“They Are Our Brethren, of the Very Household of the Faith”: Mary Julia Workman and the Brownson Settlement House, Los Angeles, 1900-1920, Part Three

by José Castro

This third part, comprised of excerpts from the May 2022 master’s thesis, submitted to Cal State San Bernardino, by Homestead volunteer and docent José Castro, continues with the examination of Mary Julia Workman’s work at the Brownson Settlement House. These include José’s observations that Workman’s career as a kindergarten teacher in Boyle Heights was directly correlated with her approaches at Brownson with regard to children. He also delved into her concerns about health services, job training, the Catholic Church’s approach to Mexicans fleeing the revolution in the home country, and the dangers of Socialism and Anarchism.

In the peak of the Progressive Era, the eugenics movement began to flourish against immigrants and disabled people in the United States. Mary Julia Workman began to go against this movement helping immigrants with a public health program in the Brownson House that would meet their needs to preserve life and give rehabilitation to disabled, mostly immigrant, children . . .

The racist rhetoric against non-Anglos and the anti-Catholicism that increased during the Progressive Era reached the city of Los Angeles with the increase of Mexican immigration. Some women’s clubs began to create forms of persecution against what they considered social pollution. Women’s clubs promoted laws against sexual delinquency aimed at minorities. There was an anxiety about the population growth in these communities and it was perceived that there was a growth in prostitution among young immigrants. While young immigrant women had to work the streets to meet their economic needs, Progressive and conservative groups took a eugenic approach and sought to create juvenile delinquency laws to stop prostitution among minority groups because they feared that prostitution would cause social problems and were concerned about population growth among non-white minorities.

Brownson House Volunteers, Nurses and Doctors, Circa 1916.
Department of Archives and Special Collections,
William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

Maria Julia believed in respect for life from before birth to the last minute of the individual’s existence, contradicting the rhetoric that was gestating during the Progressive Era. She decided to work from the Brownson House creating a clinic for preventive medicine and to help pregnant women. This clinic would be an asylum for children with disabilities and people with other health needs. Her writings were permeated with her attitude toward the respect
for life, as she wrote, “we must consider the law of God, the rights of the individual, and the social effect.” She believed in the rehabilitation of teenagers who committed crimes in the streets and to provide support to single mothers to get ahead with their children. In her writings, she described how young people who were delinquents approached the Brownson House to seek help to become better citizens, and how the community needed affordable health clinics to improve their lives. With the creation clinics in the Brownson House, they
expanded the services for those most in need, especially children with disabilities and pregnant women.

The Brownson Settlement House had three clinics. The Dispensary for Crippled Children sought to cure children of physical disabilities and provide them with accommodations as needed. The Infant Welfare Station, under [the] Los Angeles Health Department, helped babies to have proper examination, medicine and food. The Maternity Dispensary gave prenatal care and helped expectant mothers. The three clinics helped those most in need regardless of their religion or race. Most of them were Mexican immigrants who came to seek proper health services.

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

The Dispensary for Crippled Children was maintained at the Brownson House Settlement [sic]. It was free for all to get advanced treatment from a professional doctor. Six months after opening they will [would] reach up to 200 patients. Much corrective work was done and many children were saved from preventative disabilities. Clementina De Forrest Griffin, one of the volunteers,
wrote about how the doctors helped little babies with their disabilities. Dr. Saphro and Dr. Carling, who were orthopedic specialist[s], helped without a monetary fee to a mother who brought her little child. Griffin wrote, “the mother was immediately instructed in the manipulation of the tiny ankles and feet and as soon as the baby was old enough the feet were strapped. The child has since been entirely cured.” The need to have an orthopedic dispensary was necessary in the community for poor children and mostly immigrants who could not pay for treatment. On October 22, 1914, Brownson House opened the Free Dispensary for [the] Crippled and Deformed. In the next seven month[s], 310 children were treated. Hopeless poor kids with deformities were treated for various ailments and disabilities. Boys and girls with paralysis were treated. Professional doctors charged a small amount of fees to the Association for their service[s] but nurses were volunteers. In describing the work of the Dispensary, Workman explained that “the little twisted hands and feet can be straightened; the useless limbs may be strengthened to greater usefulness; the crooked backs may be benefited by the best modern scientific methods and much care and patience. Mothers are taught the best methods of caring and assisting the children” . . .

What differentiated Mary Julia in her social work with [from] other Progressist [Progressives] was her respect for life. The purpose of Brownson House was to give a second chance to the disabled and to create rehabilitation and self-sufficiency programs for individuals. She said that not even a physician or social worker had a moral right over life. Workman stated that we could seclude and care for those who are not safe for society but we cannot take away their right to procreate. Indeed, she criticized the tendency of the eugenics movement that promoted methods of sterilization for criminals, especially in non-white communities. With proper social justice, she believed that a lot could be done to develop individual and social responsibility and a lot could be done to improve people’s social conditions. Mary Julia wrote, “the finest traits of human character have been developed by the discipline and self-sacrifice entailed by the protection and service of the helpless” . . .

