By: Gabrielle May, Trent Jarett and Ryan Hinchley


America is often seen as an immigrant nation built on hard work and perseverance. In particular the industrial area, or the early half of the 20th century, is a key decade in establishing this mindset. Throughout this time period immigrants became “Americans” and fought for equal rights, particularly as workers. A key constituent of this battle was the formation of labor unions. However, this development did not happen overnight, it required the persistence of many prominent persons. One of such individuals was Victor Olander. Throughout his life, Victor Olander was both a dedicated Christian as well as a committed activist for workers’ rights. These select documents and photographs demonstrate both of these principals. The examination of these articles make clear the importance that Catholic doctrine in particular had in this man’s life, as well as the obvious connection with historic Catholic life in America as a whole.

It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, as is the case with the photograph of Victor Olander that has been selected. This snapshot taken in 1941, features Olander along with other official-looking men. Given what we know about Olander, these men are likely fellow members of the Illinois State Federation of Labor. In order to understand the importance of the picture in context to Catholicism we need to look back on Olander’s life. Victor Olander was born in 1873 and first became involved in worker rights at the height of the industrial era in 1899 when he began his career as a trade unionist for the Seaman’s Union. Throughout the fifteen years he would spend in this career, Olander actively sought compensation and enhanced rights for his fellow seamen. As a young man working to establish himself in the world, this time period would have certainly been an important one in shaping Olander’s personal perspectives and values. With that in mind, it can be said that in this period as Victor Olander sought to assert his beliefs, the Catholic Church did the same.

Throughout the industrial era the Catholic Church developed from a primarily Irish or German church to a “New Immigrant Church.” This church was distinguished as urban, working class and largely made up of Southern European immigrants. These mostly Catholic immigrants often lived difficult lives. Upon arriving in America, work was difficult to find and pay was extremely low due to “a surplus of workers resulting from the continual flow of immigrants” (Dulles 377). Olander himself was likely born in America and also as we will see, he was not a Catholic. However, as an urban man of the working class, he certainly fits the other criteria of what it meant to be Catholic at this time. And his efforts to win over Catholic voters through Christian appeals for a living wage. That is to say, Olander’s actions mirror almost perfectly those of the Catholic population as a whole. At this time in the Church, people were still adjusting to the effects of Rerum Novarum which was published in 1891. This document was a direct response to the plight of the working class Catholic. The primary goal of this church doctrine was to establish that the Catholic Church was against the unfair treatment of working class citizens. In addition it sought to bring people together through religion and encourage the government to get involved in protecting people’s rights. Given his stance on worker’s rights, Olander and his compatriots in the Seaman’s union would have been aware of Rerum Novarum and taken it into consideration as they fought for their rights as workers.

The second document illustrates that Olander took Catholic doctrine seriously. This piece is a magazine dated 1932, entitled “Catholic Action”. First, the name of the magazine itself is important. Starting in the 1920s, the Church entered the era of “Catholic Action.” The goal of this movement was to get both church leaders and laity involved in American life, specifically by joining causes of social justice. In the 1930s this activism was largely directed towards workers’ rights, just the cause in which Victor Olander was personally involved. Whether or not Olander had the call of “Catholic Action” in his mind as he fought for justice, he certainly sought to gather Catholic support for his own causes.

The specific article highlighted from this magazine is entitled “In the Field of Immigration.” As we have seen, Catholicism in America was built by immigrants. However, by the 1930s much of this immigration had come to a halt due to the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924. This act established a quota of the number of people that could come to America per country on a yearly basis. Evidently this would restrict the influx of new immigrants, thus in turn the number of new Catholics as well. A part of this article speaks of the difficulties former immigrants were encountering while attempting to bring family members into America. In an attempt to alleviate these problems and as part of their actions of social justice, many of these people filed “petitions addressed to the department of labor.” Therefore, as secretary treasurer of the Illinois State Federation of Labor, Victor Olander would have been personally affected by the act. That is to say, as a member of the Illinois branch of the “department of labor”, Olander would have had to assist in solving these issues. Once again, Victor Olander would become directly involved in the lives of new immigrants and specifically Catholics.

Victor Olander was known throughout his adult life as a “powerful orator, skilled debater [and] able legislative advocate.” His way with words is apparent in the transcript of his address “Christianity and Labor.” While the date of this address is unknown, given certain content of the address it appears to have taken place prior or during the Second World War. The primary goal of this address is to establish a connection between the labor movement, the religious movement and what it means to be American. Even though Olander establishes that he “does not hold membership in any particular religious organization,” this speech would certainly resonate with Catholics.  That is to say, this address would have been directed specifically towards laborers and their leaders, who as we have established, were largely of the Catholic faith. In addition, the book Catholic Immigrants in America speaks of Catholic values saying “Given a choice between individual appeasement and community stability they usually opted for the latter” (Olson 238). Thus, Olander’s message to band together in faith and support for workers would have resonated with the Catholic community at large.

Another important factor to keep in mind when reading this address is the fact that war was looming.  Labor in America explains that at war time “labor leaders unitedly pledged their absolute loyalty to the national cause” (Dulles 332). It was not only labor leaders that pledged loyalty to the nation; Catholics as a whole were doing the same. It can be said that World War two was a “stamp of Catholic Americanism.” That is to say, the Catholic Church was no longer separated by ethnicity, as in the time of the “National Parish.” Instead of being identified by their country of origin, Catholics were considered true Americans. However, all was not well. The war brought difficulties to the industries as funds were directed to the war and wages were cut. Olander targets both patriotism and faith in order to address this issue. For example, he states “American freedom as I have described it is an expression of the Christian ideal of human relationship.” He then cites the bible saying “All men are created equal.” Through his address Olander would have undoubtedly garnered support from all faithful Christians and specifically Catholics.

Victor Olander held his position with the Illinois State Federation of Labor from 1914 to his death in 1949. Throughout his career, both what it meant to be a labor union member and a Catholic changed significantly. In the end we have come full circle and can return to the 1941 photograph. Evidently this image captures a single moment in the life and career of an extraordinary man. Overall, these documents bring history to life and serve as a shining example of the development of the Catholic Church in America.

Further Reading:

Forster R. Dulles, Labor in America (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1949).

James S. Olson, Catholic Immigrants in America (Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1987).