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.
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.”
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.