Mary Julia Workman portrait given to her younger brother Thomas and dated 6 August 1915.
Department of Archives and Special Collections,
William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University

By 1910 there was an increase in Mexican refugees in the city of Los Angeles. They were families that lacked opportunities in their country and came with the hope of having better living conditions in a country that boasted of receiving immigrants. Ten years after Brownson House was established, the arrival of numerous immigrants increased the need to provide social work for those poor foreigners in the city. In addition to education and public health, Mary Julia began to provide employment and job training. Brownson Settlement House[‘s] aim was to seek social justice in the poor neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The demography was changing in the Los Angeles [region] with the increase in immigrant population. Most of those immigrants were peasants from Mexico who could not read or write in Spanish and were unskilled laborers who did not speak English. Some of them were seeking a job in the farm fields around the city and beyond the county limits. Their children were on the streets of Los Angeles, working selling newspapers or shining pedestrians’ leather footwear on the Plaza. Families with children were often staying in a small shanty house made with old wood and bricks in deplorable conditions. The Mexican diaspora caused by the Mexican Revolution brought thousands of immigrants to Los Angeles in the 1910s . . .

In an article written for The Tidings, Workman wrote about the situation of Mexicans:

There are estimated to be 50,000 Mexicans in Los Angeles, almost one half of the total foreign population….it can easily be seen that the Mexican problem is the greatest local human problem that we have, as citizens of this community. Larger numbers of these people are pitiably poor and helpless, the prey to insufficient food, and a lack of vitality consequent upon undernourished bodies. They are of our faith, living in our midst, and possess many native traits of unusual attractiveness. They are courteous, appreciative, and responsive, gladly cooperating in efforts for any amelioration for their conditions. With opportunity and education, many of them could become skilled in some work of value to themselves and the community.

Mary Julia wrote to the Catholics and non-Catholics of Los Angeles to be aware of the need to help those immigrants who were fleeing a bloody war.

The Tidings, 16 December 1910.

While others were blinded by racial hatred and failed to see that poor working conditions were the cause of most of the problems surrounding immigrant communities, Workman witnessed the problems in these poor neighborhoods. The government was not capable of solving these problems due to political conditions since the progressive politicians opted for a rejection of these immigrants. The help for immigrants was not only with education, or public health, but also in job training. Mary Julia stated, “Brownson House sees the need of developing workshops for industrial training along with practical work where unskilled adults who are handicapped or by the lack of skill or by ignorance of the language, etc., could secure suitable employment due developing a measure of efficiency.” The unemployed Mexicans gathered in a small park north of the Plaza. They met in great numbers when they were unemployed. Workman walked these streets where Mexicans were waiting to be hired. Unfortunately, they did not have the skills to work in the factories, and they were hired in underpaid jobs. Their wages were small, but they were satisfied if they had a steady employment. She appealed to the private and public sector writing in The Tidings, “this matter of Mexican unemployment has hardly been approached in Los Angeles and should be a matter of immediate and most serious consideration. It will have to be worked out by some public agency on a large scale with the cooperation of the public and private forces of the community.” She encouraged lay people’s work, as she stated that “there is a distinct need for Catholic men and women who will give personal service in constructive social work among the poor and foreign population.”

The lack of food among the Mexicans hardened in winter when there was no harvest available to work and the peasants returned to the city with their families. The Brownson Settlement House was open to give some relief, but there was not enough for everyone. Mary Julia explained,

Every winter the Settlement suffers the same sad struggle on the part of the unskilled Mexican laborer. In the summer they take their families to the fruit ranchers around the city, whereby the confided efforts to children and parents, a little money is saved. Winter is the period of unemployment. The savings are inadequate. There is no doubt that this problem of industrial conditions of the larger Mexican population of Los Angeles should be seriously studied, and that public and private agencies should cooperate in its solution in order to deal with it adequately.

Brownson House began by helping to carry out essential activities to train Mexicans for work. Workman stated, “everything is done to help solve the problem of unemployment which affects the unskilled Mexican laborer, especially during the winter months. Positions have been secured for Mexican women and girls, and the sale of Mexican hand work has been carried on through the Settlement.” She elaborated that “a great effort is made to assist boys of working age to secure positions which promise advancement.” If there were no jobs available in the city, they had to organize themselves to do some trade and earn money. The Brownson House volunteers decided to organize and employ women in need. Mary Julia noted that “the field workers form groups of Mexican women to sew in their own homes and to make garments for their own children. The material is supplied from the Settlement clothing bureau and paid for by the labor expended.” During World War I, they found a way to help the Red Cross and earn money during the war. Workman remembered that “Mexican women have gathered at the Brownson House to sew for the Red Cross and to help with clothing sales.” Mexican boys helped the U.S. Food Administration to gather the crops from the Brownson House garden. Mary Julia also recalled that “wrecks of humanity who came knocking at the Settlement door have worked in the garden in payment for clothing and food.” These activities were essential and served to sustain households while they got some formal jobs in factories or shops . . .

Los Angeles Times, 19 May 1912.

