The Archivist’s Nook: Monsignor John O’Grady and the Making of Modern Catholic Charity

Though this undated photo is probably posed, John O’Grady was raised by farmers in Ireland, and served farmers and others as a priest in the Diocese of Omaha, Nebraska. Monsignor O’Grady is pictured on the right.

For all of his gregariousness, Monsignor John O’Grady is one of the lesser-known leaders in twentieth century American Catholic history. And yet, he is one of the founders and organizers of what is today known as Catholic Charities, USA, one of the largest charitable organizations in America, and of CARITAS, which carries the mission to serve and advocate for the poor globally.

Like many a priest in the early twentieth-century United States, O’Grady was born in Ireland. “In the beginning there was Ireland,” he once noted, “I smile as I write these words, remembering many of my fellow priests whose behavior from time to time is an assumption that these words are the first words of Genesis.” Indeed, many Irish families of the nineteenth century expected that one of their sons would become a priest, and the O’Gradys were no exception. Upon his birth on March 31st, 1886, Margaret O’Grady later told her son that “then and there” it was decided that young John would be a priest.¹ After attending All Hallows College in Dublin from 1902-1909, O’Grady spent three years serving as Assistant Pastor at the Cathedral in Omaha Nebraska.

O’Grady came from a family of impoverished farmers in County Clare, a circumstance that made him sensitive to the plight of those in similar circumstances in the United States. Even in his earliest years as a priest, his interest in working not only with his parishioners, but with the poorest of Omaha drove him. As he put it, “I had always been very much interested in people and curious about life, and so I found myself sitting around talking to the families which belonged to our parish about many things; their problems, their interests, their hopes, their plans…” Soon, O’Grady found himself frequenting impoverished neighborhoods, courts, juvenile detention homes in search of situations in which he could offer advice and advocacy.²

Three key founders of Catholic charity in the United States. From left, Monsignor Joseph Kerby, Catholic University Rector Thomas Shahan, and Monsignor John O’Grady.

O’Grady had been told about the work of Monsignor John A. Ryan, the Catholic University professor who had authored an influential book, A Living Wage, and was intensely interested in both the economic and social side of charity. When his Bishop, Richard Scannell, wanted to send O’Grady for further schooling in Germany, O’Grady requested that he send him to The Catholic University of America instead. O’Grady did indeed form an important intellectual relationship with John Ryan at the University, but his first mentor was another professor, sociologist Monsignor William Kerby. Kerby was considered the founder of what was called “scientific charity” in Catholic circles, which is what the emerging profession of social work called training for the field of social work. At the time, the idea of training individuals in sociology, economics and various aspects of charitable care was something that not everyone accepted.

After directing his training in sociology, economics and the social sciences at Catholic University and the University of Chicago, Monsignor Kerby set O’Grady to the work of coordinating members of the local Catholic charitable groups, particularly the St. Vincent de Paul Societies, in cities throughout the United States. Monsignor John J. Butler, of Catholic Charities of St. Louis Missouri was a particularly good mentor for O’Grady, who claimed that Butler “is a man who knows how to get things done and he does it quietly.” Bishop Thomas Shahan, Rector of Catholic University, was also a crucial supporter, as were lay Vincent de Paul charity workers Thomas Mulry and Edmond Butler, and Rev. D.J. McMahon of New York.³

Collectively, this group was instrumental in forming the core of the National Conference of Catholic Charities, renamed Catholic Charities, USA in 1986. Over the next decade the NCCC grew into an association of lay volunteers, and to a lesser extent, professional social workers and clergy. Catholic laywomen dominated the early membership, while the leadership was comprised of members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

A National Conference of Catholic Charities program, September, 1918. From the records of Catholic Charities USA, CUA Archives.

While the organization’s first president, Shahan, and its first secretary, Kerby, were instrumental in laying out the broader goals of the NCCC, O’Grady, was more aggressive and strategic in his leadership of NCCC. Kerby was courteous and reticent about his role in the establishment of the national organization, and maintained strong organizational relationships with the early leadership and lay volunteers of NCCC. O’Grady, who served as secretary in 1920 and remained at the helm of the NCCC for the next 41 years, sought to extend its influence through further cultivation of professional charity workers and the strengthening of the diocesan branches. A central figure in the professionalization of Catholic social workers, he promoted the establishment of the Catholic University School of Social Work to train them, serving as its first dean from 1934 until 1938. O’Grady, moreover, actively sought to exercise influence in government where public policy affecting Catholic charity was concerned, meeting with countless government figures on issues related to child welfare, housing, and rural poverty. By the time he left the helm of the NCCC in 1961, the organization was a national force in charity work and offered an authoritative voice in public welfare policy. It remains that today.

