Settling into a Settlement: The Origins of Marillac Social Center, 1914-1945

In early winter of 1914, the world was engulfed in a war fought in Europe. Meanwhile, in a world away, in Chicago’s west loop, Sister Raphael Creagh of the Daughters of Charity was making preparations for a different kind of war—a war against poverty. In a letter to the Visatrix of the province, she wrote excitedly about the preparations that were being made to transform 308 S. Sangamon Street, an ordinary house, into a comfortable and functional settlement house.[1] After checking in on the progress, she was happy to report “every facet of the house has undergone a thorough painting. Even the floors—which are all hard wood, have been washed, and are varnished.”[2] Painting was only part of the transformation, however, as Sister Raphael also noted that, thanks to a new steam plant, the house had a nice warm atmosphere. “There is water, heat, and light in every part of the place,” she gushed.[3] Within a few short weeks, the new Catholic Social Center would be open for business.

The settlement house movement in America, which began in Chicago in 1889 with the founding of Hull House, was a response to urbanization, immigration, and industrialization. When middle class men and women looked around and saw the problems created by this trifecta of change, they worried that their country (and country(wo)men) would be all the worse because of it. In the United States, both secular settlement houses (like the famed Hull House in Chicago, Illinois) and religious ones (like the Methodist Wesley Houses in Dallas, Texas) attempted to address these problems. Indeed, religious settlements could be found in Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic communities.[4] The Catholic Social Center was the latter as it was founded by Rev. William J. McNamee of old St. Patrick’s Church on Adams Street, and run by the Daughters of Charity.

Unlike other types of organizations and charities, settlement houses applied a scientific approach to helping the poor. By living among the working-class, “the settlement residents saw problems from a fresh and different perspective, and they often became initiators and organizers of reform.”[5] Founded in an immigrant, working-class neighborhood, the Catholic Social Center recognized that in order to fulfill their mission of “encouraging a broader and higher social life” for their neighbors, they would need to provide practical assistance.[6] Thus, the Catholic Social Center established a nursery, a kindergarten, an affordable lunch, a home for working girls, and classes on domestic economy, sewing, literature, and dancing, as well as civic and citizenship classes. Soon, it became obvious that their facilities were not large enough to accommodate all the programs that the settlement wanted to offer; when the property was condemned in 1945, the writing was on the wall. The sisters began to look around for a bigger, better home. They would find it, two and a half miles west.

Works Cited: [1] As the demand for child care grew, in the summer of 1917, 945 W. Jackson, a building on the same property as 308 S. Sangamon was added.
[2] Letter from Sister Raphael Creagh to Sister Eugenia, November 1914; box 1, folder 1, MSCA.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Black Neighbors: Race and the Limits of Reform in the American Settlement House Movement, 1890-1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 62.
[5] Allen F. Davis, Spearheads for Reform: The Social Settlements and the Progressive Movement, 1890-1914, third paperback printing (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 25
[6] Mission statement; box 14, folder 3, MSCA.

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