Fits the Bill: A Receipt for Laura Gonzalez from the Sisters of Charity School, Los Angeles, August 1885

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As prior posts here have noted, Lorenza (Laura) Librada Gonzalez de Temple (1871-1922), the wife of Walter P. Temple and mother of their five children (Thomas, Mercedes [who died two weeks after birth], Agnes, Walter, Jr., and Edgar) was a talented woman who, in a later age and under different circumstances, could well have had charted another course in life. As it was, we know she was devoted to her family, church, community organizations, and friends, though her death from colon cancer at just 51 years of age, as her son Walter, Jr. told me, deprived her family of a sound business mind and judgment that was sorely needed given the later financial situation of her widow.

One of the best-known examples of her business and financial acumen was when, while just a teenager, Laura helped manage the 75-acre Workman Homestead while her employer, Walter’s brother, Francis, was away on frequent trips to ameliorate the devastating symptoms of tuberculosis. Surviving letters and a ledger that she kept show the extent of her supervision of the wine-making and farming operations at the ranch and are clear indications of her abilities, extraordinary for a woman and one so young.

Los Angeles Star, 27 October 1855.

This was despite the fact that she was born out of wedlock to Felíz Gonzalez, a native of México and a musician who died when Laura was young, and Francisca Valenzuela, who was often said to be Laura’s aunt. Moreover, she grew up in the community of Misión Vieja, established around the original location at Whittier Narrows of the Mission San Gabriel, where opportunities for men with education and employment were basically limited to attending the local La Puente (now New Temple) grammar school and labor on a ranch or farm or in a house for a well-to-do family like the neighboring Temples. For women like Laura, it was expected that she would marry young and tend to her family.

Yet, this didn’t happen. Though we know little about her childhood—she doesn’t even appear anywhere in the region in the 1880 federal census—a surviving remnant from the Homestead’s collection, comprising the featured artifact for this post, informs us that she had at least one year of education at the Sisters of Charity school for girls in Los Angeles. The object, dated 15 August 1886, when she had just turned 15 years old, is a receipt issued by the Mother Superior, Sister Mary Josephine Leddy, to “Mrs. Valenzuela” and acknowledging $51.50 paid “for three Months Board in adv[ance] for Miss Lorenza Gonzales.”

Star, 22 December 1855.

With respect to the Sisters of Charity, there has been some confusion over the order’s name, as it was actually the Daughters of Charity, which dates back to 17th century France and them establishment of the order to serve “the poorest of the poor.” In 1809, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, canonized in 1975 as the first American-born saint in the Catholic Church, established the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, the first religious community for women in the United States as well as St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School. In 1850, the Sisters of Charity became part of the broader Daughters of Charity order and two years later Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany asked the Emmitsburg order to send nuns to work with orphans.

The Los Angeles Star reported in its 27 October 1855 issue that Father Blas Raho, then the vicar-general of Bishop Tadeo Amat (who, on 30 May 1857, blessed the cornerstone of St. Nicholas’ Chapel, built by William and Nicolasa Workman, in El Campo Santo at the Homestead) was at the Plaza Church to provide a sermon the following day. The paper added, however, that Rev. Raho “expects to remain here some two or three weeks, on business connected with the establishment of the ‘Sisters of Charity’ here &c.” This was specifically to develop an orphanage as was done by the order in San Francisco.

Star, 12 January 1856.

Just under two months later, in its 22 December edition, the Star noted that, pursuant to Bishop Amat’s request, there was a public meeting at the church “for the purpose of taking into consideration the practicability of establishing the Sisters of Charity in this place.” After Amat explained the purpose, the prominent rancher and former merchant Abel Stearns, a Protestant before converting to Catholicism, was chosen president and future governor John G. Downey, a native of Ireland and born into the Church, was selected as secretary.

On motion of District Court Judge Benjamin I. Hayes, a native of Baltimore and a Catholic, a nine-person committee was formed to write resolutions and this body included the jurist along with Stearns, Downey, Mayor Thomas Foster, winemaker Louis Vignes, attorney and future district attorney Ezra Drown, future state treasurer Antonio Franco Coronel, recent acting mayor and prominent office-holder in the Mexican and American periods Manuel Requena, and Californio stalwart Ygnacio del Valle.

Los Angeles News, 9 August 1861.

The group left to draw up the document and, upon returning, read it with the provision of five men selected to solicit subscriptions for a fund for the Sisters to use in their work, and that the larger group also “proceed immediately to procure a suitable house and grounds for their permanent establishment, and a suitable place for their temporary residence.” The subscription committee was comprised of Coronel, del Valle, Hayes, former District Court Judge Agustín Olvera and merchant and newly elected Sheriff David W. Alexander, another Irish native.

The 12 January 1856 edition of the Star included a lengthy article on “The Sisters of Charity,” observing that three American-born and three Spanish-born nuns arrived a week prior and expressing satisfaction that the aforementioned committee “have provided them with the very best place for a pleasant and permanent home that could be found.” Moreover, it was testament to “the public spirit and philanthropy always characteristic of the people of Los Angeles” that it was soon anticipated that “the full amount of the purchase money has been contributed and paid over.”

