The Archivist’s Nook: Tending the Fields of Social Justice

Linna Eleanor Bresette, standard portrait of her, ca. 1930. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
Linna Eleanor Bresette, standard portrait of her, ca. 1930. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Linna Eleanor Bresette (1882-1960), was a teacher and pioneering social justice advocate in her native Kansas for nearly a decade before serving for thirty years as the field secretary of the Social Action Department (SAD) of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). It was with the SAD that she worked with legendary labor priests John A. Ryan, Raymond McGowan, and George G. Higgins as a tireless field worker on behalf of the working poor regardless of race or gender.

Bresette was a teacher and later principal in the Topeka Public Schools. After Kansas granted voting rights to women in 1912, she became the first woman factory inspector and the first focused on women workers. After travelling the state observing labor conditions, she proposed the creation of an Industrial Welfare Commission. It was created by the legislature despite stiff employer resistance.  She became the Commission secretary, continuing her role as a fair but tough factory inspector, and also helping write minimum wage and child labor laws in Kansas. Inevitably, she made powerful enemies among employers, who joined together in 1921 to force her resignation, despite public protests on her behalf.

An excerpt relating to Bresette’s 1931 Pilgrimage to Rome from the story about her in the September 23, 1953 issue of the Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact comic book, America Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
An excerpt relating to Bresette’s 1931 Pilgrimage to Rome from the story about her in the September 23, 1953 issue of the Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact comic book, America Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Bresette had already achieved stature as a social justice advocate so she received numerous job offers, including from the federal government and the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC) headed by the redoubtable John Burke, CSP, in Washington, D.C. She accepted the position of field secretary from the latter’s Social Action Department (SAD). She had been an active Catholic in Kansas, having been president of an organization of Catholic women. She also helped organize parish classes and evening schools for Mexicans who increasingly came to the United States looking for work after the 1910 revolution in their country.

With the SAD, Bresette thrived on grass roots efforts in the field, living up to her job title, as she traveled the country, over thirty states and thousands of miles, promoting social justice for workers. She became known as “The Workingman’s Friend” and also “The Workingwoman’s Friend” as she organized diocesan councils of Catholic women, Catholic summer schools for women, and regional meetings of the Catholic Conference on Industrial Problems (CCIP). Her enthusiasm and humor are on display in a 1930 letter¹ she wrote from the Los Angeles CCIP meeting to her boss, Rev. John A. Ryan, stating the conference ‘was great!”, but also referring to a bad speaker with “I deserve to be fired for putting that man Deeney on the Program.”

An example of the pioneering work of Bresette, a pamphlet of her 1928 survey of Mexicans in the U.S., National Catholic Welfare Conference (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), Social Action Department Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
An example of the pioneering work of Bresette, a pamphlet of her 1928 survey of Mexicans in the U.S., National Catholic Welfare Conference (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), Social Action Department Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Bresette notably organized conferences on African-Americans and Mexican laborers. In fact, she conducted the first Catholic social study on Mexicans in the United States in 1928².  She also helped found the Priests’ Institutes on the Encyclicals to educate lay and clerical Catholics on the Papal Encyclicals oriented to social justice, most notably Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno. Additionally, she was involved with the American Association of Social Work, Catholic Association for International Peace (CAIP), National Conference of Catholic Charities (now Catholic Charities USA), National Conference of Social Work, National Council of Catholic Women (NCCW), and the White House Conferences on Children and Youth.  

Although largely forgotten in the twenty-first century, Bresette was honored in her time, receiving the Immaculata Medal from Conception College in 1941, an honorary doctorate from Rosary College in 1947, and Papal Pro Eclesia et Pontifice, also in 1947. An unmarried laywoman, her retirement at age 69 in 1951 was lamented by the NCWC who gave a reception in her honor.³ She died at her home in Kansas City in 1960. Her legacy is preserved at The Catholic University of America (CUA) Archives in the records of the Social Action Department and a story on her in a 1953 issue4 of the Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact comic book. Additionally, Michael Barga has a fine entry on her at the Social Welfare History Project site.


¹Bresette to Ryan, April 2, 1930, John A. Ryan Papers, box 4, folder 37.

²Mexicans in the United States, 1928, Social Action Department (SAD) Records, box 68, folder 5.

