The Archivist’s Nook: Heroes for More than One Day

Logo, Catholic Heroes of the World War Collection, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

In his 1977 hit single ‘Heroes,’ David Bowie sang “We can be heroes, just for one day…We can be heroes, forever and ever.” He may just as well have been referring to the ‘Catholic Heroes of the World War‘, whose valor was chronicled in the American Catholic press, 1929-1933. This now obscure paean to Catholic veterans and war workers, decorated by their then grateful country, was rediscovered in 2015 by Catholic University archivists working to identify and digitize materials documenting American Catholic efforts for the 2017 centenary of the United States entry into the so-called War to End All Wars. Perhaps via digitization these “heroes, just for one day” can begin again to be recognized as “heroes, forever and ever.”

As a minority, American Catholic population percentages increased mostly through immigration, from one percent during the American Revolution, to seventeen percent in World War I, and twenty-two percent in the twenty-first century. Supporting America’s World War I effort was a watershed for Catholics, long viewed as having questionable patriotism. They responded under the motto “For God and Country” to create the National Catholic War Council (NCWC), forerunner of today’s United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), representing Catholic interests in Congress and addressing the needs of soldiers and war workers. After the war, Catholics were confronted with the Oregon School Bill, supported by the Ku Klux Klan, declaring school age children could only attend public schools. The NCWC mobilized public opposition and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Oregon School Bill in 1925.

Colonel William J. ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan (1883-1959). Decorated World War I veteran, he was the only one to win all four of the United States’ highest awards: Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Medal, and National Security Medal. He was also head of the World War II era Office of Strategic Services (OSS), precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Image from Homeofheroes.com.

The 1928 American presidential election witnessed the first Catholic to head a major party ticket with Al Smith of New York as the Democratic Party nominee. He lost to Republican Herbert Hoover and it would not be until 1960 with John Fitzgerald Kennedy, that another Catholic would run, and this time win the presidency. Smith and Catholics were subjected to such vitriolic abuse that for Daniel J. Ryan, who headed the NCWC Bureau of Historical Records, it appeared work over the past decade to document American Catholic patriotism via war activities had been for naught. Never faint hearted and with records of over 800,000 Catholic veterans available, Ryan began in December 1928 to write a weekly column on outstanding ‘Catholic Heroes of the World War‘ for the Catholic press.

Ryan chose to profile men, and some women, who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor (CMH), the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), and the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM). Included were Colonel William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, later the famed spymaster of World War II; nurse Beatrice Mary MacDonald, the first woman to win a DSC and Purple Heart; Daniel Daly of both the Knights of Columbus and U. S. Marines; Michigan chaplain Patrick R. Dunigan; El Paso native Marcus Armijo; and Italian immigrant Michael Vigliotti. Ryan kept a record of the stories with clippings in a scrapbook organized alphabetically by surname. The scrapbook itself was unremarkable, hard cover with yellow onionskin paper. The cover was acidic and falling apart, and many of the pages torn or disintegrating. The clippings were digitized and photocopied onto acid free paper, with the originals and copies individually housed in acid free folders.  

The feature was well received by former servicemen, their families, and others, who noted the accuracy of the articles. It continued until 1933, ending perhaps not coincidentally, in the same year Franklin Delano Roosevelt, relatively friendly to Catholics, assumed the Office of the President, though it should be noted the NCWC decided to close the Bureau of Historical Records in 1934 citing lack of funds. Ryan had explained the series hoped to deal with Catholic heroes from every state and diocese, and by 1931 there were 141 stories covering the then 48 states and all but 7 Catholic dioceses. By the time the column ended in 1933 there were about 250 stories in all.¹ For more on American Catholics in World War I see the Catholic University online exhibit.

Beatrice Mary MacDonald (1881-1969). Canadian born, New York resident, U.S. Army nurse seriously injured, losing an eye while caring for wounded soldiers. First woman to win the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) and the Purple Heart. Also awarded the British Military Medal and French Croix de Guerre. Image from Purpleheart.com.

On occasion a ‘Heroes’ column was also published in the NCWC Bulletin magazine, as with the June 1929 story of Slovak immigrant, Matej Kocak, who won two Medals of Honor before making the ultimate sacrifice for his new country. USCCB records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

¹NCWC Bureau of Historical Records, Annual Reports, 1929-1933.

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.