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Settlement Houses: The View Of The Catholic Church

Neighborhood and Community: The View Of The Church

By Rev. William F. O’Ryan, St. Leo’s Church, Denver, Colorado

(Note: This is a presentation at the 52nd Meeting of the National Conference on Social Welfare, Denver, Colorado, June 10-17, 1925)

I can only briefly indicate my views on the church in its relation to local community work. I believe these views are common to most clergymen of my denomination; indeed, I cannot imagine any of them thinking differently. To all finely organized and highly purposed community endeavor the church can have no other feeling than generous commendation. Whether we take the whole village, or town, or city, or the unfortunately placed district where our underprivileged fellow-citizens are compelled to live, all organized inspiration and work for the advancement and edification of our fellows is precisely of the very essence and purpose and only justification for the existence of the church.

Among the energies of today, the neighborhood house in the poorer and congested districts of our cities, when properly conducted, is an institution that must meet the church’s warmest approval. Indeed, many of our parishes, in the larger cities especially, have such houses for social, educational, and recreational conveniences among the parishioners, and it would appear today to be the immediate ambition of all our parishes to have such a center. And this is true not of American cities only, but of many through the world. I visited last summer in London two such settlements in the very wretched districts of the East End; I found them in charge of wealthy ladies of the noblest blood of England. I was pointed out two or three in the Dublin slums. To be sure, these were not in the widest way community houses, their work being confined to one denomination.

Forty years ago I was familiar with the young university settlements of London, which have in modern times been the inspiration and suggestion of all our neighborhood and community houses. They were fine and inspiring, doing a noble work in the sad sections of London.

The parish house, excellent and helpful as it is, cannot supply needs that are clamorous in every large American city, because it narrows its work to one denomination. Every Catholic priest who is able to understand anything understands that the community rises or falls together. We have spots of hideous poverty in all our large cities. Our industrial life, great as it may be in many respects, is horribly callous and careless of human life and welfare; it is an iron machine, grinding pitilessly the bodies and souls of men. There are many of our fellows who cannot keep step in the awful march which we call progress; they fall by the wayside. We see them in every city, the poor, the stunted, the broken, the unfit, those who have never enjoyed opportunity, and those who failed; ill-fed in mind and body, they live in congested and unsanitary apartments. They necessarily congregate together; the slum is their portion and inheritance; they breathe the same physical and spiritual atmosphere and are poisoned together. They must be assisted together as a community, irrespective of creed or race.

These poor people are the chiefest concern of any church which deserves to exist, and consequently every fine effort finely conducted for such communities must receive the warm approbation and support of every church. In America such localities are heterogeneous in the composition of their inhabitants. There are racial and religious problems among them that must be wisely and delicately met. I think we all agree that the neighborhood house, prudently managed and offering generously recreation, education, and inspiration, is the best means with which to combat the conditions I have mentioned; it will be the point of light in their darkness, of health in their disease.

What does the Catholic priest think of the introduction of religion into the community house? What can he think but that, considering the diverse religions and races, the introduction of any religious allusion that could offend the susceptibilities of a part of the community would be infinitely stupid and destructive in its very shadow. For the life of the community house depends, from the beginning of its existence, upon an atmosphere of kindliness, and good will, and brotherhood-a very human and sympathetic understanding of the prejudices and idiosyncracies of the whole body. There are enough fine spiritual and human things of life, education and art, that will occupy the time of those in charge; there are ambitions to be fostered, young and old to be advised, unhappinesses to be allayed, lame dogs to be lifted over stiles, without trespassing on that domain where the soul communes with its God.

And whom would a Catholic priest place in charge of a community house? It goes without saying: people adapted for the work by apparent vocation and thorough special training. Anyone who understands the Catholic church knows how she trains her workers. The nun, fitted for teaching, teaches; she is not placed among the hospital sisterhood; the orphanage sister is chosen and pre  pared for her own special work. Her priests have many years of training; they may not be all brilliant geniuses, but they are trained, and each for his own place and work in the church.

Human sympathy is splendid and human love very mighty; but all the sympathy and human tenderness in the world will wreck a community house if those who guide its destinies have not the preparation of intelligent training.

I make no mention of what organizations should direct and support the community house. I may say that I do not believe it the function of the school board, nor of the civic authorities; they may help. At its best, the community house, as it springs from the patriotism and humanity of good citizens, will find its best management from among them.

I think you will understand that I am an enthusiast for the community center. Curiously, I have become more so in recent years. No one understands any better than I the evil of the old neighborhood saloon; I hated it and fought it. And still it had its good side. It was some social center for the workingman, and human nature is invincibly social; it had light and warmth and a certain comfort for the tired man in the evening; it was a little parliament house where he joyfully discussed the world and its problems. We have, unfortunately, nothing which replaces that aspect of the saloon today. If to offer men that recreation and social opportunity were the sole purpose of the community center, I think it would justify its existence.

