“To Promote Social Justice to Immigrants from Different Nationalities”: Mary Julia Workman and the Brownson Settlement House, Los Angeles, 1900-1920, Part One

by José Castro

José Castro has been a Homestead volunteer and docent since 2018 and he learned about Mary Julia Workman, grand-niece of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, through his service to the Museum. For his master’s thesis, completed last May, for California State University, San Bernardino, José focused on Mary Julia and her years dedicated to serving immigrant communities at the Brownson House in Los Angeles. Given that she was born 152 years ago today, we are happy to present excerpts from José’s excellent work in this multi-part post and hope that you enjoy it.

As a social activist in the early twentieth century and founder of the Brownson Settlement House in Los Angeles, Mary Julia Workman [daughter of William H. Workman and Maria (pronounced mar-aye-uh) Boyle] dedicated herself to promote social justice to immigrants from different nationalities, mainly from Mexico. Contrary to the Progressive rhetoric of the time, where there was a rejection of immigrants, Catholics, and Mexicans, Workman helped these families in the poor neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Sponsored by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and with influence from the city’s middle and upper classes, Workman supported and maintained the Brownson House for almost twenty years. While the Protestant settlement houses worked with the social gospel, Workman promoted social justice to all the people in the community, regardless of their race and religion. The Brownson Settlement House was a secular home for any religious group like Protestants, Jews, or Catholics. Yet, by 1920, the clerical bureaucracy removed her from the presidency, and they began to make changes, such as centralization of religious institutions, charities, and Americanization programs. Workman did not agree with these changes, most of which were instituted by Bishop John J. Cantwell. She decided to leave her job as president of Brownson Settlement House because the new administration lacked humanism and social work.

The context for understanding the founding of the Brownson House was an era of expansion of the United States as more and more people moved to California. They were immigrants who came from the Midwest and the South of the United States looking for an opportunity to settle in California. By the end of the 19th century, the majority were white Protestants in the city, but at the beginning of the century, the demographics began to change in the city. Due to the Mexican Revolution, immigration from this country increased after 1910. By 1917, due to the First World War and the Russian Revolution, the Red Scare, started to permeate the streets of industrial cities such as Los Angeles. The bishops of the United States reacted to the political-social context of the world and incorporated Americanization into the diocesan charities and religious institutions.

Mary Julia Workman. Circa 1873.
Department of Archives and Special Collections,
William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

The Catholic Church began Americanization programs in schools and settlement houses, including the Brownson House in Los Angeles. The city was indirectly segregated by housing policies that established white-only communities. Immigrants were left in poor housing conditions with a lack of public health and education services that contributed to a systematic racism from which they could not get out of their poverty due to low wages and miserable
jobs. Progressive government leaders opted to launch Americanization programs with the Commission of Immigration and Housing. Workman worked in the community observing the needs of the poorest and most marginalized people. Workman’s activism challenges the historical paradigm of mainstream Progressivism. Her refusal to heed the demands of the ecclesiastical and governmental bureaucracy demonstrated how Mary Julia put her social work with the poor above all.

The social work and leadership of Workman in the Brownson House remains primarily hidden in the archives. There are files, letters, and notes written during her presidency in the settlement house. With those files as primary sources, I want to demonstrate how during that time, Americanization was more important than social work for the leaders of the Catholic Church. By putting Workman and the Brownson House at the center of this research, I want to demonstrate how the lack of social justice in this community contributed to the lack of public health, education and job training for immigrants creating a systematic racism in a segregated community within the boundaries of the Los Angeles River . . .

Boyle, Elizabeth, Mary Julia, and William Jr.
Department of Archives and Special Collections,
William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

During her school days at [the] Normal School [for teacher education], Workman decided to associate with the Catholic Aid Society, volunteer in El Hogar Feliz, and participate in the Catholic Truth Society. She saw the poor conditions of the Kindergartens and children in the El Hogar Feliz. She stated, “I love children, but my love is growing with my pity that so many of us do not know the harm we carelessly do.” In the growing city of Los Angeles, Workman realized the precarious living condition of the children.

