The Archivist’s Nook: What the Heck is a Labor Priest?

Some labor priests were especially good at number crunching. This is John A. Ryan’s estimate for an average sized family of 5.7 in 1905 as published in his book, A Living Wage. His inclusion in the budget of intoxicating liquors and tobacco may or may not raise eyebrows today.
Some labor priests were especially good at number crunching. This is John A. Ryan’s estimate for an average sized family of 5.7 in 1905 as published in his book, A Living Wage. His inclusion in the budget of intoxicating liquors and tobacco may or may not raise eyebrows today.

Yes, a “labor priest” is a thing.  His origins can be found in the intersection of the rise of the modern working class in the nineteenth century and the issuance of the encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891.  The labor priest usually materialized from a working class community, often with immigrant roots, and often possessed an organic awareness of issues affecting the people in those communities.  The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the rise of conflicts between employers and employees in the wake of industrialization in the United States, much of it centered on the question of whether employees could form unions and collectively bargain with employers through these organizations.  The CUA Archives has a very strong collection of materials related to Catholicism and labor, including rich collections related to three individuals known as “labor priests”: John Ryan, Francis Haas, and George Higgins.

The trailblazer of the labor priests was Monsignor John Ryan, a professor of moral theology and ethics at The Catholic University of America (CUA) from 1915 until 1939.  Ryan was electrified when he read the encyclical Rerum Novarum in the 1890s, noting that “The doctrine of state intervention which I had come to accept and which was sometimes denounced as ‘socialistic’ on those benighted days, I now read in a papal encyclical.”  Ryan drew inspiration from the encyclical to dream up a whole host of reforms aimed at improving the condition of the American worker.  Realizing that very little research had been done on what it actually took to survive economically in America, Ryan wrote “A Living Wage,” the first book published on the subject in 1906.  Ryan did extensive research into living wage issues, worker rights, and employer-employee obligations, and wrote a program of reform for the U.S. Bishops that was largely adopted during the New Deal years.  Later, he served on the Fair Employment Practices Commission and advised various individuals in the Roosevelt administration on workplace issues. Ryan’s papers are a rich chronicle of a progressive Catholic reformer in the early twentieth century.[i] Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: What the Heck is a Labor Priest?”

The Archivist’s Nook: More Than You Imagine – The Archives at CUA

Photograph from the opening ceremony for the Archives at CUA, December 8, 1949, with, left to right, Patrick O'Boyle, Archbishop of DC and Chancellor of the University, Fr. Henry Browne, first CUA Archivist, and Wayne Grover, Archivist of the United States
Photograph from the opening ceremony for the Archives at CUA, December 8, 1949, with, left to right, Patrick O’Boyle, Archbishop of DC and Chancellor of the University, Fr. Henry Browne, first CUA Archivist, and Wayne Grover, Archivist of the United States

Though there was a museum at The Catholic University of America (CUA) going back to the university’s founding in the late 19th century, the Archives at CUA originated much later as shortly before World War II Msgr. Francis Haas began collecting the papers of important Catholic labor leaders such as Terence Powderly, head of the Knights of Labor (1879-1893), and John Mitchell, president of the United Mine Workers of America (1898-1908). These papers were stored in Mullen Library, but there was no staff to organize nor rooms where researchers might examine them. After the war, history faculty, particularly Rev. John Tracy Ellis, worried that university history and of Catholic Americans generally was being lost through neglect of vital records and papers.

As a result of Ellis’ advocacy, a committee that included Msgr. Edward Jordan (the vice rector), Mr. Eugene Willging (acting director of the library), and Rev. Henry Browne, was formed to establish an archives envisioned as the “memory” of the university, a depository for collection of the nation’s Catholic leaders and important organizations, and a resource for the history of Catholics in the American labor movement. The Archives officially opened on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8, 1949) in an impressive ceremony that included Wayne Grover, archivist of the United States; Archbishop O’Boyle, chancellor of the university; Ernst Posner, archivist of American University and a seminal theorist of archives; Philip Brooks, president of the Society of American Archivists; and Dr. Guy Ford Stanton, executive director of the American Historical Association (see photograph above). They spoke of the importance of archives in the preservation of culture, and, specifically, of the Catholic Church’s long tradition as a keeper of historical records.   Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: More Than You Imagine – The Archives at CUA”