“These Children, These Poor People Are Ours”: Mary Julia Workman and the Brownson Settlement House, Los Angeles, 1900-1920, Part Two

by José Castro

We continue with the second part of a post based on Homestead volunteer and docent José Castro’s 2022 master’s thesis on Mary Julia Workman and her work with the Brownson Settlement House in Los Angeles, with the focus on the early years of the institution and Workman’s presidency of it.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church had ceased to be a religious institution that embraced Mexican Catholics. Within the Church in California, Mexicans were divided into three groups. The Californios, the upper class who came from Mexico, and the lower class who were immigrant peasants and workers. The Californios had to stay in the United States after the Mexican-American War, and they had to adapt to the new society that took control of the state. The wealthy upper-class Mexicans were people who came to the United States and decided to live in the country. Both the Californios and the wealthy Mexicans were fervent Catholics who contributed to the charity of the Church. One of them was the corrupt General Luis Terrazas, who was the governor of the Mexican State Chihuahua from 1860 to 1873 and contributed to the Ladies of Charity (Señoritas de la Caridad) which was a branch of the Daughters of Charity. However, most of the Mexicans who immigrated to the
United States were poor peasants and workers. These immigrants were unassimilated, unwelcome, and unprotected, and thoroughly isolated from the Catholic Church. The Catholics who arrived from Mexico felt isolated and stopped exercising their religion. Mary Julia Workman noticed how Protestant groups reached these immigrants, she realized how these Catholics had put aside their religion and the clergy did not have any interest to approached them. She wrote, “these children, these poor people are ours, and their faith is being exposed to danger—Think of many of these people, poor as poor can be, living in rooms crowded and yet bare all that brightens or encourages, think of them ignorant of their faith, because of a million circumstances that God alone knows, and wonder as I do, how they could resist those who reach them a helping hand.” Those poor Mexicans immigrants were people with deeply rooted traditions and strong beliefs. The Mexican culture and the Catholic religiosity that was taught by their ancestors and of which they were proud to exercise. The American Catholics was so striking that the clergy looked upon the religious practices of the Mexicans with suspicion if not disdain. With the expansion to the Southwest, the Catholic Church in the United States decided to change the Mexican-Spanish priests and bring in a new clergy who did not understand the Mexican Catholic faith and culture in the city of Los Angeles . . .

Brownson Settlement House Association.
Department of Archives and Special Collections,
William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Workman noticed the changes that the city suffered. “From a quiet pastoral pueblo, it had developed into a great city, stretching out in all directions,” wrote Mary Julia in describing her hometown. “An industrial district and a turmoil in traffic replaced the vineyards and the beautiful pioneer estates by the river.” The city had grown and new inhabitants arrived. She noted that “the streets full of ragged children of foreign aspect.” In describing the streets of Los Angeles, she elaborated that “dark, skinned, barefoot boys and girls who speak the sweet language of Spain…women with rebozos over their heads and babies in their arms, swarthy Mexican labors returning from work, all will pass one on the way.” Those Mexicans lived hidden in poverty and segregation, or as a city official described it, “out of sight in the brush.” The need to create a Catholic Settlement House to reach those poor Catholics began in 1901. It was not the first settlement house in the Pacific Coast, as it was preceded in Los Angeles by the College Settlement, or Casa Castellar as it was well known. She learned from Casa Castellar and El Hogar Feliz how to carry out the social work that many people, mostly Catholics, needed, as Mary Julia described, “it was at that settlement house, as volunteer worker in a little girls’ club, that I saw the possibilities of a Catholic Settlement House.”

Reverend John J. Clifford, the priest of Saint Vibiana’s Cathedral, noticed the need for spiritual care of Mexican immigrants and viewed it as a responsibility of the Catholic Church. Workman saw those immigrants in the streets living in deplorable conditions. There was a need to reach them as Catholics and poor immigrants who lived in the slums of Los Angeles. Reverend Clifford presented the initiative to the Ladies’ Aid Society at Saint Vibiana’s Cathedral. He addressed the members, urging Catholic social work for the foreign and poor residents of Los Angeles. Mary Julia took the lead of the group. On March 29, 1901, the Brownson House Settlement Association was organized to serve the poor and unprotected immigrants in the city. Bishop George Montgomery sanctioned them with the purpose of establishing a Catholic neighborhood center in a district of Los Angeles where living conditions were difficult, and where Catholics of foreign birth and poor circumstance abounded. Workman and other volunteers began what would be nineteen years of continuous work for a marginalized society.

Children at the Brownson Settlement House.
Department of Archives and Special Collections,
William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

Brownson Settlement House started with Sunday School with volunteers and professionals. By September 1901, volunteers started making home visits, and they began programs to improve living conditions at home. On average, volunteers visited 200 homes in the neighborhoods each month. The young women were taking housekeeping, washing, ironing, sewing, and cooking
classes while young men were taught carpentry to make furniture, and equipment was provided to use in their homes. They tried to teach them any hand work skill to be able to work in the factories. The site where the settlement house was established was full of children and adults from the neighborhood. Workman stated that “the Settlement, based upon the principle of the unity of society, the brotherhood of many as an effort to overcome the
segregation which takes place in modern centers of population where privilege and unprivileged classes become more and more widely separated by conditions of life.” These visits were to understand their needs. It also served so that there was a mutual understanding and to seek development in their environment and the capacity for adequate social assistance.