With the Mexican Revolution the population of Mexicans in the United States increased to 70,000 in 1915. Bishop Thomas Conaty noticed that the Protestant[s] were proselytizing among them. Mary Julia observed that “the vast majority of the foreign people for whom this institution is being planned are Catholics by birth, by tradition, and by baptism. They are our brethren, of the very household of the faith. Shall we see their temporal helplessness and misery and
pass them by, while a stranger starts to minister to them?” The Protestants raised money to spend to reach those immigrants in the Mexican barrios, but they closed the door to them. The strong Catholic faith made the Mexican immigrants arrive in the city looking for a place that, beyond religion, provided them with health services, education, and work. Workman wrote, “the fact remains that [the] foreign born poor of our faith need special adequate work under Catholic auspices. We, Catholic lay workers, should be the first to recognize their need and the first to come to their assistance.” For Mary Julia the problem was not immigration, but rather how those immigrants had to adapt to a society that closed its doors to them. The only way was through job training and education. She suggested to teach them to survive in an Anglo Protestant society that kept them cornered in a miserable way of life.

The Catholic Church forgot its mission to protect the poor, as Workman wrote to her friend Sister M[ary] Leopold,

When a man or a woman is hungry, overworked or exploited, you cannot
teach Catechism to him, you must first remedy his condition. When
children live with eight or nine people in one room, you cannot expect the grace of First Communion to perform a miracle in every individual case and keep them decently moral.

The relationship Mary Julia had with the immigrant community led her to criticize the social situation in Mexico, as she wrote that the “Catholic people and press, in their talk about Mexico express no sympathy or interest in the political reform needed in Mexico, or in the achievement of liberty by the enslaved people of that unhappy land. Their only idea is the enforced subjection of the people in order that Church property and institutions may enjoy temporary security. I[t] would be a false security, and a temporary one as history proves.” Her criticisms against the attitude of the church about the situation in Mexico was in favor of poor people and those in need. She saw those people coming to Los Angeles, poor and sick. They became her neighbors, students, and friends. She noticed the long struggle of the Mexican people toward the attainment of freedom and justice. The church saw only its interests to safeguard its power, and their assets.

Los Angeles Express, 30 June 1914.

The Church in Mexico had to seek social justice where people can have a dignified life. Mary Julia criticized the Church by writing, “men cannot be economically enslaved and religiously free.” She proclaimed social justice for the poor and needy. Workman saw in her community how refugees arrived from different countries. She proclaimed, “the Church is eminently right in maintaining her freedom from governmental control but she will be robbed of her influence if she is not associated in this instance with constructive plans for human betterment. At least, her influence should be clearly toward advancement in the realization of social justice and true liberty.” The church was meddling in a conflict outside the country, leaving aside its true work, which is to promote the common good, ignoring the needs of the people who were on the lookout for the anarchists and socialists who promised a just society with bloody and unjust revolutions for those who have the least . . .

Mary Julia believed that radical Socialism and Anarchism was [were] hitting the streets. However, the poor lacked things essential for social justice such as education, healthcare, work, and fair housing. She argued that Socialism came to destroy the essential values of society, such as the family. Workman wrote that “ideas are weapons and knowledge is power. During the past century the weapon of false ideas has been taken the arsenal of the human mind and turned against the children of God.” She criticized Protestant pastors who tried to adapt socialism to the Christian faith because in Europe, Socialism boasted of persecuting Christians and blaming Catholicism for poverty and oppression in industrial cities. Workman proclaimed that the Christian faith provides the principles of social reform. She firmly stated that Socialism and Anarchism were the enemies of Christianity, but she sought to create awareness of social work. She wanted all the members of the Church to come together to give charity to those most in need: men and women in industries and urban settings. She sought to being [bring] together social leaders and priests organizing social activities with Catholic women leading social and constructive missions in communities. Influenced by the Rerum Novarum encyclical written by Leon [Pope Leo] XIII, Mary Julia wanted to reach every corner of the city and bring social justice to the poor. As it is written in the Pope’s letter, “God himself seems to incline to those who suffer misfortune; for Jesus Christ calls the poor blessed.”

Times, 27 May 1915.

The social justice work carried out by Workman was based on her Christian belief that charity to the neediest was her primary goal. She stated that the social reform done by the lay Catholic cannot be perfect, but, as she wrote, they “can always strive to raise the social standard of living and give equal opportunities.” As she saw the poor walking on the dusty streets of Los
Angeles, she saw the Socialist ideology growing in the city. As she noted, “in theory one would think that the weapon of atheism, and therefore materialism, could not be used successfully to destroy the traditional concept of man, all the more so since in scriptural language the man is a fool who says there is not God.” The Russian and Mexican revolutions had Socialist overtones that were at their peak in 1917 when [America’s participation in] the First World War in Europe began. Along with propaganda, such as revolutionary radical Socialist books and pamphlets, it began to concern the U.S. government and mainstream society. This is how the Progressive Movement increased the Americanization programs throughout the country among the immigrants in the United States in 1917.

Please check in tomorrow for part four of excerpts of José’s study of Workman and her two decades of effort at the Brownson House.

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