“A Bit of Light Amidst the Turbulent Hopelessness”: Mary Julia Workman and the Brownson Settlement House, Los Angeles, 1900-1920, Part Five

by José Castro

This fifth and final part of a post examining the two decades of work Mary Julia Workman undertook with immigrants to Los Angeles at the Brownson Settlement House from about 1900 to 1920 includes excerpts from José’s May 2022 Cal State San Bernardino master’s thesis relating to conflicts she had with Bishop John J. Cantwell and Rev. William Corr regarding the facility’s operation and her resignation from the institution with which she was commonly identified. The Homestead thanks José for sharing his work and looks forward to hearing what he does as he looks for a doctoral program in which to continue his research.

Amanda Mathews Chase, who was serving as a volunteer teacher for the California Regional Immigration Commission in Los Angeles, stated that “the Mexicans who come to us are the cholos, a primitive people, more Indian than Latino, brought here originally by the corporation for the work of the peons.” Chase’s view was contrary to Mary Julia Workman and the Brownson House Association who believed they were refugees in need. In the middle of a sprawling industrial city, when the Spanish flu hit, Brownson Settlement House provided medical support to the poor neighborhoods of the City of Los Angeles.

In February 1918, the world was suffering one of the deadliest flu outbreaks seen in modern times. By September, the epidemic of influenza reached the city of Los Angeles. The Spanish Flu virus found a fertile breeding place in the area surrounding the Brownson House and the badly ventilated and crowded houses in the slums favored spread of the disease. The Brownson House opened the clinic doors to give medical assistance during the fall. They had 80 cases in bed, but unfortunately 20 of them died. For three months, when the epidemic was reaching the highest point of sick people in Los Angeles, the Brownson House had workers to aid the stricken people. It was a 24-hour a day job where the volunteers and medical assistants worked to help the neighborhoods. They arranged hospitalization in high risk cases when death was near. According to a report, the volunteers called a priest to administer the Last Sacrament and confer baptism on premature infants whose mothers were dying of the disease. The social work carried out by the volunteers and workers of the Settlement helped to maintain the neighborhood in a stable condition and to make the epidemic cease little by little, avoiding a major health catastrophe in the community. The Brownson House was an essential place for immigrants and low-income people because they had a place to find help and comfort. They sent trucks with big pots of steaming hot soup to neighboring communities. Their social work played a fundamental role in helping during the outbreak. Unfortunately, in that year, the donations to the Brownson House dropped sharply, which hampered their ability to carry out their social work. Mary Julia’s leadership was able to face obstacles to help those who had less and her biggest problem was the financial deficit caused by the lack of donations during the
pandemic year . . .

Los Angeles Express, 30 March 1918.

The importance of helping and covering expenses were sometimes not enough. The services and needs grew little by little, especially after the massive Mexican immigration in 1910. As Mary Julia wrote, “The great sorrow of Brownson House Association is its inability to finance the equipment necessary for better work among the boys and young men….Under the present limited conditions, the boys, who go to work gradually leave the settlement and while there is evidence of, they want some such influence being continued in their lives.” Other communities such as the Jews, Italians, and Russians had mutual aid associations among their co-nationals in Los Angeles. The wealthy people of these communities helped their people and supported them to get ahead and develop in the United States; however, the Mexican upper class lacked the initiative to help the most vulnerable in their country.

In Los Angeles, there was no Mexican charity, so there were children on the street begging for money. Although there were wealthy Mexican exiles with the power to help, they had no interest in helping those poor families in the slums. The Mexican Spanish newspaper El Heraldo commented that “there is no Mexican charity in Los Angeles so there are children on the street asking for money. As the largest minority living in this city, it lacks a society that helps the poor. Having rich exiled Mexicans with the power to help, it does not help those poor.” By 1919, a group of upper-class Mexican people approached Mary Julia to seek support and advice to establish a Mexican association. She recalled that she “looked at the eleven men and four women, all Mexicans, who called upon us, and heard their estimate of the situation, it seemed to me the most impressive moment in the career of the Brownson House. There was always a bit of light amidst the turbulent hopelessness in the House.” Young people appeared wanting to help their people in some way, as Workman described it.

Los Angeles Times, 30 June 1918.

Mary Julia allowed the Mutualistas to have their meetings at the Brownson House where they became aware of the work being done on behalf of Mexican immigrants. They were groups of Mexicans that began to help each other within their community. Beside those meetings, a group of young Mexican women who were not members of the Association or any other organized society approached Workman to give a concert for the benefit of Brownson House on November 29, 1919. They wanted to give Christmas gifts to the children. As well as these
free benefit concerts to help raise funds, there were also dances, dinners and festivals. This without mentioning the classes and courses of which a modest amount was charged for those who attended to listen to the teachers and speakers. This is how the Brownson House Settlement Association survived for 19 years as an autonomous place that was governed democratically by volunteers whose sole objective was to help . . .