³Administration: Personnel File, 1951, Executive Department/Office of the General Secretary, box 4, folder 13.

4‘Catholics in Action,’ February 26, 1953, Vol. 8, No. 13, pp 28-33, Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact Comic Book Collection, box 7, folder 13.

The Archivist’s Nook: The First Catholic Action Hero

Photo-Young Burke-Paulists
Fr. John Burke, the young, vigorous, visionary priest ready to face the challenges of the twentieth century, ca. 1899. Paulist Archives.

June 6, 1875, is the birthday of the widely influential New York City born John Burke, a Catholic University of America (CUA) educated priest (.S.T.B. 1899; S.T.L., 1901) of the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, a religious community known as the Paulists. Burke saw a convergence of both American and Catholic values that inspired his visions of a national church. He was editor of The Catholic World, 1904-1922, where he promoted social reform via articles by CUA professors William J. Kerby and John A. Ryan. Burke also supported national organizations, helping establish the Catholic Press Association in 1911 and, in 1917, founding both the Chaplain’s Aid Association to supply priests for the military and the National Catholic War Council (NCWC), subject of an earlier blog post, to coordinate Catholic efforts with the government during the First World War. It’s not difficult to imagine why I call Burke, honored by church and state, The First Catholic Action Hero!

Fr. John Burke with board members of the National Council of Catholic Women, a group founded under his leadership as part of the NCWC, though now an independent entity in the twenty first century, 1920. USCCB Executive Department/Office of the General Secretary Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives of The Catholic University of America.
Fr. John Burke with board members of the National Council of Catholic Women, a group founded under his leadership as part of the NCWC, though now an independent entity in the twenty first century, 1920. USCCB Executive Department/Office of the General Secretary Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives of The Catholic University of America.

Burke directed operations that mobilized Catholic lay persons, monitored legislation, and undertook postwar reconstruction. He also created an ecumenical advisory group to the government on maintaining morality in military camps. The War Department thereafter recognized Burke with the Distinguished Service Medal. In 1919, and in succession to the War Council, the American hierarchy created the National Catholic Welfare Council (later Conference), also known (confusingly) as the NCWC, to promote Catholic social work, education, and immigration through a secretariat in Washington, D.C. headed by Burke as general secretary. The newly reconstituted NCWC immediately faced a major act of organized anti-Catholicism with the Oregon School Bill of 1922 declaring children could only attend public schools. Supported by the Ku Klux Klan, this was an assault against freedom of education in general and parochial schools in particular. Burke mobilized a broad spectrum of opposition, including the ACLU, and the U. S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the Oregon School Bill in 1925.

Mural by Polish born artist (who taught at CUA) Jan Henryk de Rosen of James, Cardinal Gibbons blessing Fr. John Burke at the USCCB Building, 4th Street, Washington, D.C., 2016, courtesy of Katherine Nuss, USCCB Information and Archive Services.

Having interacted with President Woodrow Wilson as head of the War Council, Burke engaged his successors in matters of import to American Catholics, ranging from congratulating Warren G. Harding for a 1922 speech on religious toleration to providing advice to Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, respectively, over conflicts in Mexico in 1927 and Haiti in 1929. Burke was an enthusiastic supporters of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal economic reforms. Burke actually wrote the drafts of several FDR letters to American prelates as well as the speech he gave at Notre Dame University in 1935. Most notably, Burke conferred with the President at the White House in August 1936 on how to deal with the stinging attacks that another Catholic priest, Charles Coughlin, was making against Roosevelt during the 1936 presidential campaign.

The Vatican recognized Burke’s work with an honorary Sacred Theology doctorate in 1927 and appointment as a domestic prelate (monsignor) in 1936, shortly before his death.  His sudden passing on October 30, 1936, shocked both the Catholic community and the nation and he was widely mourned. A collection of his personal papers is part of the Paulist Order’s archives, though research access is currently problematic at best. Fortunately, the records of both the National Catholic War Council and National Catholic Welfare Conference (now known as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) Office of the General Secretary), are housed and readily accessible at the CUA Archives.