News, 1 April 1863.

The property acquired was the residence of former mayor Benjamin D. Wilson, one of the most prominent public figures in the Angel City and who came to the area with the Workmans in 1841. Wilson recently purchased what he dubbed “Lake Vineyard” in the San Gabriel Valley and relocated there, so the sale of his Los Angeles house was more than opportune for him. It was stated that, while the price was $8,000, with half in cash upfront and the rest due in a year, “this beautiful property has cost that enterprising gentleman more than double that sum.”

Acknowledging the economic downturn that came with the recent end of the spectacular boom times of the Gold Rush, the paper added that “the price is not high, taking into consideration its conveniences for the end contemplated.” For one thing, the parcel was 12 acres, but within a few minutes’ walk of the Plaza, so it was “in the city, yet out of the city,” with Wilson’s well-built wo-story frame dwelling surrounded by 7 1/2 acres of grapevines, producing $1,500 annually, and a fruit orchard, vegetable and flower gardens, and well and zanja (a ditch drawing from the Los Angeles River).

Part of the 1860 federal census enumeration of the “School of the Immaculate Conception.”

The Star anticipated that, in addition to the the east end of the tract was well-suited for a hospital or infirmary that was placed away from the town core, but also convenient for the Sisters to operate in conjunction with the orphanage—it was also averred that the produce from the vineyard, gardens and orchard would be self-sustaining for the operation of both institutions. Beyond this, the establishment of these would help Los Angeles grow because “with the most salubrious climate in the world, we need only additional educational facilities—to keep our own children at home” rather than send them elsewhere for their education, public schools having been introduced not quite two years before.

The Sisters’ school would “invite the settlement of innumerable families, whose presence would not only add to our prosperity . . . but, what is of higher importance, soften and elevate the tone of all social relations.” Given the propensity of too many Angel City denizens to denigrate into deviltry through astronomical rates of violence and crime during that period (including the incredible tension involved in the killing of Antonio Ruiz by deputized constable William W. Jenkins six months later—with the latter’s trial to be discussed in an upcoming post following one last month about the homicide), this was overly wishful thinking, but understandable.

A section of the 1870 census enumeration or the “Academy of the Sisters of Mercy.”

The paper went on to note that any city would want the “blessing which such an institution brings to society at large, without distinction of creed or condition” and it continued, in soaring rhetoric,

Los Angeles is not without her fatherless children, her neglected sick, her uneducated poor; and, we are sure, from the feeling already manifested, that she will respond with a liberal hand, to the all now made upon her, to secure this additional and most efficient means for their protection and care and improvement. If we carefully notice all the elements of our peculiar population, the appeal will touch the sense we have of the common interest, and no less the natural love of doing good, which at times will animate the bosom of every man.

The piece concluded that the official name of the enterprise was to be the Los Angeles Charitable Institute and that the half-dozen nuns were in possession of the Wilson place “and will be ready in a little while for the reception of scholars.” On 9 February, the Star reported that the “institute” opened two weeks prior with 20 girls enrolled. In April 1857, the Common (City) Council, the president of which was Requena, passed an ordinance concerning the hospital/infirmary with two lots from the Ord Survey of 1849 designated for the purpose and which were adjacent to the Jewish cemetery, established a few years prior at the base of the Elysian Hills, below where Dodger Stadium is now.

A detail of the 1880 census of the institution with line 15 showing orphan “E. Gonzales,” age 7, but whether this was Laura is not known.

By 1860, when the federal census was taken, the half-dozen Sisters, led by Mary Scholastica Logsdon, who joined the order in 1839 and led the institution until her retirement in 1884, and including three Americans and natives of Ireland, Germany and Spain, were in charge of 48 girls from 7 months to 19 years of age. About three-quarters were Latina, two were native American, and the rest were local Anglos or born in other parts of the United States or in Europe. Notably, the margins recorded the name of the institution as the “School of the Immaculate Conception,” which was also used in advertisements of the era.

Around this time there were also orphans’ fairs being held to raise funds for the enterprise (the produce from the property clearly not providing the income assumed in 1856), but the worsening economic situation in the first half of the Sixties, compounded by flooding in 1861-1862 (during which some of the Sisters provided assistance to sufferers from the destroyed Latino community of Agua Mansa in modern Riverside) and drought in the two years afterward, was also accompanied by epidemics of smallpox that killed many indigenous people and Latinos.

Los Angeles Express, 16 June 1874.

In fact, in April 1863, there was an advertisement in the Los Angeles News for the reopening of “The School of the Sisters of Charity,” though the disease was not mentioned—what was stated was that the nuns were “ever confiding in a bountiful Providence, and trusting in the generosity of the benevolent citizens,” which might have been an indication that the dire economy and the outbreak of the virulent disease were both factors in the temporary closure.

There was little mention of the institution during the Sixties, although a poem by someone named “Allsopp,” published in the News of 27 July 1866, titled “The Sister of Charity” is noteworthy, including this excerpt:

Not for her, are garlands woven

Not for her, the regal crown;

Not for her, the praise of laymen,

Neither heeds she, smile or frown

Not for her, the gay hall gleaming,

Sweetly passing on her way;

Meek and pure, her spirit cleaving,

Where a tear is wiped away . . .