A finding aid for the papers of Monsignor John O’Grady can be found here.

A finding aid for the papers Monsignor William Kerby can be found here.

A finding aid for the papers of Bishop Thomas Shahan can be found here.

A finding aid for the records of Catholic Charities USA can be found here.


¹Quote from “Come Now, Monsignor,” unpublished memoir of O’Grady by Saul Alinsky, Monsignor John O’Grady Papers, chapter 1, p. 1, box 22, folder 6, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

²“Come Now, Monsignor,” pps. 19, 24.

³“Come Now, Monsignor,” chapter 4, p. 2; see also Dorothy Brown and Elizabeth McKeown, The Poor Belong to Us; Catholic Charities and American Welfare (Harvard University Press, 1997).

The Archivist’s Nook: Catholic Textbooks Beyond the Classroom

Madonna Speller, Grade 7, 1960. Commission on American Citizenship Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

This week’s post is guest-authored by Austin Arminio, a graduate student in the field of Library and Information Science.

For the past three months, I worked on a project to digitize publications of the Commission on American Citizenship of The Catholic University of America. During the 1938 Golden Jubilee of The Catholic University of America (CUA), Pope Pius XI sent a letter of congratulations to the American hierarchy. In this letter, he also gave the church leaders an assignment to create a curriculum for Catholic school students giving special attention to civics, sociology, and economics. The Bishops heeded the call, prompting CUA to create the Commission on American Citizenship. The Commission’s goal was to develop a school curriculum that educated elementary students on how to be both good American citizens and moral Catholics.

This is Our Parish, New Edition, 1952. Commission on American Citizenship Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

The Commission, founded by CUA faculty members Fr. Joseph M. Corrigan, Msgr. Francis J. Haas, and Msgr. George Johnson, went about creating textbooks to educate children on American history, literature, mathematics, citizenship, and Christian morals. Some of these works, such as the Madonna Speller series, would not be out of place in a public school, teaching writing, grammar, and spelling; while others like Faith and Our Freedom: This is Our Parish, dealt exclusively with Catholic religious teachings and how they apply to everyday life. Some books contained messages that were considered astonishing for their time. Faith and Freedom: These are Our People has the story of Eddie Patterson inviting his Chinese-American and African-American friends to his birthday party. While some of the language would be considered stereotypical today, CUA archivist Dr. Maria Mazzenga notes that at the time of the books publishing, Jim Crow and the Chinese Exclusion Act were still enforced.

During my time on this project, I was glad for the opportunity to create metadata and use a digital document repository such as Islandora, the software used by the Washington Research Libraries Consortium (WRLC). I had previously only worked with the scanning of documents, leaving the later steps to others, so it was interesting to deal with this part of the archival process. While it was time-consuming and required attention to detail using coding systems such as HTML and XML, the overall process was fairly simple. I believe that alone is an important and vital part of digital archiving. If these systems are to be adopted by libraries and archives, it is vital they be easy to use by both those who create them and those who use them for research.

A heartwarming scene, Faith and Freedom: This is Our Home, 1942, p. 26-27. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

At the same time, this project made me painfully aware of the limitations of digital technology. This project, which only involved scanning 19 works, the longest of which was around 250 pages, took me almost three months to complete. In contrast, the actual creation of metadata and uploading the files to Islandora only took around two days. While obviously larger digitization projects would involve more than just one person working on scanning, it is clear to me time and resources are the main obstacles for digital archiving. To remedy this, institutions might instead benefit by only focusing on certain collections for online digitization. Those items that are most visually interesting, such as the brightly colored and illustrated CAC texts, are some of the best candidates for digitization, as they are likely to draw attention and interest to the larger collection.

The Archivist’s Nook: Birds of a Feather – THE CARDINAL’s Early Years

The Cardinal’s first volume, campus scene, p. 7. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

The Cardinal, the aptly named annual yearbook of The Catholic University of America (CUA), recently celebrated its centenary of publication. Volumes are available online as a digital collection of the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, which also preserves print copies. As we approach another centenary, American entrance into the First World War, we thought it appropriate to examine the early years of The Cardinal for a window on the bygone campus life of that prewar era.

