The Archivist’s Nook: “Mother” Millar’s Mission – Catholic Women’s Service in WWI

The satchel and a sample of its contents.

Imagine you purchased a box of used books and found buried within a tattered satchel dating from the First World War. What would you do with it? This scenario played in the summer of 2016, when a thrift store benefiting an Alabama-based women’s shelter contacted the CUA Archives. Hidden within a box of cookbooks – donated by an unknown person – was an old satchel containing the personal diary, correspondence, pamphlets, medals, and photos belonging to one Margaret Millar. A figure long since known to the Archives, but whose personal effects were thought lost. The shelter generously donated the satchel and its contents!

“Mother Millar,” or Margaret Richards Millar, was the head of the “Women Workers” sent to France by the newly-formed National Catholic War Council (NCWC) as part of the Committee on Special War Activities.  Roughly a century ago, as the United States increased its role in the First World War, the NCWC – predecessor to today’s USCCB – organized social clubs for the American Expeditionary Force. Placed throughout Western Europe, these clubs were operated by female staff, and necessitated a strong-willed and well-connected person to get the project off the ground in war-ravaged Europe. Millar was just that person.

Margaret Millar in her NCWC outfit, ca. 1919.

Born in 1858 in Vermont to Jonas DeForest Richards and Harriet Bartlett Jarvis, Millar was the second of three children and only daughter. Her family was of a distinguished New England line, which included a maternal grandfather, William Jarvis, who served as Thomas Jefferson’s and James Madison’s envoy to Spain and Portugal. Her father, a New England Congregationalist pastor, decided late in life to move the family to the American South. Immediately following the end of the Civil War in 1865, the family relocated to Alabama, having purchased a cotton plantation in Wilcox County. Both Millar’s father and older brother who later served as Wyoming state governor, DeForest Richards, became involved in county and state politics, with the former serving in the State Legislature (1867-1872) and as interim president of the University of Alabama (1869-1870) and the latter as county sheriff and treasurer.

Millar was educated at home and ultimately obtained a degree from the Bradford Academy in Massachusetts in 1880. By that point, her family had relocated to the American West, settling in the Nebraska panhandle and the Wyoming Territory. Marrying Stocks Millar, a Scottish immigrant educated at the University of St. Andrews, she spent her married life on the Wyoming plains, where she developed a reputation as a generous hostess for army personnel stationed in the Territory. At this time, her younger brother, Bartlett Richards, became a prominent cattle baron near Chadron, Nebraska, ultimately running afoul of federal land law and being imprisoned under Theodore Roosevelt.

Millar’s NCWC Women Workers Patch.

When her husband passed away in 1890, she spent the next several years in France and Germany with their three children. In 1896, she converted to Catholicism alongside her son, future Jesuit Morehouse F. X. Millar (later a collaborator with CUA professor John A. Ryan). In 1918, as a representative of the American Bureau of Education, she was sent to France to recruit French women to attend college in the United States. Remembered for her charity towards the military in Wyoming and having already navigated war-torn France, Millar was a natural choice to lead the NCWC’s efforts in establishing service member clubs.

In the summer of 1918, she was sent back to France as a representative of the Committee on Special War Activities of the NCWC, in order to organize and supervise service clubs for American soldiers. She would open the Etoile Service Club in Paris that same year. In May 1919, she also was sent by the NCWC as the only American Catholic delegate to the International Congress of Women in Switzerland, serving alongside Jane Addams. Held concurrently with the Versailles Peace Conference, Millar felt challenged but firm in her beliefs as she wrote of an openness to discussion among the various parties assembled.

In October 1919, Millar was unexpectedly recalled to the United States by Rev. John Burke, head of the NCWC. This recall, following complaints by some of the women she supervised, led to protests by the majority of the service club staff and members of the American forces in France. As she prepared to depart the continent, Millar was inundated with letters and petitions from fighting to get her reinstated. In one such letter, a coworker writes:

The boys all love you as they do their own mother and they realize what your going will mean to them. My only desire to remain at the Club now, to work, for our boys is because it was your most beloved treasure of happiness for others and being the one thing that remains with us to express in unspoken language the good wrought for others by your love and kindness.

NCWC lay women workers stationed in France, ca. 1919.

While Millar appreciated the support, she did not return to Paris, but remained in Texas the following year, helping to organize the first conference of the National Council of Catholic Women (NCCW), held in 1920. An active member of the NCCW and NCWC for the remaining years of her life, Millar passed away in 1947.

Her papers are available for research. The online finding aid may be found here, and a digital collection may be found here.

The Archivist’s Nook: Connecticut Catholic in Washington, 1917

O’Connell Family, ca. 1911.Robert Lincoln O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

One hundred years ago, American entry into the First World War transformed the nation’s capital from a sleepy Southern crossroads into a modern hub of administration commensurate to an emerging first class world power. It was here a young Catholic soldier wrote his family, primarily his mother and sisters, back in their hometown of Southington, Connecticut. That man, Robert Lincoln O’Connell, whose archival papers, including a digital collection, reside in the archives at The Catholic University of America (CUA) and briefly alluded to in two previous blog posts, ‘For God and Country’ and ‘World War I on Display,’ contain seven letters he wrote from April to August 1917 addressed from Washington Barracks, now Fort McNair. ‘Rob,’ as he was known to his family, described his initial training in and around Washington, D.C. as a combat engineer, or sapper, for service in the First Engineer Regiment of the First Infantry Division of the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) in France.