The Archivist’s Nook: CUA + .EDU

A rendering of Francis Howard, the fifth Bishop of Covington, Kentucky
A rendering of Francis Howard, the fifth Bishop of Covington, Kentucky

When those familiar with The Catholic University of America think of this school, they may think of a national Catholic University, which it is. It also served as the center of Catholic education in the United States throughout the first half of the twentieth century. 

Back in the late-nineteenth century, a man named Thomas J. Conaty served as the Rector of CUA. Conaty established what would become the framework of the American Catholic school system during his years as rector, 1896-1903. He convened the first meeting of the Conference of Seminary Faculties and became the founding president of both the Association of Catholic Colleges and the Parish School Conference. It was Conaty’s vision to create a national organization that would embrace all levels of Catholic education. As fate would have it, he was promoted to Bishop of Monterey-Los Angeles before he could complete his plan.

At that point, Ohio-born Francis Howard grabbed the reigns of the fledgling organization from Bishop Conaty and ran with them. Howard forged it into the Catholic Education Association (“National” was added to the title in 1927), and became its first secretary, serving for 25 years. He managed the organization out of offices in Columbus Ohio until he became Bishop of Covington, Kentucky in 1923. Howard was also drafted to run the new National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Department of Education in 1919; he declined, but agreed to serve on the executive committee. If you are wondering why both a National Catholic Education Association and an NCWC Education Department were necessary, consider the following:  the early twentieth century saw several attempts to eliminate Catholic parochial schools through legal means by anti-Catholic forces in the U.S. Catholics in education needed someone to advocate for them. The Education Department, which was a bishop-run organization and therefore had the backing of the church’s highest authorities, was behind much of the effort to prevent the abolition of parochial schools. Though, like the NCEA, the Education Department conducted surveys and promoted Catholic education, its early years in particular were centered on monitoring legislation that affected Catholic schools. 

These Are Our People
“These Are Our People” is one of the many well-used elementary school textbooks created by the Commission on American Citizenship. Notice the image of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in the backdrop. (CUA Press, 1943)

In any case, after 1920 the leaders of the CEA, NCWC Education Department, and Catholic University were intermeshed. Howard did not want the association with the University, preferring to keep its autonomy. Not so with his successor, George Johnson, who also happened to chair the Catholic University Department of Education. Johnson took over the helm of the NCEA in 1929, serving until his death in 1944. Johnson oversaw the movement of the entire educational operation to Washington, D.C. as well as its adaptation to modern administrative and professional standards. 

Democracy was popular topic in the 1930s, as it seemed under siege due to competing ideologies of communism and fascism. Catholic University was asked by Pope Pius XI to oversee a project creating a course of study of democracy through the Catholic educational system. Monsignor Johnson was asked to head the project. The resulting Commission on American Citizenship quite literally transformed American Catholic education, through a series of textbooks that would dominate American Catholic school civic education from the 1940s through the 1970s. 

The consummate educator, Monsignor George Johnson loved his books
The consummate educator, Monsignor George Johnson loved his books

Johnson’s educational activities rippled outside of Catholic circles. He served as a member of the National Advisory Committee on Education appointed by President Hoover in 1929, and later on the Advisory Committee on Education appointed by President Roosevelt. He was a member of the Wartime Commission of the U.S. Office of Education, the Education Advisory Committee under the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, Secretary of the American Council on Education. This list is not exhaustive–poor Monsignor Johnson must have been though. As he delivered the commencement address to the Trinity College class of 1944, he died at the age of 55. Adding further pathos to his demise while delivering the commencement speech, Johnson actually spoke the following lines: “the best, the truest, the most substantial advice that can be given to a Catholic graduate is this: Go forth and die. Die to yourself; die to the world; die to greed; die to calculating ambition… Die and you shall live, and live abundantly.”¹ 

The NCEA was in good hands with Johnson’s successor, Frederick Hochwalt, a topic for another post. Here is Johnson’s 1944 commencement speech and a short biography.


Sources:

Donald C. Horrigan, The Shaping of NCEA (Washington, D.C., n.d.).

John Augenstein, Christopher Kauffman, Robert Wister, One Hundred Years of Catholic Education: Historical Essays in Honor of the Centennial of the National Catholic Educational Association (Washington, D.C.: NCEA)

1 George Johnson, Apostle of Christian Education (Washington, D.C.: National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1944), 5, ACUA reference file, George Johnson.

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”