By Eugene Avila, Emily Litten, Rafael Hurtado, Theodora Okiro


Ellen Gates Starr worked as a reformer and social worker at Hull House from its inception on September 18, 1889 till the 1930s. Hull House was co-founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in an immigrant community on the near West Side of Chicago on Halsted Street. The ‘Hull’ house was named for the home’s first owner. It was a settlement house that aimed to aid recently emigrated European immigrants with the transition and assimilation into daily American life. The turn of the twentieth century saw an explosion in the emigration to the United States of mostly poor Eastern Europeans such as Russians, Poles, Austrians and Italians. These immigrants were overwhelmingly Catholic. They sought jobs in urban Areas due to the advent of the Industrial Revolution. By 1880, 14% of the American population was recent European immigrants. They mostly settled in ethnic specific neighborhoods with tenements of squalor, and the combination of their wages along with industrial conditions also led to poor living conditions. The neighborhoods were extremely dense and polluted. Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr saw an opportunity to establish a social settlement resembling the kinds they had witnessed in London. The newly established settlement goals were typically achieved through amenities offered such as job workshops, gymnasium, libraries, nurseries, and residential apartments for families. The programs were largely innovative and successful in alleviating poverty in the largely impoverished neighborhoods. The women’s response to the immigrant experience in the late 1800s was comparable to that of the Catholic Church’s response. The church’s response was to build social amenities such as hospitals, orphanages and schools to alleviate daily life conditions. The church saw charity as the answer to the people’s plight, while the Starr and Addams, took it a step further by seeking justice through social improvements. The women were so successful in their activities that by 1907, the mansion had expanded to a massive 13-building complex covering nearly a city block. The sole purpose of the Hull House was social reform, and Ellen Gates Starr was instrumental in its founding, implementation and management.

 Ellen Gates Starr was born in 1859 in Laona, Illinois. She attended mostly rural and country schools. In the fall of 1877, she enrolled in the Rockford female seminary. Her enrollment in the seminary clearly shows the early influence of the religion in her life. At Rockford, she met Jane Addams. Both women will go on to develop a lifelong friendship based on their shared ideals on religion, social work and medical advice. Starr became an Anglican in 1884. Though she would not convert to Catholicism till 1920, throughout her life, the Catholic faith greatly influenced her ideals and convictions. Her aunt Eliza Allen Starr converted to Catholicism in 1854, and became highly involved in the Catholic community, receiving the University of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal, which recognized lay leadership, in 1885. As a member of the church’s laity in this era, Eliza was typically active in the church’s community and helped found organization of religious orders for the people called Sodalities. Eliza was also concerned with the social justice of all people, which was seen by the laity as a catholic doctrine. Ellen Gates was very close to her aunt, and was therefore greatly influenced by her religious life and beliefs. Another great Catholic influence on Ellen Gates was her friendship with Father James O.S. Huntington, founder of the Order of the Holy Cross and an advocate for labor rights. He convinced her to join the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, which was made up of unmarried, middle class, college-educated Anglican lay women who were committed to bettering conditions for working women and children. During her European travels with her best friend Jane Addams, Ellen Gates became interested in the Benedictine Order, an Italian Catholic religious order native to Monte Cassino, Italy. The order emphasized and encouraged hospitality to the less-fortunate with St. Benedict’s, famous quote: “Let everyone that comes be received as Christ.” Starr’s religious convictions therefore no doubt led her to participate in social activism.

Jane Addams is typically hailed as the great reformer, while Ellen Gates is usually overlooked. Ellen Gates Starr should however also receive her fair share of praise and admiration especially from a religious standpoint. She promoted labor activism and socialist politics, and protested against unjust practices toward working women, especially in the garment industry. In the era between 1880 and 1890, Catholic immigrant workers began to join and form labor unions to demand better wages and working conditions. They sought to gain some power in the mostly unjust workplaces and factories. After 1891, Catholic Churches became vocal proponents of labor rights and institution. This was a sharp departure from the previous decade when the church condemned oath-bound unions such as the Knights of Labor.  In 1891, the Pope issued the encyclical Rerum Novarum. Through the encyclical, social justice became Catholic doctrine. The bill stated that it was proper and necessary in the interest of the Catholic Church to focus their efforts on social issues that plagued their immigrant followers. Labor unions were largely proposed to solve the workers’ strife and Ellen Gates greatly participated in several Chicago labor unions. She participated in the 1910 garment workers strike of the Chicago Clothing Workers Union. She was also later involved in the 1914 waitress strike against Henrici Restaurant. She continually proved herself as a great champion of the working class people. Ellen Gates also organized to help the strikers in picket committees and helped collect food, money and clothing for the striking workers. Ellen Gates was in effect a great participant of Rerum Novarum. She also taught immigrant families art and literature and was directly involved in the education of mostly illiterate immigrant children through child welfare. After Ellen Gates entered a convent Church at St. Joseph Abbey in St. Benedict, Louisiana (near New Orleans) on March 3, 1920, her leadership in the Hull House was greatly missed. A successor to her efforts in the Settlement house, Ms. Rich lamented the loss of Ellen gates and stated that the residents greatly felt her absence. Ms. Rich looked onto to Ellen Gates for inspiration for daily activities that will continue to serve the less fortunate. In a lamentable letter sent to Ellen Gates, Ms. Rich praised Starr for her inspiration and “espirit de corps”. Ms. Starr was therefore undoubtedly successful in her activism for social reform and justice, a priceless member of the Catholic laity and a reaffirmation of its principles.

Further Reading:

Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House (Dover Publications, 2008).

Suellen M. Hoy, Ellen Gates Starr: Her Later Years (Chicago: Chicago History Museum, 2010).

Mary Ann Johnson, “Hull House,” The Encyclopedia of Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).