by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As we continue our deep dive into the pages of the 1924 annual issue of the Roman Catholic newspaper The Tidings, distributed in the archdioceses of Los Angeles-San Diego and Monterey-Fresno, we look in this second part at selected artcles, while leaving out others. These latter include features on the history of fish farming by monks; science and the Renaissance; an exposition on the United States Constitution by lawyer and future Superior Court judge William T. Aggeler; the story of St. Catherine of Siena; the dean of the College of Cardinals, Vincenzo Vannutelli; land and opportunities in Argentina; the 1600th anniversary of the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in Rome on 9 November; and more.
Instead, we’ll focus on local matters pertaining to the Church and its work as well as Christmas content. With the latter, there are several works of fiction, including Constance Edgerton’s “Ma’s Advice Brings Christmas Cheer” about a young New Mexico woman named Laura who wanted to be a novelist and who published a book based on her own experiences and her love for a neighbor that went unrequited until a Christmas Day meeting brought them together in the spirit of the holiday.
A very interesting non-fiction holiday contribution is Charles Phillips’ “I’m Going Home for Christmas,” which was a reminiscence of his during the First World War when he experienced “a desolate Christmas” in 1918, even though the war had ended some six weeks or so prior. Phillips was part of a Knights of Columbus group of welfare workers with the American Expeditional Force and, he noted, “we had been hoping for great things to be done for men for their Rhineland Christmas—and those men needed a Christmas that year if ever they needed it.”
These soliders were “fresh from the fresh mud of the French trenches, disappointed and dejected because they were still kept overseas, dog-tired from the long hike up into Germany through the ghastly ruins and devastation of France, and soaked with days and days of sodden rain . . . tired, wet, miserable in soul and bidy, those men of ours surely had a Christmas comig to them that year.”
As for Phillips and his colleagues,
we were full of enthusiasm about the Christmas we were going to give them. Carloads, trainloads, of good things were coming from our Paris headquarters to make that holiday a real feast of cheer; there was to be such a spread of those “extras,” for which the men were starved, as had never been seen in the army before. There were even vague rumors from headquarters of some tons of plum pudding on the way.
Yet, there were supply chain issues because of troop and supply movement and transport “and the plum pudding didn’t come. Nothing came.” When Christmas morning arrived, the “Caseys,” as the workers were called, were downcast and Phillips wrote “I ate my Christmas dinner in a stable-yard with the troops,” even as “the men had their fun, regardless—with enough of irony to put edge on it.”
Depressed by the lack of holiday cheer, Phillips did observe that “there were compensations,” including the fact that a closed-up church was opened on Christmas Eve and the morning mass “was indeed a unique service.” An Army chaplain presided and a Polish priest drafted to serve in the German Army served as deacon, while a group of orphans from Coblentz comprised a choir and “Silent Night” was sung “by a Cherokee Indian princess loaned for the occasion by the Y.M.C.A. A sermon was presented by an Episcopalian bishop, so, with celebrants from the United States, including the native woman Germany, and Poland, being both Protestant and Catholic, “surely that was a combination to astonish the Christmas angels!”
The next year, Phillips was working with the American Red Cross in the same diocese as that Polish priest “and what a Christmas it was . . . with fifty-five thousand orphans and half as many other thousand of refugees and wounded soldiers to take care of!” He recorded that, when he and his compatriots returned after making their round, they were dog-tired, but “we felt good . . . with our tired heads crammed with memories of glad child faces and lighted trees and crippled soldiers lifting themselves from their pillows to smile over their gifts.”
In 1920, Phillips had the opportunity to see how the Yuletide season was celebrated in Polish homes, and noted that “in no other country have I seen the religious nature of the day so emphasized, so kept an integral part of the holiday.” Nativity plays were performed in theaters and were “genuine survivals from mediaeval times.” In houses, “the Bethlehem straw” was spread upon tables and strangers were invited “to partake of the white Christmas wafer which has been blessed the day before by the parish priest” before everyone sat to eat.
With all gathered around the table, the host uttered “Wesolych Swiat!” or “Happy Christmas to you!” Among the foods were “honey and poppyseed mixed into a queer pungent paste; mysterious black jellies made from goose’s blood; “miod” distilled from wild honey very strong and heady; and more. He added that the presence of snow was one reminder of home in America, because “what is Christmas without snow?” unless, that is, you were a reader of The Tidings.
Phillips did, note, however, that he’d spent a Christmas in Florence, Italy and he wrote of “the marble wonder of the Duomo or where the jewel-lit shadows of the Santa Maria Novella make the Bambino seem really alive” as well as the Cascine park and the Boboli gardens. He added that “if one is too lonely to go back to his hotel in the city, too swept with Christmas memories of home . . . there will be magic to reward him—a flood of warm moonlight” as in June back in the States and “the lights of Fiesole, across the valley coming out like crowds of stars, blinking through the dusk abve the Arno.