The work at the Brownson House was more than expected in a poorly equipped cottage at 422 Aliso Street. Sociologist, economist, social reformer, and priest John O’ Grady wrote that “Miss Workman made her settlement an educational center in a real sense. It was a place where the families of the poor might go for the things they needed, but which they could not secure in other ways.” Since its conception, Brownson Settlement House stated a mission in the neighborhood:

to establish and maintain a Catholic Social Settlement which shall be a center for personal service and mutual helpfulness, for civic, social, and religious betterment in sections of Los Angeles where conditions of living are difficult, and where Catholics of poor circumstances and foreign birth abound. To preserve their spirit of mutual friendliness, respect and service in all relations of their Association with its neighbors of every race and creed. . .

When she began her decades long efforts to serve the neediest corners of Los Angeles, it was not easy. Workman wrote that “there are hundreds of children and many, many parents that we cannot reach because we have so few to work and such limited resources.” They had a few volunteers and just two paid workers. Nonetheless, the Settlement House became successful. Besides religious instruction and Mass on Sundays and Holidays, they worked with the government, including entities like the public welfare departments and clothing bureau to supply the poor. They had specialized activities, like sewing clubs for girls and toymaking workshops for boys. In addition, they provided medical assistance, a library, and a playground was available for the children. Also, Mary Julia organized dances and entertainment for the neighborhood, including music and folk dance lessons. The activities increased as different needs reached the house. The financial support was important to provide these services. She remembered, “we had to educate ourselves, to educate our financial supporters and to gain the confidence and cooperation of our foreign-born neighbors, mostly of Mexican origin.”

Los Angeles Times, 13 June 1901.

The success of the Brownson Settlement Association called [caught] the attention of the new Bishop, Reverend T[homas]. J. Conaty, who visited to examine the activities done in the house. Bishop Conaty became a friend of Workman and supported the work done in the Settlement House. In 1904, he authorized a plan to erect a new building. Writing to Sister Mary Leopold, Mary Julia reported that “our Brownson House is almost finished. Early in the year we shall move into it . . . it is a nice little place and gives us many opportunities we had not before.” On January 8, 1905, the new building was inaugurated with an impressive ceremony officiated by Bishop Conaty. The place, located at 711 Jackson Street, had adequate space and the number of active volunteers increased to 34. Also, there were 11 volunteer teachers in the Sunday School
including three Spanish teachers. Workman stated, “there is tremendous work for the lay Catholic to do in a genuine social reform. We can never hope for statistical perfection, but we can always strive to raise the social standard of living and give equal opportunities.” The number of people who reached the house increased. The objective was to do constructive social work and promote the cause of civic social work and religious betterment.

The house welcomed people from all nationalities and religions. With the new building, they added neighborhood bathhouses and mothers could bring their families for a weekly bath. Also, mothers could bring their kids weekly to be examined by doctors and learn how to take care for themselves and their little ones. There was no religious test in its work and the religious rights were respected. Again, in this respect, the organization’s aim was to do constructive social work. Their attendance was up to 1000 visitors per week on average, and besides education and playground for children. Finally, another service done at the Brownson House was the pure milk distribution with the Municipal Child Welfare.

The Tidings, 20 May 1904.

Despite having acquired a new property, Workman lamented the lack of help, volunteers, and workers. She admired the work of the Protestants. She noticed that Protestants who were paid by Home Missionaries Societies visited Mexican neighborhoods to proselytize to Catholics who rarely attended church and who knew little about their own religion. Mary Julia wrote to Sister Mary Leopold, “the people need their faith and it must be brought close to them, for they are not alive to their need” She wanted to have a Chapel in the Brownson House because she could not go to Mass into the Plaza Church with the children, and at times they could not see anything from the room of the sanctuary. The Settlement House increased their staff while more people reach out for help. Workman stated, “there are forty active volunteer workers, both men and women, in service at Brownson House…. these volunteer workers live at home, and come regularly in their appointed time, to conduct the various clubs and classes.”

Los Angeles Herald, 9 January 1905.

Mary Julia was the president, but she was also one more volunteer. In the mornings she exercised her teaching profession in kindergarten and was also in charge of the care of her parents. Her brother Thomas recalled,

My dear Mary Julia who cared for both Mother and Father during their old age and who founded Brownson House. I first knew it at the corner of Vignes and Jackson Street just west of river between First and Aliso. I used to drive her in the Stoddard-Dayton to Mass on Sunday at St. Vibiana’s Cathedral at 7:00 o’ clock and then drop her off at the Settlement House. What a great soul she was, strong in her religion, dedicated citizen, always ready to help anyone or any good cause.

The dedication to the children of Settlement House and her kindergarten classes
lasted nineteen years. As Bishop Montgomery told her, “Keep up the good work, Mary…. If we had half a dozen Mary Workmans in Los Angeles, we would make of it a City of Angels indeed.”

Tomorrow, we return with part three of this post, so please check back in for more of José’s discussion of the Brownson House and Mary Julia Workman’s work with the institution.

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