On March 11, 1918, Bishop Cantwell decided to bring two Sisters of the Holy Family from San Francisco to look over the House. Cantwell wanted their advice, as he regarded them as experts in charities. He asked Workman to assist them, writing to her that “if there be ever a time that you are not ‘awfully busy’ we must have a talk about the work . . . I am bringing two Sister[s] of the Holy Family from San Francisco, not by way of a foundation but simply to took [look] over the field and to give me the benefit of an expert advice.” With the arrival of Bishop Cantwell, the autonomy and independent decisions that Mary Julia made over the Brownson Settlement House Association had ended. The administrative, governance, and house structure were changing when Bishop Cantwell arrived at the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles in 1917. By 1919, Cantwell noticed that the House had fewer donations because the Association provided him an annual report. This concerned the Bishop because he thought people might label charity work as “Mexican” work . . .

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

In 1919, after a difficult year in which the flu epidemic created social and economic damage in the city, Brownson House was still on its feet and continued to work for the community. By March 1919, the Brownson House extended their services in the district around Macy Street. The superintendent of Immigrant Education in Los Angeles City Schools asked for aid to establish their work on the colony of Mexican immigrants in the Belvedere district [now part of East Los Angeles] . . . The lack of money was an obstacle for the Settlement House and other charities, so the bishop attempted to unify the disparate charitable efforts under the central administration. Some Catholic institutions were more financially successful than others, and Brownson House was falling behind due to the anti-Mexican feeling in the city.

Bishop Cantwell believed that Catholic charity was the responsibility of the Diocese. He began to reorganize and coordinate the activities done within Southern California. In 1919, he established the Associated Catholic Charities to centralize power in a single institution governing all aid associations. This shift mirrored a centralization of powers was typical in politics and social organizations during the Progressive era. Like many other leaders at the time, Bishop Cantwell believed that all facilities must be brought under the jurisdiction of a central
office. By 1921, the Association was restructured as the Bureau of Catholic Charities. In a letter complaining about the Bishop’s plans to centralize the charities, Mary Julia wrote, “pioneer organizations should not be compelled to lose their individuality, and the Bureau must bring the charities together and not remain a financial agency only. Too much supervision, too much efficiency, may kill the spirit of Christian charity and harness the administration of charity to the paraphernalia of the steel industry or of a department store” . . .

[South Pasadena] Federated News, 28 February 1919.

Workman knew that Brownson House was going to come under Catholic Charities, so she expressed her discontent by writing, “I believe in true scientific administration, but I value most the spirit of love, without which the most elaborate mechanism become a monster.” Beyond a centralized government, Mary Julia believed in social justice beyond efficient work that did not contribute to the social growth of the population. As she published in The Tidings, “under normal conditions Christian justice and charity would sacrifice for the healing of society. Under the abnormal conditions of desertion of Christian principles and a corrupt social system, it does not and cannot suffice to meet the claims upon it.” Some of the changes done by Bishop Cantwell was the hiring of specialized personnel for the charities instead of volunteers who had given their service out of love for their neighborhood. Bishop Cantwell suggested to the Brownson House to stop the social work and focus on religious work. The Diocese will [would] support immigrants with intense Americanization programs, and the function of the Brownson House should [would] be purely religious such as religious instruction, and practices . . .

Along with the beginnings of centralization, Americanization had been the primary goal of the Bishop Cantwell in the Diocese, perhaps to garner an acceptance of the non-white and Catholic minorities or to demonstrate the patriotism of those Mexican immigrants who refused to change their language and culture. For Bishop Cantwell, the House had to transform and adhere to the new administrative form of the Diocese to help the national patriotic union and
achieve acceptance among the Angeleno population. In 1919, Brownson House was placed under the Association of Catholic Charities of which Rev. William E. Corr became director. Mary Julia congratulated her friend Father William Corr for the appointment in a note stating, “you may be sure that our entire sympathy now, as always, is with the coordination and development of Catholic social work along cooperative lines” . . .

Los Angeles Record, 13 June 1919.

Father Corr and Bishop Cantwell shared the same ideas about work with the poor and immigrants of the city such as a centralized institution because they believed that centralization would help them work efficiently. Cantwell supported that the charitable institutions would be able to work with a centralized control and standardized management. Once he was appointed director, Father Corr put under the Catholic Charities direction all orphanages, hospitals, and schools. The objective of the Diocese was to increase charitable donations and to expand its facilities and improve those that were already established . . .

With these changes, Mary Julia began to have obstacles in her job as president of the Brownson House. In effect, her autonomy was ended by the bureaucracy at the Diocese. Father Corr represented an antagonism to the social work done by Workman and this conflict between them proved to be an example of power dynamics that affected the social work done at the Brownson House . . .