Although CUA first opened its doors to students in 1889, it did not have a student produced annual yearbook, The Cardinal, until 1916, the eve of American entry into the First World War. This was primarily due to Catholic University originating as an institution of graduate education and research focusing on clerics. However, facing dire financial insecurity as the twentieth century dawned, CUA acted to increase its funding potential by admitting the first male undergraduates in 1904.¹

The Class of 1916 proudly stands for The Cardinal, 1916, p. 38. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

In the years after 1904, CUA’s growing student population² repeatedly expressed the desire for a yearbook but it took the Class of 1916 to make the yearbook, The Cardinal, a reality.  Thomas E. Stone was the original editor, William J. Coughlin business manager, and Noel John Deisch art editor. The remaining Cardinal staff included James G. Kelly secretary; Gregor H. Heine, John A Bond, and Joseph A. Murphy assistant art editors; Paul R. Burke assistant business manager; James J. Conlin athletics editor; Charles F. McGovern societies editor; and Paul J. Fitzpatrick as historian. Star athlete Edward L. Killion later replaced Stone as editor, though the latter remained a contributor.

The Cardinal staff, 1916, p. 268. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

The original dimensions of the Cardinal were about 8.5 by 10.5 inches and 240 pages, a format it has generally maintained, with a few notable exceptions, into the twenty-first century. Original features, many of which have endured through the years, included sections on the faculty, classes (seniors, juniors, sophomores, and freshmen), athletics, societies, campus publications, follies, and advertisements. A major highlight then and now are the myriad photographs depicting people, events, and the campus grounds. After only two volumes, 1916 and 1917, the pressures of the First World War, with the majority of young men in military service rather than college, forced The Cardinal on hiatus until 1919 when annual publication resumed.

The Cardinal, 1917, p. 9, themed for the world war. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

The generation of CUA alumni and students called to service in World War I³, like their brethren on both side of the Atlantic, sacrificed their best and brightest, most notably 1916 Cardinal editor, Edward L. Killion, a captain in the 79th Infantry Division who later died of wounds bravely received at Montfaucon during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of October 1918. After the war, CUA would honor its fallen heroes. At Commencement in 1919 the athletic grounds, then located on the present site of Curley Hall, were renamed after Killion, and in 1922 a memorial to all fifteen members of the CUA honor roll was erected on campus. The Second World War forced another publication cessation in 1944-1947 though otherwise there has been a new annual volume of The Cardinal into the twenty first century.


¹See the delightful account of one of the first undergraduates in Frank Kuntz. Undergraduate Days 1904-1908 The Catholic University of America. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1958. Also, the complicated story of the gradual admission of women to CUA after 1911 is for a future blog post.

²For the 1903-1904 academic year, there were 91 students (60 clerical, 31 lay). This rose to 224 (124 clerical, 100 lay) in 1907-1908; 370 (102 clerical, 268 lay) in 1911-1912; and 557 (147 clerical, 410 lay) in 1915-1916, Annual Reports of the Rector of CUA.

³Our November 11, 2015 blog post, For God and Country, discusses the American Catholic war effort overall, including CUA.

The Archivist’s Nook: The Significance of Eddie Patterson’s Friends

Illustration for poem, “World Brothers” from These Are Our Horizons, by Sister M. Charlotte and Marry Synon (Ginn and Company, 1945). Note the multiple national and ethnic backgrounds of the images, intended to underscore an ideal of global unity after the Second World War.
Illustration for poem, “World Brothers” from These Are Our Horizons, by Sister M. Charlotte and Marry Synon (Ginn and Company, 1945). Note the multiple national and ethnic backgrounds of the individuals, intended to underscore an ideal of global unity after the Second World War.

Nineteen-thirty-eight was not an auspicious year as far as the stability of Europe went. Adolph Hitler’s invasion into non-German territories proceeded at an alarming rate. Benito Mussolini had been running Fascist Italy as a police state for over a decade. The Vatican held uneasy diplomatic relations with both powers. Further east, Josef Stalin presided over a Soviet Union unfriendly toward religion. In short, expansionism and totalitarianism appeared to be consuming Europe and, of course, a war would begin the following year to ensure it didn’t.