He concluded with the observation, however, that all of this was “leading him away from all this dream of loveliness, too beautiful to be real, back to something dearer, something truly real, though far away—Christmas at home, Christmas under the same stars, under the same moon . . . but Christmas at home! I’m going home for Christmas this year.
A section of the work of the Bureau of Catholic Charities, said to be one of the first of its kind when established by Bishop John J. Cantwell in March 1919, noted that it was humble in its origins with a director and one other employee as they tried to reduce “overlapping and misguided effort” among existing societies and groups and establish clinics and social centers with an emphasis on immigrant welfare.
Slowly, the work yielded fruit, funding was improved, staffing increased, and, among other projects, “an immigrant welfare center was built and dedicated to Santa Rita. The article also noted that “Brownson House, whose splendid record of faithful service for many years has established its name both East and West,” formed new clubs, classes and other programs “for works of charity.” Not mentioned that the settlement house’s key staffer for many years, Mary J. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, left after the reorganization, though she continued her association with Catholic charitable work and was honored by Pope Pius XI during the Jubilee year of 1925.
By the end of 1924, there were several programs for children, famiies, those in jail, immigrants and medical matters and forty workers were employed with almost thirty institutions to assist, including schools nurseries, a senior’s home, a maternity hospital, homes for working women and men, community houses, clinics and others. A dozen were directed by the Bureau.
Hundreds of volunters also made this impressive range of services possible, with those giving of their time including doctors, nurses, sewing circle members, and 400 devotees of St. Vincent de Paul “carrying on a big program of family relief.” Also praised were “the devoted Sisters of the Holy Family,” who worked with settlement houses and immigrant centers, teaching children, catechism, music, drama “and making home visits in the hovels of the poor.”
Important as the growth was in five years, it was added that “tomorrow our efforts must be multiplied even as our problems are,” with one example of need being help for the “mental defective,” who “to a large extent . . . has shifted for himself, and gone from bad to worse.” While there was assistance for girls referred by the Juvenile Court, there was no analog for troubled boys. Moreover, “our Catholic immigrant problem challenges our best thought and effort” with substandard housing and poor sanitation needing urgent addressing, while migrants “often become the pret of religious proselytizers.”
In fact, it was asserted that there were some in social work who were accused of seeking “to drag our Catholic immigrants to their particular belief or unbelief” and this was deemed “unworthy of them, and their seeming victory is only failure in the end.” Also mentioned was the newly launched Community Chest, a broad effort by a coalition of many leaders and institutions to provide welfare assistance in Los Angeles, though that new program would not provide all the funds needed by the Bureau. Still, it was noted that, until facilities were built for program expansion, the Community Chest “has given us sufficient funds to cover our work for the ensuing year.”
Also emphasized was that:
We have tens of thousands of immigrants to whom we would like to extend a helping hand were it within our power to do so. We would like to organize a program of Americanization which wuld make the Catholic immigrants in large numbers better citizens than they are today; but we cannot do it all in one year. Only by building through the years shall we be able to meet the almost innumerable problems which will come to the Bureau of Catholic Charities in the field of health, housing, immigration and Americanization work.
This question of “Americanization” was not, of course, solely an issue to Catholic leaders, but to a wide variety of people in positions of responsibility, although the assumptions and methods, well-intended though they may have been, are foreign to us now nearly a century later.
The piece continued that “the promise of tomorrow is fair” even as there was so much to do because “the field is too broad, the problems too much involved, the burden too heavy to meet all the needs at this particular time.” A new Diocesan Council for women was set up and working with a national welfare council for Catholics, while men were organized into a Holy Name Union. Another women’s organization called the Queen’s Daughters were operating a thrift shop at the Santa Rita settlement house “which will be of real value in providing free clothing for the many indigent families found in that district.”
In concluding the article noted that 1924 was one in which the year included “the heaviest handicap that this State has seen for many years.” This included a prolonged drought, terrible forest fires, unemployment, economic stagnation and diseases like hoof-and-mouth affecting animals and bubonic plague, which broke out in poor neighborhoods in downtown (though the methods employed were very heavy-handed, including the razing of dwellings occupied by poor people of color. Some of this sounds awful familiar in 2021.
It was hoped that such a situation would not be repeated again, but five years later, the environment would become even more challenging with the onset of the Great Depression and its terrible effects for over a decade. Still, the piece wrapped up with:
The promise of to-morrow is one of increased effort and still greater sacrifice in the interest of God’s poor. The heavy problems that confront us must give way before our united efforts in the cause of charity, a cause which today challenges our most intelligent and earnest endeavor. To give less than our best were to fail—more than that we cannot give.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue with the third part of this post, including more Christmas content, a special contribution on “The Immigrant Problem in Los Angeles,” and Mary Julia Workman’s feature on “The Diocesan Council of Catholic Women,” among other material. So, please be sure to check back then.