The case of the Escobedo family child is an example of the humiliation suffered by Mary Julia when the Bureau took over the Brownson House. In April 1919, a woman was found dead in the house of the Escobedo family. Next to her corpse a child was found by a man who brought the little boy to Workman. She took the boy to the County Charities and they put him in a
boarding home. She went to Father Corr’s office to report the incident, but he did not receive her. Corr accused Mary Julia of interfering with the duties of the Catholic Charities; yet, she had made the decision because the Bishop did not opt to receive the case in his office. Six months later, there was no relative who claimed the poor Mexican child. Indeed, he was an orphan who needed a family to live out the rest of his life. Workman knew that the boy was going to be put up for adoption. She knew that the kid was to be placed with the Children Home Society on September 8, 1919, by an agent of the County Charities. She called Father Corr, since he was assigned as head of Charities in the Diocese, to see if she could bring the boy to the Catholic Child Welfare League and take care of him. Los Angeles County stopped the boarding home payment where the child stayed for six months. She made the entire decision to take the child with her until she could find a family capable of adopting him.

Mary Julia with Children of the Brownson House.
Department of Archives and Special Collections,
William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

Once again, Mary Julia tried to meet Father Corr but he avoided meeting her at the office. She was disappointed by the attitude taken by the priest against her, writing to him that she “was exceedingly grieved by the treatment I received from you yesterday.” After receiving the letter and knowing her frustration, the priest responded, “I could not understand why you should ask this office whether you would hand over to the California Home Finding Society Catholic children for placement. All Catholic children must be referred to this office at all times for action. If we wish to refer them to other institutions, the decision is made here.” Father Corr denied any meeting and he did not want to consult Workman. Since she oversaw the Brownson House, the people of the neighborhood understood the work that was done in the Settlement. Indeed, people in the neighborhood had the confidence to reach the doors of Brownson House because it was a place where they could find charity and welfare. Mary Julia had autonomy in her decisions in the House since she was the Association president. This time, however, the decision had to be made by the Catholic Charities, but the lack of empathy for the people could be seen in this case where the priest did not want to open the door of his office and help to solve the child’s life situation. Workman stated clearly to Father Corr, “I want to do good work, to benefit by wise advice, to give unselfish service, I wish to work in close harmony with your office. I believe in method, system, efficiency, but I also believe that they must be vivified with real human sympathy.”

This interaction between Mary Julia and Father Corr must be studied deeply on how the Catholic Church envisioned the role of women within the Church as an institution and in Catholic dogma. Workman used the politest words and she did what was in her hand to do her job. She understood the respect for the clergy and those who are in higher hierarchy in the institution, but she kindly wrote, “in the future, you will, at least, be fair to me, and hear what I have to say before you condemn me?” The patriarchal attitude that the priest took towards Mary Julia is an attitude that has been fundamental in both the history of the Catholic Church and the culture of American society . . .

Express, 14 January 1920.

Father Corr took the management of the Bureau of Catholic Charities with an autocracy and egoism that involved a superiority against the women who worked in the Diocese. Mary Julia was surprised by the attitude taken by the priest against her since they had known each other for years. When Workman asked for a meeting with Father Corr, she recognized him as a friend, since she had him as speaker and visitor at the House. This time it was different because it was the beginning of Corr’s administration at the Catholic Charities. She was the president at the Brownson House, but the decisions were taken by Bishop Cantwell and Father Corr in the Bureau. She could not influence or suggest regarding the House anymore; meanwhile, the changes in the Settlement House were executed by the prelate in Los Angeles . . .

Mary Julia was educated under the Catholic faith and was expected to respect the priest who oversaw the Charities and the Bishop in Los Angeles. It was the education received as a Victorian Era woman in her household, and the Catholic education received in her adolescence at the convent. They believed that the ideal woman in the nineteenth century was supposed to be gentle and refined, sensitive and loving. Women were expected to be the guardian of
religion and spokeswomen for morality . . .

Times, 23 May 1920.

The relationship began to fracture in the Diocese of Los Angeles and the Brownson House Association. In a memorandum dated November 30, 1919, it is stated that “Brownson House Settlement Association will continue to function in all the affairs of Brownson House in the future as in the past, subject to general direction and supervision of the Bureau of Catholic Charities.” The Catholic Charities began to give priority to the Americanization program and taking over the expenses used at the Brownson House. Father Corr mandated to Workman, “Rt. Rev. Bishop agrees to have the Los Angeles Division of the National Catholic War Council take over all expenses of the Brownson House during the year beginning December 1st.” The house was on a reduced budget but the volunteers kept working on some activities, like Boy Scouts . . .

