“You Are the Friend Waiting for Me in Los Angeles”: Mary Julia Workman and the Brownson Settlement House, Los Angeles, 1900-1920, Part Four

by José Castro

This fourth part of excerpts of José’s detailed look into the two decades of work conducted by Mary Julia Workman as president of the Brownson Settlement House includes portions dealing with Americanization, the education of children, working with Mexicans in ways the Catholic Church did not want to, assisting Japanese Catholics and non-Catholics and more.

Americanization and social work went hand in hand at the Settlement House. Contrary to the historical view that Progressive leaders were educated, middle-class white Protestants, Mary Julia Workman was a Catholic who led a group of women who focused on helping immigrants seek social justice through humanitarian work that encompassed health, education, and work. With her method of cultural integration and social understanding, Mary Julia was able to
create an Americanization program among the Mexican immigrant community contrary to the conservative nativist mentality that ignored and rejected them. Thus, the relationship and work with the immigrant community that was successful during the Progressive Era must be recognized for its value in the history of the United States.

In the summer of 1914, Workman opened the doors of Brownson House to teach a course in Sociology with the priest and sociologist Frederic Siedenburg S.J. He was the Dean of the new School of Sociology at Loyola University in Chicago from 1912 to 1932. He was a prominent sociologist who influenced Catholic social work in the United States. Father Siedenburg was against the relationship between politics and public welfare. He believed that civil service should be completed to serve the needy. Father Siedenburg was a devoted servant of the cause of those who needed help. His 12 lectures helped to educate new social workers in Los Angeles. Mary Julia promoted those lectures from public leaders such as Frank A. Gibson, Commissioner of the California State Housing and Immigration Commission in Los Angeles, and the Reverend Monsignor William Corr, who visited and spoke between January and June 1916. Corr was an expert in social work from the East Coast, and he studied at Columbia University where he learned a scientific approach to social welfare including social survey techniques to assess needs before implementing programs. The conferences and lectures given by these social work experts focused to train and teach volunteers and workers from settlement houses, charities, playgrounds, the juvenile court, and other municipal offices of the city of Los Angeles. These lectures offered by Workman at the Brownson House reflected the Progressive influence with which she directed her social work. Beside their religious background, Brownson House aimed social justice and Americanization to the newly arrived immigrants in the City of Angels.

Children at the Brownson Settlement House 2.
Department of Archives and Special Collections,
William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

By 1917, when [Bishop John J.] Cantwell took over the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles, Mary Julia was presiding over the Brownson Settlement House. Her attitude towards Americanization was ahead of the newly created Commission of Housing and Immigration. Her model of integrating marginalized, segregated, and oppressed members of society would be the first and opposed to the American Legion and Daughters of the American Revolution . . .

Workman noted that, the “Brownson House aims to keep its plans flexible and responsive to neighborhood needs; it aims to work with its neighbors rather than for them to cooperate with all civic, Catholic, and recognized agencies for social betterment to help secure, when necessary, enforcement of laws which concern the living and working conditions of the poor and the immigrant.” From the beginning in 1901, when it [Brownson] began as a religious education center, Mary Julia saw the needs of the children, who were mostly Mexicans who attended to Our Lady of Los Angeles Church at the plaza. Little by little, social services were extended, seeking to satisfy the needs of the population. The aim was to help young people and children to educate themselves to get ahead in society. Workman wrote, “Brownson House is
valuable to the community because it lives and labor[s in] close contact with its neighbors in the foreign sections of Los Angeles and gets their point of view because it develops a sympathetic co-operative effort which is the best mean[s] for social advance because it is a neighborhood center for social, educational and preventive work.”

