By Kevin Johnson and Rick Purpura


Charity was an important issue in the context of Catholicism in America. Catholics along all walks of life saw or felt the effects of poverty. With a mass influx of immigrants such as Germans and Irish, a vast majority of members within the Catholic Church were members of the working class. This working class comprised much of the population in Chicago. The Catholic Church in Chicago created and operated many different charities. The largest of these charitable organizations was those focused upon childcare. Childcare was the longest ongoing institution within the Catholic Church. Several organizations and institutions catered to the needs of children, through housing, fostering, and care of infants and their mothers.

The first Catholic orphanage opened in 1849 in the archdiocese of Chicago. Chicago took the lead in childcare and its institutions were exempt from state and local taxes. These organizations as well as schools were however denied funding after a ruling by the Supreme Court. According to Article VIII, Section III of the State Constitution, religious organizations such as these, would not be given any form of aid or payment from public funding. Many of the children who took shelter via these institutions were not even Catholic. The church was able to care for poor children and receive public support. They were able to care for most children who had no catholic schooling. Many families who wanted to send as much as 5 or 7 kids were aided. Children of widowers who wanted to re-establish their family homes received help from the church. Children whose relationship with parents were dangerous or questionable sought new foster homes upon the advice of Catholic institutions. Finally, they also catered to children who were not expected to remain under care for an extended period.

Fostering children into new homes was another organization that was set up in Catholic Charities. First the Catholic Home Bureau created the largest private child-caring agency in the community. It catered to 900 Catholic foster homes and over 1900 children and minors up to the age of 21. During the great depression era many children and minors in this age group found themselves homeless and without parents. The number of neglected dependents greatly increased at this time. As a result a public relief organization was created for Children and Minor’s Service. This agency organized how children of different backgrounds went to different foster houses. For example a Jewish child would go to the Jewish Children’s Bureau for Jewish Children. At this time however the Catholic Home Bureau for all Catholic Children wanted to allowed to aid in the placement of all children and minors to relief families. All Catholic children who were placed outside of their own family homes were taken care of by the church.

Chicago also had institutions specifically for temporary care: Since 1912, St. Joseph’s Home for the Friendless lent short-term aid to poor women and children. This organization gave crucial and a severely appreciated helping hand to the protection and supervision of children. In accordance with the result of a plan for more permanent situation regarding the child’s care, St. Joseph’s would look after these people. Saint Joseph’s relied on the help of other people within the community for some things. “A devout old Italian man who ran a local food store said, ‘I give you credit,’ Joe Iscabucci told them in broken English, ‘St. Joseph see you pay me!’ While the church’s payments often came late, the grocer continued his deliveries and his devotion to saint Joseph.” (Sicius, 46). So support for Catholic institutions came in many forms of charity from its willing and caring Catholic practitioners.

Infant care as well as care for mothers was also provided through Catholic Charity associations. Saint Vincent’s Infant Asylum had been around since 1881. The Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul ran it. Sisters and nuns such as these vowed their lives to service, in particular towards the sick, needy, and uneducated as well as the poor. Without these religious groups the church would have very few to aid in running it’s institutions. Saint Vincent’s had a social worker who’s time was dedicated to finding infants new parents and working out some kind of plan for the mother whom gave birth. The Asylum also offered temporary care for babies who were sick or in need.

Since 1921, Misericordia hospital in Chicago has been operated by the Sisters of Mercy. Owned and Preceded by a corporation of which the Archbishop of Chicago was president the hospital offered care and a home for unwed mothers. This would give the mother an opportunity to decide what they would do when the child was born and ensuring that it would be cared for in some way. The Sisters of Mercy were yet another group that supported charities in the Catholics church.

This document was forwarded to the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle in 1940 by the Archdiocese. The document contained all the Churches charitable works since the diocese foundation in Chicago. The Catholic Church was responsible for the compilation of this documentation. Individual Catholics took part in charitable works helping in what ways they could. The reasoning behind these actions was to demonstrate their love of God and helped their fellow man for the sake of Christ. Human benevolence was counted upon in aiding many of these Catholic charities for without proper funding, many of them would fail, and in turn would cease to offer the care they delivered to so many not just in the Catholic community, but in the community of the city itself. The message this document sends is that of the great usefulness the church has, not only to its Catholic followers, but to all people suffering either in poverty or any other way.

The Catholic Church helped all they could through charity. Throughout Chicago’s Catholic history they’ve helped immigrants, the sick, the hungry, the lost and any who turned to them for aid. Many of these charitable organizations still exist in present day Chicago. Misericordia is still standing on North Ridge Avenue and Saint Josephs is still on North Orleans Street. While child care may have a been a major focus of Catholic charities anyone who suffered in the lots of life could seek the shelter of Catholic charity.

Further Reading:

 Fransic J. Sicius, The Word Made Flesh: The Chicago Catholic Worker and the Emergence of Lay Activism in the Church (Lanham: University Press of America Inc., 1990).


IMAGES: use below as captions

6.A.1-26: “Care of Children,” (c. 1940), pp. 96-121, Catholic Charities Collection, box 1, folder 1.