On February 4, 1920, Father Corr wrote about the future of the “new Brownson House.” He stated that a friend offered $5000 for Americanization work. He wanted to have a meeting with the Board of Directors and Mary Julia. He planned a campaign of $50,000 in activities for Americanization. However, Workman expressed her discontent with Father Corr to Bishop Cantwell. The priest told her that Brownson House is a small thing in the great system and what
she and the Association did was a matter of little importance. Mary Julia had already expressed her concern about resigning to the Bishop and Corr, but they tried to convince her not to leave. He suggested that the others would not support her resignation. In an intolerant way, the priest told that five of the Directors of Brownson House did not support her. She discovered that was a lie none of the directors had any conversation with Corr and four of them shared their unconditional support to Workman.

Express, 11 September 1920.

Mary Julia’s friction with the priest made it so that none of the volunteers felt comfortable with him. As she wrote, “we find it increasingly difficult under father Corr’s system to continue the policies which have characterized Brownson House up to the present time. Our fundamental conception of the work is wholly divergent.” She stated, “in his words and actions, I continually see a menace to all I hold most precious in the work.” Father Corr wanted to exert a power
dynamic over the women and create a conflict to disarm the organization. He intended to divide the group of women by creating an internal conflict. Trying to get women to submit to his bureaucratic interest, he made them to question the future of the Catholic Charities as Workman declared, “I am sure that the Brownson House I love will be wholly institutionalized and wholly destroyed in its finer value by the machinery of his system.” She knew that what she wrote could be taken trivially because they did not know the problems, the work, the care,
and the study that for years they had been contributing to society. She was not asking for a new building or a new leader, what they were asking for was to let them live their lives in the way they have been able to prove their worth and be allowed to live normally. This is where Mary Julia wrote, “if our way is judged no longer valuable then we ask to be allowed to withdraw in peace according to our convictions” . . .

She endured the humiliations and rudeness to which she was subjected. It was in this letter where she wrote her feelings and desire to resign: “I shall give up everything, even my
last desire that the name of Brownson House pass with us, if you will let me go. What we have done has been done holy for Lord’s glory and I shall offer Him the sacrifice of all our dear dead hopes” . . .

Brownson House Volunteers with Children.
Department of Archives and Special Collections,
William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

Contrary to Father Corr’s claim that the directors did not support Workman, the directors decided not to appear on the ballot to democratically choose the new president of the Brownson House Association. They decided to leave the house with their leader . . .

Bishop Cantwell did not accept her resignation because he had not put her in office. Therefore, she had to go to the Association and make her formal resignation with them. He regretted the resignation and wrote, “it must be a great consolation to you to look back on so many years of unselfish labor spent among the poor children and to see other off-shoots of the work that you undertook in earlier days blossoming forth.” Somehow and unexpectedly, Bishop Cantwell was seeing the effects of what was to be Mary Julia’s resignation: “When a great work is now being undertaken in the Mexican quarters, especially when those who are hostile to our faith are working so zealously, it is regretted that our greatest worker and most intelligent should drop out” . . .

An article on a Brownson House event, emphasizing patriotism and education among the Latinos served by the organization, with speakers including Dr. José Saenz and lawyer Antonio Orfila (who was connected to the family of John H. Temple) from La Prensa [Los Angeles], 7 September 1918.

The Brownson House stopped doing social work and focused on religious and American proselytizing. The main objective was to provide social justice to the people but it was changed by a centralized and bureaucratic system that failed. Workman wrote in the last report:

Brownson House aims to keep alive the same faith in the hearts of
the little ones in an obscure part of God’s vineyard. This faith is their most precious inheritance. In practice, it will bear fruit in lives
of used fullness and virtue here, and it will bear still more abundant
fruit in the life beyond the grave. The complete history of Brownson
House cannot be written by any pen, for its data are to be found
nowhere but, in the minds, and hearts of the children, the parents,
and the workers and such data are not transferable to any
statistical report.

While Mary Julia was asked to return to Brownson House after Corr was transferred to San Antonio in 1921, she declined. Five years later, she was presented the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal by Pope Pius XI in recognition of her years of service for the Church in Los Angeles. She remained involved in Catholic organizations such as the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women, while expanding her work in broader and secular social and political causes, including on the Los Angeles Civil Service Commission, efforts for world peace and involvement in interracial cooperation projects. When she died in 1964 at age 93, Mary Julia was widely lauded for her decades of activism in the Angel City and José noted in the conclusion to his thesis: “More than 100 years have passed since Mary Julia Workman’s resignation from Brownson House in 1920. Her legacy during the Progressive Era is
important and should be recognized by civil and religious institutions. Mary Julia Workman challenged social and clerical barriers in favor of those in need. Through her work, she was able to bring social justice to immigrants. The Brownson House sought true progress to the foreign-born by providing education, public health, jobs, and social services in city of Los Angeles.”

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