Children of the Brownson Settlement House 3.
Department of Archives and Special Collections,
William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University

One of the most important activities at Brownson House was the education of children and young people. The library was open with reading groups and activities that encouraged education in English and Spanish. Children from Mexico read the classics and read about the same heroes as American children. The promotion of education and reading sought to create equality in education from which minorities were segregated. For this reason, when Mary Julia stated that the children of Mexico read the same as their American counterparts, it was because she sought to promote the educational opportunities that immigrants lacked in Los Angeles schools. The library was full of children and they exchanged their books. Indeed, a little group of children spent time with their friend[s] coloring picture books and, through reading and books, children learned English and were assimilated to American culture. As Workman wrote, “larger boys were enthusiastically talking about Tom Sawyer and how he got his fence whitewashed, while another group of girls were talking how they had formed a story reading club.” She and some Brownson House volunteers spoke Spanish. This helped to provide history and civic classes to those immigrants in their language. She always sought the education of children at the Brownson House, and she encouraged them to read and play learning games. The library could get up to 400 books for children’s education. Some of those books were in Spanish used by Mexican children. Although some older boys could not go in the morning because they had to go to the factories to work or sell newspapers on the streets of Los Angeles, they arrived in the afternoon. They were boys and girls up to 16 years of age who came to “Mexican Nights.”

Another club was the Angelus Club. They helped young Mexican boys and girls to learn about American culture and English while they danced, met, and prayed with young neighbors. Mary Julia remembered how a noticeable group of 15 boys described as “toughest in the neighborhood,” drew a circle under a light to read books like Treasure Island. They asked a volunteer to read the book to them and they enjoyed the reading. It was in these anecdotes where the stereotype that the Mexican immigrants lacked the initiative to learn or educate
themselves was erroneously developed . . . by white American society of the time . . .

Children of the Brownson Settlement House 4.
Department of Archives and Special Collections,
William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

Mary Julia demonstrated that she was a respectable leader to the boys as she recalls,

Some years ago, a gang of twelve boys afflicted a neighborhood in this city with their lawless ways. They seemed to have no good purpose in life and had no interest in any self-respecting work. They haunted the street corners at night and were apparently not the downward road. One of these boys was persuaded to join a boy’s club which offered certain material advancement and provided certain legitimate pleasures much desired by boys of his age. At the same time, high ideas were inculcated….He began to see things in different way and to take an interest in the work which was wisely planned with a knowledge of boy nature. Soon he persuaded the rest of the gang to young, which they did, all but one. Some time went by, and the boys sought work. A spirit of honest endeavor seized them….eleven of these boys became industrious and good citizens.

Contrary to the stereotype impregnated in the mentality of Anglo-American society, Workman was able to demonstrate that the claim of [a] lack of intelligence, interests, and abilities [that] existed for immigrant Mexican children was wrong and racially influenced by the ruling Anglo-American class . . .

Los Angeles Express, 10 March 1916.

She knew that education was what could open the doors for those young people who were marginalized and oppressed in a systematically racist society that abandoned them. Brownson House was open for teenagers and children seeking an educational opportunity as Mary Julia wrote,

Brownson House is able to furnish dreams and air castles for children who live in mere shacks and [that they] have so little of material luxury is rather significant. It is the dream that helps one to live down the unhappy present condition; it is the dream that helps one to rise and find that air castle in some form or other later on. It is therefore significant that our Mexicans are given an opportunity to dream and live-in castles in the sky, and one day from those dreams they will rise up above the shacks into the realms of the America’s highest ideals.

Education such as after-school tutoring and book clubs were supplemented within Brownson House. Workman had the vision to not underestimate minorities and give them the opportunity to learn and work for the common good in society.

Los Angeles Record, 17 October 1916.

Her approach to education and methodology embraced all the students who came to seek help, which was something that drew attention for its effectiveness in education that was ahead of its time. Amanda Mathews Chase, who was one of the original school teachers at the College Settlement in 1903, explained that “the large Public School System has awakened to this method which Miss Workman adopted years ago and at the present the public schools are using the small cottage system where groups of 15 foreigners and even less gather around a teacher in the evening to be handle[d] close and in a family-like manner instead of in larger classes” . . .

The methodology was cutting-edge and both Workman and the Brownson House volunteers knew how to attend to the needs of immigrants and residents of the community. Mary Julia explained that the “Brownson House remembers this great basic fact in all its efforts for Americanization and seeks to preserve and strengthen the religious faith and practice of immigrants as the basis of good citizenship.” William J. Denney, from The Charity Organization Society, wrote that he “was very impressed with the progressive spirit of these Catholic social workers. As for Brownson House, no social worker can visit it and talk with Miss Workman without coming away with the feeling that here is a social institution worthwhile, and that is designed to meet a real need and that is trying to give the best possible measure of genuine service” In the end, boys and girls who grew up in the House’s playgrounds wrote letters remembering the days of joys with the volunteers and other children. Workman wrote that the “Brownson House has succeeded in listening to the beating hearts of a foreign people during the past years and with close attention has tried to provide correct channels for their repressed emotions can best be understood.”