The year also marked the Golden Jubilee of the Catholic University of America, which is a fancy Catholic way of saying the University turned 50. Worried about the fate of Europe and, indeed, of Catholicism, Pope Pius took advantage of the University’s 50th birthday to make a request. “Christian doctrine and Christian morality are under attack from all quarters,” he said, adding, “dangerous theories which a few years ago were but whispered in conventicles of discontent are today preached from the housetops and are even finding their way into action.” As the representative educational institution of the American hierarchy, the Pope noted, the University was endowed with the “traditional mission of guarding the natural and supernatural heritage of man.” Toward fulfillment of that mission, wrote the Pope, “it must, because of the exigencies of the present age, give special attention to the sciences of civics, sociology, and economics” in a “constructive program of social action” that fit local needs.¹

Following the Pope’s directive, the Bishops instructed the University to prepare materials of instruction in citizenship and Christian social living for use in the Catholic schools of the United States. The Commission on American Citizenship was organized in 1939 to carry out the Bishops’ mandate. They decided that the Commission would outline a statement of Christian principles as requested by the bishops, create a curriculum for the elementary schools, and oversee the writing of a series of textbooks to embody the social message of Christ. According to Dr. Mary Synon, who oversaw much of the day-to-day operation of the Commission, while the Department of Education and the School of Social Science did much of the Commission’s work, practically every department and school of the University contributed significantly.

One product of this effort was a series of textbooks for elementary through high school students used in most U.S. Catholic schools from the 1940s through the 1970s. For Catholic school students from the first through eighth grades, the Commission designed the Faith and Freedom series of basal readers based on the principles espoused in the curriculum. Aiming to establish Christian principles in the minds of students toward their use in daily living, the writers of the readers–Sister Mary Marguerite for the Primary Grades and Sister Mary Thomas Aquinas, Sister Mary Charlotte and Dr. Mary Synon for the intermediate and upper grades–built a series on social education according to the principles cited as base for the work of the Commission.

Image from “Eddie Patterson’s Friend,” from These Are Our People (Ginn and Company, 1943). What’s wrong with Eddie’s friends? The story’s answer: not a thing.
Image from “Eddie Patterson’s Friends,” from These Are Our People (Ginn and Company, 1943). What’s wrong with Eddie’s friends? The story’s answer: not a thing.

According to a 1946 Commission report, these readers were used in more than 6,000 of the 8,000 Catholic elementary schools in more than thirty-five archdioceses and dioceses in the United States. Copies of texts in this series were officially requested by the military authorities who were revising systems of education in occupied Japan and Germany after World War II. Catholic publicists in Belgium, France and the Netherlands referred to this series for their future education plans. Missionaries in the Philippines requested the copies for children there, and nearly every Catholic school in Hawaii used the texts. Also, the Commission received many inquiries from educators about using the series as possible models for books to be used in non-Catholic schools. A key theme throughout the readers is cooperation across cultures and social classes and an emphasis on Christian democratic ideals in creating a less conflicted postwar world.

Which brings us to the significance of one 1943 text story titled “Eddie Patterson’s Friends.” Eddie was an extremely generous and open-minded young man who “finds the queerest people,” according to his rather judgmental sister Mary. Mary worried about Eddie’s strange friends with his birthday party coming up. The girls on the block where they lived would “laugh if we let Eddie ask anyone he wants to the party.” Mary went so far as to convince their mother to throw Eddie a surprise party for which she and her sister would control the guest list to keep out those she felt should be excluded.

Who were the excluded? “The smiling Yim Kee, whose father ran the Chinese laundry… Frank Bell, the boy whose father had been taken away by the police.” And, “Silas Jefferson, whose father worked as porter on a train.”² Clearly these are stereotypes of Chinese Americans, African Americans and a neglected and possibly impoverished child. But consider the year of publication: 1943. The Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882 barred Chinese immigrants from citizenship until it was repealed in 1943. African Americans were legally segregated from whites, and in fact segregated virtually everywhere in the U.S. Stories like this one pointed to the end of such practices and customs.

A Finding Aid to the Commission on American Citizenship records can be found here: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/americancit.cfm


¹Maria Mazzenga, “More Democracy, More Religion: Baltimore’s Schools, Religious Pluralism, and the Second World War,” in One Hundred Years of Catholic Education: Historical Essays in Honor of the Centennial of the National Catholic Educational Association (National Catholic Education Association, 2003); Finding aid to the Commission on American Citizenship Records: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/americancit.cfm.

²“Eddie Patterson’s Friend,” from These Are Our People by Sister M. Thomas Aquinas, O.P., M.A. and Mary Synon (Ginn and Company, 1943), 44-56, 46.