their needs.

As for inculcating the “moral law of God,” Dolan noted that the Sisters of the Holy Family worked in five of the settlements, while for St. Victor’s, the Sisters of the Congregations of Our Lady of the Apostle conducted instruction in Christian doctrine, as well as incidental instrcuction in plain and fancy sewing and “intricate bead work.”

Statistically, there were some 9,000 persons registered in the six facilities, with about 1,400 attending 121 classes invlving education or recreation and another 1,100 received religious instruction. It appears most people went to “gatherings, which are of a community nature.” Unfortunately, there was a lack of volunteers and Dolan ended by offering the hope that committees at each settlement would “gather about them self-sacrificing men and women who will assist in this work.”

A special meeting included a paper read by Mrs. George Neville Warwick, who was born Mary Dillon, daughter of prominent merchant Richard Dillon. What she did, however, was immediately turn to “one who blazed the way for the hundreds who now follow one whose spirituality, unselfishness, brilliant mentality and keen vision qualified her for leadership in the highest sense—Miss Mary Julia Workman, of Los Angeles, the founder of Brownson House.” Stating that her leadership led to Brownson being “the prototype of a far-flung chain of settlement houses and community centers,” Warwick observbed that Workman could not attend the meeting because of sickness, but quoted extensively from a recent article penned by her.

As did Bishop Cantwell, Workman began her piece by stating that talking about settlements meant that “the mind must go back to the heroic days of the Mission period . . . [where] we shall find that along with religious adpirtual devlopment went manual training, educational oportunity, recreational expression and practical plans for protecting the fundamental individual rights of the Indian in a well rounded community life.” In drawing the direct connection, she then asked,

And is not this same sharing, ths making available to all of the best and highest in life, is not this the reason for the establishment of resident centers in localities where there is need for stimulation, for cooperation, for better understanding? In the diocese of Los Angeles and San Diego, a heroic past reinforces every community effort of the present, a present endowed, it is true, with new possibilities because of the changed social conditions of a more complex era.

Workman recorded that the first settlement house in the Angel City was Casa de Castelar, established in 1894, five years after Hull House was opened, in the former Sonoratown district north of the Plaza. After renting headquarters, the organization acquired a house at a corner of Alpine and Castelar (North Hill) streets in what is now Chinatown. Three years later “a neighborhood center for religious instruction and social opportunity” was realized through El Hogar Feliz, located on Buena Vista Street, later a rerouted extension of North Broadway. The facility later moved to the site that became Santa Rita and was absorbed by it.

As for Brownson House, it was established in late March 1901 in a rented home on Aliso Street at Alameda Street before a house was built three years later on Jackson Street near Vignes Street in what is now an industrial and commercial area south of U.S. 101 and west of the Los Angeles River. Workman noted that it took some time to have a salaried resident worker at the site, but, by 1919, thee were three such employees along with some 55 active volunteers. In fiscal year 1918-1919, over 1,400 home visits were made.

She continued that “all the activities of Brownson House have an educational outcome both for the settlement workers and for the neighbors just as they had a cooperative method” and she recited a list of programs including classes in English and citizenship, lectures, sewing circles, courses in dressmaking, a boys’ workshop, music lessons and more. Picnics, dances, a playground, holiday celebrations, games and private weddings and birthdays were also cited as emblematic of the neighborhood spirit pervading the settlement. Two medical clinics, a “loan closet,”a “Municipal Baby Welfare Station,” and city health department maternity clinic also operated at dfiferent times.

Warwick then observed that the activities of Brownson and Santa Rita “demanded greater religious development,” so Cantwell “called into the field the Sisters of the Holy Family and then the Sisters of Social Service. It was “these preeminently self-sacrificing women [who] added an impetus to the zeal of those who had labored long among the Mexicans, the Russians, the Italians and the Negroes.”

A new facility “is nearing completion on a site overlooking the city” in the northwest corner of Boyle Heights, the neighborhood founded by her father and others in the mid-Seventies. It was intended that the settlement house would “offset the effect of the low-grade poolrooms and unsupervised dance halls of the neighborhood by introducing good entertainment,” along with the aforementioned activities, while “all races and creeds will mingle under the roof of this greater Brownson House, which is to be indeed a mother house, aiming to advise and direct all other agencies.”

Also mentioned with the St. Elizabeth’s Day Nursery on Mission Road, also called the “Baby Settlement House,” founded in 1909 “by a gentlewoman whose heart went out to neglected little ones not eligible for an orphanage.” Seventy-five “tiny tots” were cared for and then “called for each night by weary and grateful mothers returning from work.” Warwick noted that “only those closely in touch with the Nursery reaize the service done to these mothers.”

She ended by noting,

As Miss Workman has beautifully expressed in her paper, another Camino Real [the King’s Highway that ran through mission-era California] is being fitted with guide posts for the footsore and the weary. The spirit of Father Junipero Serra and his gentle brothers still breathes in the melodious names borne by these Settlement Houses and Neighborhood Centers.

Again, conditions have changed mightily in the near century since these addressed were made at the conference and social work conducted among underserved people of color is handled in ways generally very different than what was done at Brownson, Santa Rita, St. Victor’s and other facilities.

Reading these proceedings is definitely instructive and ineresting in seeing the state of such work by Catholic clergy and laypersons during the Roaring Twenties in a rapidly transforming City of the Angels and then comparing the attitudes, aims and activities of those involved with how such work, or its equivalent, is done today.

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