O’Connell (1888-1972), a native of Wareham, Massachusetts, was the eldest of five children of Daniel and Mary O’Connell, immigrants from Ireland and Wales, respectively. By 1900, the O’Connell family had moved to the town of Southington, Connecticut, near Hartford and less than 100 miles from New York City. The family attended St. Thomas Roman Catholic Church and the 1910 federal census lists father Daniel as a “laborer” in an “iron mill” and son Robert as “laborer” in a “hardware shop.” Rob O’Connell enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Slocum, New York, on April 14, 1917, and shortly thereafter transferred to Washington Barracks where he spent the next three months training as a machinist in Company C, First Battalion, of the First Engineers. His unit also spent time along the Potomac River on the grounds of the Belvoir Estate that had served since 1912 as a rifle range and summer camp for the training of Army engineers.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recruiting poster, 1917.

In O’Connell’s April 28, 1917 letter, he told his mother details of settling in after his recent enlistment and commented on the visit of Marshal Joseph Joffre, famous hero of the Battle of the Marne, who spoke at the Army War College, adjacent to Washington Barracks, the day before. “All clothes had to be sent to the disinfecting plant to prevent spreading disease among so many men…. Gen. Joffre and his party visited the post yesterday. I seem to be hungry all the time, in spite of three sq. meals.”  Writing in mid-May, he complained to his mother about the Washington newspapers, presumably the Washington Post and Washington Star, although he appeared impressed by D.C.‘s sites and scenes. “This city has trees along the main streets. I never saw a place like it. I have not seen Mr. Lud, the President, yet. But I have seen the principle buildings and the Wash. Monument, which you can’t help seeing, it is so tall.” 

Apparently, ‘Mr. Lud’ was a nickname for President Woodrow Wilson, perhaps an obscure reference to the legendary British king and founder of London. Writing his mother again on May 31, he explained the training of engineers at Washington Barracks. “They had racing and other sports between the companies…We lost the tent-pitching by a few points…The sergeant was sore at losing and yelled at us as we marched off the field.”

Washington Barracks, 1917. U.S. Army Military History Institute.

In June, he told his mother “There was a black and white scrap up the street, last night.” An African-American woman had an argument with a soldier and “she hit him with a beer bottle.” This was probably not an isolated incident as the August 10 Washington Post said the Secretary of War directed “a number of saloons in Four-and-a half street southwest may be closed because of their proximity to the Washington barracks.” Another letter home, also written in June, addressed to his sister Ellen, described field training on the grounds of the future Fort Belvoir. “I have just put in the hardest two weeks of my life, I guess, down at the rifle range. It is about twenty miles below Washington, on the Potomac… passengers on the passing steamers probably wish they were camping out there. But when we (A, B and C companies), got there two weeks ago last Monday, there were no tents and lots of brush and weeds and hard work…For two days we worked around camp and lugged and tugged and sweated and wondered why we had ever wanted to leave our happy home at the Barracks.” Combat engineers learned to construct field works and pontoon bridges. They also had to fight as regular infantry when the need arose, hence training in the use of firearms. “Half the company shot in the forenoon while the other half worked in the pits, pushing the targets up into view and pointing out each hit with a long stick… I fired in the morning and managed to get in with the higher ones on the score.”

Robert Lincoln O’Connell to his mother, Mary O’Connell, July 3, 1917. Robert Lincoln O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

O’Connell wrote his mother on July 3 expressing confidence in himself as well as contempt for those who had not met the standard. “The captain told us last week that eight or ten men would be left behind because they were too stupid or weren’t considered fit to go with the regiment to France. I won’t be in that bunch if I can help it, as there is some honor in going over but only a disgrace in being a castoff. When the news first got out a month ago, that we were going to France, some of the fire-eaters were delighted, until the officers explained what they would have to do…It was no news to me and if I go, I will do the best I can. This life is a wonderful bracer and I am glad I joined.” The last letter, addressed to his mother in early August, was written a few days departure for France. “Would you care to make the trip down and risk finding us gone?” There is no record his family made the trip to see him. The First Engineers left Washington on August 6 and embarked for France from Hoboken, New Jersey, the following day. O’Connell and his fellow engineers were now at war and a future blog post will explore their time at the front in 1918.

The Archivist’s Nook: Putting Their Money Where Their Hearts Were

Bruce and Dorothy Abts Mohler at a formal event with an unnamed priest in 1949, the same year of their marriage. Though they had no children, they left a formidable financial and archival legacy. Photograph from the Dorothy Abts Mohler Papers, ACUA.
Bruce and Dorothy Abts Mohler at a formal event with an unnamed priest in 1949, the same year of their marriage. Though they had no children, they left a formidable financial and archival legacy. Dorothy Abts Mohler Papers, ACUA.

Among the archival collections housed at The Catholic University of America (CUA) are the papers of Bruce Monroe Mohler (1881-1967) and Dorothy Abts Mohler (1908-2000), two of the most remarkable people ever produced by the American Catholic Church. Both epitomized the active participation of the laity as each contributed a lifetime of humanitarian service in regard to the crucial issues of immigration (Bruce) and charity (Dorothy). In addition to this legacy of service to their Church, they not only left their aforementioned papers but also a stupendous financial bequest to the CUA Archives to collect and safeguard archival collections to promote the study of American Catholic history.

Bruce Mohler was an Ohio native and graduate of Ohio State University who worked for the Minnesota State Board of Health supervising sanitary conditions of public drinking water until released in 1918 to serve in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in the First World War. As an army major in France, he was in charge of engineers purifying drinking water for the troops. After the armistice, he was the army representative to the American Red Cross relief effort in Poland and after de-mobilization was Deputy Commissioner of the American Red Cross in Poland. As conflict raged between Poland and Bolshevik Russia, he heroically took a relief unit to the war torn city of Kiev, earning accolades for his efforts from both Poland and the United States. Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: Putting Their Money Where Their Hearts Were”