It was by the end of her school days when Workman had the fear of failing to her vocation. She wrote in anguish, “I feel that all failing me I can still do something for God and his little ones, for Kindergarten is a powerful means of uplifting the helpless children of misery. Thus, could I do something in the line of my calling.” She was not ready to fail and did not want to fail to her vocation but she was afraid to be disappointed by someone that could make her to fail. “Pray that God’s Will may be done and that I may serve Him as He chooses for me – But I am human and have my hopes and my disappointments, though I try to rise above them.” She wrote to Sister Mary Leopold, “Since my Kindergarten days a ray of light has shone upon the darkness of possible disappointment in regard to my vocation.” Mary Julia had a mentality of serving the neediest. However, she had fears and the greatest of those fears was the fear of not being able to exercise her vocation and fail. In 1900, the opportunity to serve the poor since began when group of students at the State Normal School were recruiting volunteers for the College Settlement Association and she did not hesitate to become one of their members.

Mary Julia Workman. Circa 1885.
Department of Archives and Special Collections,
William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

Workman earned her diploma from [the] State Normal School in 1902. By 1905, she became a certified kindergarten teacher by the State of California. Since she was born, in 1871, the city of Los Angeles had grown due to industrialization and immigration. This brought a chain of inequality among the inhabitants within the city. She became a teacher; however, at the age of thirty, in1901, Mary Julia was called by the Reverend John Clifford to establish a new settlement house, and it became the Brownson Settlement House . . .

After the Civil War, the era of reconstruction began, as the country was economically and socially wounded. Industrialization began in big cities like Detroit, Chicago, and New York. A group of industrialists expanded their power throughout the United States by influencing the nation’s politics and economy. As the wealth of this group of magnates increased, the numbers of poor people increased. By 1890, the middle class began acting against the status quo in
which people lived during the Gilded Age. This is the beginning of the Progressive Movement in United States.

Mary Julia Workman at the Academy of Our Lady of Sacred Heart. Circa 1890
Department of Archives and Special Collections,
William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

Promoted by young, educated, majority white Protestant members of the middle class who grew up post-Civil War era, the Progressive Movement would seek social change such as fair labor laws and women’s rights. Progressives experienced a level of corruption in the government and business across the country. The Progressive Movement expanded to California and the leaders were white Protestant born in California or midwestern states. The Progressive Movement expanded to different areas of society. One of the most important
movements during the Progressive Era was the Settlement House Movement that began in the 1890s and reached Southern California in 1894.

The Settlement House Movement was promoted by college women in the most important and industrialized cities of the United States. The cities began to suffer from an increase of industrialization creating the need to employ more labor. Men, women, and children worked in factories that flourished in urban communities. Immigration increased after the Civil War serving as fuel for large factories that requested cheap labor because the United States economy was growing while part of Europe was submerged in poverty. Sadly, those people
could not reach a better social status due to the complexity of industrial capitalism. In Chicago, when Jane Adams [Addams] noticed the increase in immigrants in the city, she noticed how they suffered from labor abuse and economic deprivation. Adams [sic] decided to start what would be a movement within social progressivism, the settlement houses. The help given to those immigrants gradually spread to the ranks of professional social workers, and settlement houses were established in several industrial cities across the United States. Adams [sic] became the pioneer of this movement that began in England. In 1884, Canon Samuel Barnett founded the first settlement house, Toynbee Hall, in London, England. In United States, Adams [sic] founded The Hull House to help immigrant[s] from Europe in Chicago.

Mary Julia Workman Diploma.
Department of Archives and Special Collections,
William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

The Hull House was a non-secular house that worked to connect the new migrants with the American people, but the Protestant Christian influence took over with the Social Gospel. The main purpose of the Christian Church had shifted from the salvation of souls to the reconstruction an old and immoral economic system and the creation of a fair relationship between different social classes. They worked with the poor working class which most of them were immigrants who came from Eastern and Southern Europe. Addams’ attitude towards new immigrants can be praised for her comprehensive formulation of the immigrant problem, but the Hull House programs were designed, therefore, to bring the achievements of American civilization closer to the poor . . .