Los Angeles Times, 3 December 1916.

She noticed that the failure to Americanize the parents of these immigrant children was [because of] the large number of families living in the same household. Their housing conditions reflected the racial inequality due to the labor exploitation and lack of opportunities in the city. She wrote that “the educational work it does consist in the upholding of the best standard of American living and citizenship in the preservation of the best traditions of the immigrant as foundation for the work of Americanization; in friendly interpretation, in encouragement, and where knowledge and skill are lacking and helplessness is manifest, in neighborly assistance toward the acquaint of needed information, skill and experience and in the securing protection against exploitation” . . .

Mary Julia described in her letters how Mexican mothers sent their children to Sunday school, and the Plaza church was filled with faithful people who had to be outside sitting on a bench during mass. Mexican immigrants had anticlerical views spread in Mexico due to corruption and abuse by the clergy, and yet they had a deeply rooted hidden religiosity with popular traditions and cultural syncretism that made them very different from the Catholic Church from Europe.
The distance between the European Catholic clergy and the Mexican immigrants affected the social work that the church carried out with other ethnic groups, such as the Italians and Germans. The Church was a strategic social point for immigrants; however, with the Mexicans, instead of being a source of comfort and identity, it was a place of disagreement and rejection. Therefore, the clergy’s efforts toward Americanization did not include an effort to social integration. Contrary to the dominant approach articulated by the Church, the Brownson
House objectives, as written in a pamphlet, stated that “Brownson House is doing a vital work. In practical ways, it is uniting native-born and foreign-born in a common devotion to American ideals.” Brownson House promoted the unity respecting the immigrant culture and traditions because Mary Julia thought of the value and contribution of immigrants to American society. She did not tolerate the prejudice and attitudes of racial superiority. Growing up and
working with minorities on the Eastside of Los Angeles made her learn from them. She not only embraced Mexican Catholics, but she also worked hard to help other minorities like the Japanese living in Los Angeles

Record, 26 March 1917.

While there was a Brown Scare due to the massive immigration from Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, and the Red Scare in 1917, during the Bolshevik uprising in Russia, an anti-Japanese hysteria demanded the expulsion of the Japanese from the state due to racial and cultural reasons. In 1913, women’s civic organizations remained silent when Progressives waged a campaign against the Japanese. Workman opened the doors of the Brownson House to a priest, Father Albert Breton, who was a missionary in Japan, to receive Japanese Catholics and non-Catholics to give them asylum. Mary Julia, Father Breton and the Brownson House volunteers mobilized to help Japanese immigrants in various cities in Southern California. By 1917, when the new Bishop Cantwell arrived, the pressures on Breton created a conflict because the Japanese Catholics were not sufficiently converted to American Catholicism.
Bishop Cantwell believed that the Japanese had to adapt to American Catholicism and forget their traditions and culture to forge a distinctly American attitude. Mary Julia wrote, “Father Breton is a very pious and simple missionary… The children love him dearly. He speaks so easily and spiritually.” Father Breton was removed from his mission in California and reassigned to Japan. Cantwell’s intolerance of non-European minorities was reflected in this act against the Japanese. The Bishop wanted an Irish priest and missionaries to oversee the Americanization needs of the Japanese leaving out the French priest, Father Breton, and the group of Japanese Catholic missionaries who accompanied him. Bishop Cantwell had that attitude of superiority that Irish priests had over other Catholics. On the contrary, as an Irish descendent, Workman put that attitude aside and established a relationship with other minorities. The 1913 “Alien Land Law” was reformed in 1920 due to the anti-Japanese sentiment in California. The discrimination against Japanese increased in this decade with further laws against this community. Mary Julia reacted to this law writing, “the reactionary forces that swept the Nation also swept the State and captured the California legislature.” Nativism had reached the State where racial intolerance had increased due to the fear brought by ignorance about other races and cultures. She wrote, “the Settlement has realized this all the more keenly because they have lived with the foreign born and have shared human experiences with them.” The cultural exchange and intolerance was present at the Brownson House, while the Catholic hierarchy had
an intolerant attitude against the traditions and cultures brought by immigrants in the United States . . .