Let me tell you of the community house of old, for the idea is not new. There were several centuries in which every city of importance in Europe had not one, but many, community houses; every rural district had its community house of a fine kind. It may be distasteful to some not of my creed, and whose knowledge of history is not intimate, that I should mention the great Bene-,dictine monasteries that were so numerous in Europe from the sixth century onward. They were in a sense community houses. They guided the agriculture and civilization of Europe after the breakdown of the Roman Empire; they had. beside the internal monastic school, the school at monastery gates for everyone; they relieved the poor; they assisted the sick with simple remedies; out of them went all the instruction and letters and most of the arts and crafts of the long ago. They were the chief sources of light in dark times.

And again, when you visit Europe you will ask the reason for the enormous churches and cathedrals of the twelfth and successive centuries. Surely the population of the time did not demand their hugeness. Apart from honoring God in their magnificence, they had another purpose: they were the great meeting houses for all the people, the great community houses of other days. In them the people met for other than purely spiritual purposes; they were places where the community and national needs were often discussed, where great popular synods and fairs were held, where often the mystery and miracle plays (the beginning of our modern drama) were enacted. They were, indeed, great neighborhood houses. People then believed that religion embraced every social  and kindly duty, and the cathedral was indeed the mother church and center for the diocese, or bishop’s district.

But the true community house of long ago, found numerously in every city, flocked to by simple and gentle, were the houses of the guilds of the Middle Ages. From the twelfth century to the sixteenth, in every city of importance all over Europe, the citizens were practically all enrolled in guilds. Some of these were purely spiritual, but every art and craft had its own guild and guild house, and guild possessions; every merchant had his guild and guild house, each for his own class of merchandise. In the guild chambers, as in the church, there met master and apprentice, rich and poor, and they were brothers. They understood the inevitable differences of rank and retinue, but they also understood, as it is seldom understood today, the true equality from which true democracy proceeds-the equality in the order of nature and in the eyes of God. It is well worth while to read the story of the Italian, or German, or French, or English guilds. For their story is the beginning of the art of Europe and of that human independence before which finally went down the tyranny of the feudal barons. They made the democracy of the Middle Ages; they made pauperism, as we know it in this industrial age, impossible; they were socialistic in that finer sense of ideal socialism; they lifted labor up to nobility and art. Their destruction was a catastrophe.

Says Dr. Jessop: “The guilds were benefit clubs, they were savings banks, they were social unions, they were very powerful supporters of the needs of the parish.” Thorold Rogers says: “The town and country guilds obviated pauperism in the Middle Ages, assisted in steadying the price of labor, and formed a permanent center for those associations which fulfilled the function that in more recent times trade-unions have striven to satisfy.” Bishop Hobhouse tells us how “the guild fellowships enhanced all the other bonds in drawing men to share their worldly goods as a common stock. Covertly, if not overtly, the guildsman bound himself to assist his needy brother in sickness and age.”

Perhaps you may think this interjection regarding the guilds is foreign to my subject. I introduce it for the sake of anyone who doubts the value of the community house. Let him read of the ancient guilds and he will see that the analogy between the guild house of the past and the community house of today is very intimate.

But there is no need to go back to the past to find sufficient argument why I, or any churchman, should support the idea of the community center and its humane activities. If a churchman will not be faithful to his solemn profession, where shall fidelity be found? And we profess to be Americans, to accept as holy the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution. If we clergymen cannot condemn and hold up to scorn the mouthing hypocrite who praises our republic and glorifies our democracy while ignoring the fact that multitudes of our citizens are left in ignorance of our Constitution, live in unsanitary conditions, and are given no opportunity toward a life worth living, or a liberty worth possessing, or a happiness worth enjoying-if we do not speak, who will?

To adapt Lincoln’s great saying, Democracy cannot exist half in luxury and half in wretchedness. Democracy is not so sure of her step today; she is betrayed in several European countries and threatened in others. The thoughts of many of our fellow-citizens, and especially our foreign-born, must sometimes be rather cynical when we glorify our brotherhood and democracy. The ugly spots, the districts where our unfortunate live and die, must be our care if we are true to ourselves and our national creed. I believe the best beginning of wise and scientific and brotherly care for the unfortunates in the unfortunate districts can be made through the community house.

Source: National Conference on Social Welfare Proceedings On-Line; the website for this resource is:

The proceedings of annual meetings of the NCSW, 1874-1983, are available on the web thanks to a digitization project undertaken by the University of Michigan Library, with assistance from the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.  The website for this resource is:

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