Addams extolled the virtues of ongoing cultural differences among immigrant groups but she encouraged the assimilation of them. She became a leader in the Settlement House Movement and traveled around the nation giving speeches about her activism. In 1894, a group of college women graduates listened to Adams [Addams] in Los Angeles. Addams influenced this group of college women to follow her steps in the creation of the first settlement houses in Los Angeles. The Settlement House Movement came to the city as a functional duty for college women to serve the community. Run by college educated women at Castellar Street, the College Settlement House was founded in 1894.

Mary Julia at College Settlement House.
Department of Archives and Special Collections,
William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

The College Settlement house began to recruit student volunteers from the State Normal School. Workman was one of the volunteers in this settlement house during her school years. She argued that “College trained women used their intelligence and their educational opportunity to aid in the solution of community problems.” It is during the Progressive Era that a generation of educated women started campaigns to help their community without getting involved in politics from which they were excluded. They were able to get involved in women’s clubs and get involved in activities such as education. As volunteer at the College Settlement House, while she was preparing to teach in a public school, Mary Julia was able to observe the poverty of the people living in Sonoratown and other poor communities near La Plaza where the volunteers assisted them with social work. Beside the College Settlement House, some other protestant women groups began to open settlement houses around the central plaza. While the protestant [Protestant] settlement houses were able to embrace Russian, French, Armenians, Italian and other European immigrants, they failed to expand their social work among Mexicans primarily because of the religious difference with this immigrant community.

In Los Angeles, Workman saw how the Protestant sectarians reached those Catholics who avoided the church or were ignored by the clergy of the city. As she wrote, “the Presbyterians have Spanish Missions and an Industrial Training School, where young Mexican girls are taught sewing, cooking, etc., and made good Presbyterians.” Also the Methodist opened schools and Mission stations to cover the Mexican population. Some other Protestant churches opened around the plaza with free baths, kitchen, and boarding houses where they charged them a small fee. Some others offered cheap meals and clothing to all the people. Catholic social reformers realized the work of the Protestant counterpart working to approach the new immigrants as they offered charitable assistance and social service, but it often meant attending religious services. Mexican immigrants often reject these charities due to the lack of tolerance of those Americans that ignored their cultural background and needs.

Mary Julia Workman Diploma of Graduation, California State Normal School.
Department of Archives and Special Collections,
William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University

The settlement houses, as they attracted new adherents from Europe, worked to influence the promotion of progressive laws at all levels of government. In the College Settlement House, Bessie D. Stoddart was one of the leaders that influenced the government to expand health care into public schools. It was a period where women took the lead to fight for their rights in issues like housing, health, and recreation to make a better society. Workman noted that, “the settlement has for its underlying principle the fundamental unity of society, the brotherhood of man. In theory and practice it would bring to further the wise and the ignorant, the powerful and the weak, the rich and the poor, the mutual helpfulness, understanding and cooperation may develop for the benefit of the individuals and of the whole social fabric. Cooperation is the settlement foundation stone.” In order to influence society, the settlement houses had to reach all those marginalized people who lived isolated in the city. Mary Julia saw that there were Mexican immigrants who escaped from poverty, persecution, and lack of opportunities in their country. Workman was in a meeting at Ladies’ Aid Society at Saint Viviana’s [Vibiana’s] Cathedral when the priest, John J. Clifford, suggested to the young women to establish a Catholic social work in the community. She and a group of Catholic women began to work in the foundation of a Catholic settlement house in Los Angeles. Influenced by the Progressive Movement and inspired by the encyclical written by the Pope Leon XIII entitled Rerum Novarum, the Brownson Settlement House was founded in 1901.

Please check back with us tomorrow for the second part of these excerpts of José’s analysis of Mary Julia’s settlement house work . . .

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