Then when care, or sorrow breathing,

O’er our hearts, its bitter blast;

To this gentle Sister clinging,

Heavn’ly peace will come at last

When the enumerator came for the 1870 census, Sister Scholastica was assisted by 17 nuns, including two born in California and one in Spain, along with four Americans, eight from Ireland, two from England and one from Germany. The student body numbered 74, ranging from ages 3 to 25, at what was designated the “Academy of the Sisters of Mercy,” while adjacent was St. Vincent’s College, which educated boys of grammar school through teen ages and which was in the Vicente Lugo Adobe on the east side of the Plaza. Notably, reflective of the changing demographics of the town, with an Anglo majority among its general population for the first time, about 40% of the pupils were Latina and all were California natives except two from Arizona and one each from México, Ireland and Missouri.

Mentioned in this commencement recap in the Los Angeles Herald of 1 June 1883 are Mary Julia Workman, daughter of William H. Workman and Maria Boyle, and her cousins Agnes and Mary Christina, daughters of Joseph M. Workman and Josephine Belt.

By the Seventies, the region experienced its first significant and sustained period of growth and most years there were lengthy articles of the commencements and exercises (or exhibitions, as they were sometimes called) with the school praised for its quality and students identified for their marches, essays, poetry readings and premiums earned for their work. In its 16 August 1875 edition, as the new school year was at hand, the Los Angeles Herald recorded that “this fine educational institution is acquiring a wide and distinguished reputation, and has pupils from all parts of the State.”

The 1880 census came after the inevitable bust, which included the failure of the Temple and Workman bank and a decline in population amid a stagnant economy that persisted for several years. Sister Scholastica was assisted by a baker’s dozen of nuns, including five from México, one each from Germany, Ireland and Spain, three Americans and two native Californians. The were 79 students, headed by “E. Gonzales,” age 7, whose age and last name might indicate that this was Laura, though she would have been not quite 9 years old at the time and the first name initial does not correspond. In any case, not quite a third of the pupils were Latina and all were from California, save a student from Kansas and another from México.

Los Angeles Times, 2 June 1886. “L. Gonzales” is mention with three parts of the commencement ceremony.

For the 1885-1886 school year commencement, the program listed, among four students in the Grand March, the same number in the Grand Galop, and a quartet in the Exit March, the name of “L. Gonzales,” this, without doubt being Laura. Among those playing roles in a cantata called “Queen of the Flowers,” there was Mary Julia Workman and her sister Elizabeth, while “Miss Mary,” who was awarded a gold medal for general excellence for the 1884-1885 school year, recited an essay on the “Influence of Music.” In 1883, two daughters of Joseph M. Workman, the son of William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, and his wife Josephine Belt, these being Mary Christina and Agnes, attended the school.

Notably, the receipt was for payment of board for the first three months (August through October) of the 1886-1887 school year, but, there was mention of anyone named Gonzales or Gonzalez in the coverage of commencement, which took place on 30 June 1887. What we do know is that, on 5 July, under a week later, Walter wrote to Laura at “La Puente,” meaning she must’ve left the Sisters’ school and gone to work for Francis at the Homestead.

News, 27 July 1866.

Moreover, given that the two were in the full flower of a teenage romance (Walter had just turned 18 and Laura was not quite 16), she was likely at the ranch for quite some time prior, unless they began seeing each other the prior summer after she finished the year at the Los Angeles institution. We also have a day book that was kept by Laura for the months July and August, while Francis was away, and her recording of ranch management is suggestive that she did not just start working at the Homestead, but had been doing so for some extended time prior.

It seems likely that, with Francis’ health worsening in 1886, Laura cut short her education to take up employment with him and, during that time, developed the budding romance with his brother—this being a secretive and furtive one, apparently because of concern that the Temple family would simply not approve. After Francis died of TB in August 1888 (and he left bequests for Laura and her mother Francisca in his will) and the Homestead passed to another brother, John, Laura left and wound up in Boyle Heights and then downtown Los Angeles.

She and Walter may have broken up during that time, but, if so, they were reconnected when both into their thirties. On Thanksgiving Day 1903, Walter, who was 34, and Laura, who was 32 (an advanced age for a woman to be married for the first time), were wedded in San Diego—even bringing a justice of the peace with them and one wonders if there were still Temple family concerns—before they honeymooned in Ensenada, Baja California (where Walter wound up moving in 1930 when his finances were disintegrating.)

The couple was married nearly two decades and went through the astonishing good fortune of their son Thomas’ oil discovery on their Montebello-area ranch and the significant wealth that came with it—until Laura’s untimely passing. As we remember her on her birthday, this innocuous looking receipt is a rare remnant object from her youth, but is also part of a larger story about the Sisters of Charity, who moved the orphanage to Boyle Heights in 1891, where it remained for several decades until a relocation to Rosemead where it is now known as Maryvale, providing a wide range of services nearly 170 years after the modest start in Los Angeles.

Leave a Reply