Workman and the volunteers in the Settlement House had been helping to assimilate American society to immigrants in Los Angeles before Cantwell [arrived.] “This is real work in Americanization,” said a visitor at the Brownson House, acknowledging that she had no idea of the kind of work they were doing. [The] Municipal Charities Commission president wrote, “It is a joy to see an institution which, like Brownson House, not only has the vision, but is willing and able to carry out plans which can meet the needs so very evident.” Mary Julia believed that, “Americanization is a reciprocal process in [that it] both gives and takes. It can never be brought about by force, or by spasmodic effort. In fact, the hysterical onslaught under pressure of emergency defeats its own purpose and causes a reaction of suspicion. Americanization is preeminently dependent upon the exemplification of American ideals by native-born
Americans, and upon conditions which he creates. After all, it is the native-born citizen who determines conditions of entrance into America, and conditions of life and labor in America” . . .

Express, 31 July 1917.

Denney further wrote, “I was impressed with the progressive spirit of these Catholic Social workers . . . no social worker can visit it (Brownson House) and talk with Miss Workman without coming away with the feeling that here is a social institution worthwhile, one that is designed to meet a real need and that is trying to give the best possible measure of genuine service.” Mary Julia wrote,

The existence of the Settlement House in the midst of a foreign neighborhood is a great means to exemplify American ideals in their true significance; to prevent or remedy injustice and to secure protection for the stranger through appeal to the proper public agencies; to interpret to [the] immigrant the customs and institutions of the country; to extended him and his family the hand of friendship and hospitality as soon as he arrives and to encourage him to learn English as [a] step toward Americanization

In the Brownson House, Mexicans were being Americanized because they felt welcome and the Association understood their needs, while Chase claimed that “Mexicans seem to have a specific gravity which keeps them at the bottom of the district melting pot.” The California Commission of Immigration suggest that Mexican[s] had a lack of initiative making them difficult to adjust and [be] assimilated, [but] Workman stated that, “Brownson House is their friend, it is willing that they should be Mexicans, and with this feeling strongly impressed and felt it soon awakens a kindred feeling in their hearts, the feeling that they are willing to become like the good Americans” . . .

Times, 25 November 1917.

The reason why more Mexican immigrants reach[ed] the house is because they hear[d] stories that are [were] carried from Los Angeles. As Workman wrote, “[there are] stories which today bring the Mexican family right from the early morning train to the settlement house door. ‘You are the friend waiting for me in Los Angeles’ is the sentiment which the expressions of face and manners how [have] as they grip the hands of the workers.” The women at the Brownson House and Mary Julia did not had the scientific and academic knowledge and methodology that Bishop Cantwell wanted to use with Father Corr, but they had the knowledge of the needs of the people that made the Brownson Settlement House a successful charity organization within the Mexican community of Los Angeles.

Children in the Brownson House felt a closer relationship with Workman as she wrote, “I have aimed at the relationship of mother to the younger children and big sister to the older ones. I have often heard the little children talking and counting on their little brown fingers how many mothers they have, the grandmothers, and I coming in on the second and third fingers, and others have felt the joy of a happy smile to hear another child to say, ‘Your mother is dead but you have a grandmother and a Brownson House mother.’” While other settlement houses failed and closed their doors, Brownson House was successful among [the] Mexican community[,] leaving a legacy that was gratefully reciprocated by those immigrants who had [been] helped as it is [was] described in The Tidings, “Often sweet-faced Mexican women are seen on their way to [the] Settlement door carrying tamales, or some freshly cooked corn from the home garden, daintily wrapped in a flower trimmed basket to be presented with much natural grace to the Settlement residents as a token of gratitude for some kindness shown to them and the children.”

Please return tomorrow for part five of this post, which includes José’s analysis of problems between Mary Julia and Catholic officials that led to a drastic decision regarding her involvement.

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