Browse Exhibits (28 total)

Catholics and Social Security

The National Conference of Catholic Charities and the Social Security Act of 1935

Broadly conceived, charity is love and kindness towards all. Practically speaking, charity is the act of providing assistance to those in need. Within these general conceptions, however, are many ideas as to what charitable action, behavior, and ideals are, as well as an accompanying range of charitable practices and institutions. Here we focus on charitable ideas and practices in a specific time and place: the United States during the Great Depression; by specific practitioners of charity: the National Conference of Catholic Charities and the U.S. Government; with respect to a particular policy and law: the Social Security Act passed in the midst of the economic disaster of the Depression, on August 14, 1935. This site offers a documentary history and supporting educational materials illuminative of the collaboration between administration and government officials and leadership figures in the National Conference of Catholic Charities.

See "Background" to begin


Catholics and Social Welfare: The Bishops' Program of Social Reconstruction, 1919

The 1919 Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the United States experienced economic changes that radically transformed politics and society. In an effort to address the uncertainty caused by these changes, the National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC) issued the “Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction,” in 1919. The bishops’ plan offered a guide for overhauling America’s politics, society, and economy based on Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and a variety of American influences. This website supplies a range of teaching resources related to these influences, the creation of the plan, as well as the opposition it encountered.

See “Background” for more information.

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Catholics, Refugees, and Resettlement

Imagine a moving mass of people many times wider than a modern interstate expressway, traveling by car or truck, horse-drawn cart, or simply walking. Unlike traffic on an interstate, these people are all travelling, slowly but with determination, in the same direction—away from something horrible, some hardship or disaster that would have overtaken them if they had not fled.  This description resembles many of the ones that contemporary observers used to capture the immensity of refugee movements before, during, and after World War II. Frequently, observers resorted to metaphors of rivers, tides, or entire oceans to convey their impressions—simple numerical figures would not suffice.

Nonetheless, to give some idea of the scale of population movement during World War II, according to one estimate 33,060,400 people became refugees within their own country during the war, the largest number of which were in the Soviet Union. Another 6,653,700 were displaced or moved outside their country, and 760,950 fled and escaped from German or Soviet-held territory.[1] After the war, the fledgling United Nations attempted one of its first major efforts at international cooperation with a massive, organized program of refugee aid. The United States, which unlike the nations of Europe was relatively untouched by the devastation of war, played a pivotal role in this aid. In fact, since the ruined European economy and infrastructure could not absorb these huge displaced populations, humanitarian organizations looked to the United States as the site of new homes and communities for the refugees. The US bishops and other members of the National Catholic Welfare Conference played an active role in this process of resettlement, entering into a working relationship with the US government and embarking on a vast public relations campaign to persuade lay Catholics to open their communities to refugees and displaced persons. This document collection showcases the evolution of the American Catholic Church’s refugee aid programs, from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. You will also see, in these documents, how the process of refugee aid enabled the US bishops to talk about the Church’s new emphasis on social justice and a spirit of charity and brotherhood towards all people, everywhere.

See "Background" to begin

[1] Malcolm J. Proudfoot, European Refugees 1939-52: A Study in Forced Population Movement (London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1957), 34.

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George Higgins, Cesar Chavez, and the Unionization of California Agriculture, 1955-1977

One was a member of the U.S. Catholic clergy, director of the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Social Action Department, attendee to the Vatican II Council, and an authority on labor relations. The other was a farm worker, a lay member of the Church, and a union leader who was in on the ground floor of a revolution in farm labor organization. Together, Monsignor George G. Higgins and Cesar Chavez made a potent combination that helped bring a degree of labor justice to agricultural workers in California and other parts of the United States. Chavez and his United Farm Workers union sought higher pay and better working conditions for domestic agricultural laborers, using strikes and boycotts to induce growers to come to the bargaining table. Higgins and the Bishop’s Ad Hoc Committee on Farm Labor became a forceful negotiator between the sides. The combination eventually led to thousands of workers finding representation under the auspices of the UFW. Today, the memories of both men are cherished for their unrelenting crusade to better the lives of the workers in the fields.

See "Background" to begin

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Helping Women Achieve Their Full Stature: Feminism and the NCCW

The National Council of Catholic Women (NCCW) was established in 1920 as a federation of Catholic women's organizations. Dr. Mary J. Henold, associate professor of history at Roanoke College, researched the group expecting to find a traditional organization opposed to any feminist ideology. Much to her surprise, she discovered instead an organization seeking to implement the changes set forth in Vatican II. The women of NCCW "tried on many new ways of looking at the world in the decade following the Council." Henold argues that the 50th anniversary report by NCCW executive director Margaret Mealey in 1970 best exemplifies this change in organizational direction, and proves that feminist thought was not shunned by the organization as once believed. 

Higgins and Chavez: The UFW and the Church

Monsignor George G. Higgins and Cesar Chavez, both as individuals and through their respective organizations, helped to change labor relations for the farm worker during the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to the main site on the work of these men, this site includes six documents from the collections of Higgins and the Bishop's Ad Hoc Committee that reflect some of the more important writings associated with the United Farm Workers and the Ad Hoc Committee. The exhibited documents span from the beginning of the grape boycott in 1965 up through the fight with the Teamsters in the mid-1970s. 

See "Background" to begin

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Mother Jones and the Children's Crusade

The early 20th century was a time of great labor unrest across a spectrum of industries in the U.S. Workers toiled in harsh conditions for low pay and few to advocate for their welfare. One certain group of workers perhaps suffered the most: children. Before the institution of child labor laws, it was commonplace for the children of low-income families to be compelled to work in industrial settings towards increasing the family income, often putting in the same number of hours as adults. Child workers finally found their champion in 1903, when Mary Harris "Mother" Jones came to aid in a textile mill workers' strike in Philadelphia. What followed was one of Jones' most well-known acts, leading the children on a march from there to New York in an attempt to meet with President Theodore Roosevelt. Though the march was ultimately unsuccessful, the issue of child labor was brought to national attention. Subsequently, numerous attempts were made to legally end the practice, culminating in President Franklin Roosevelt signing the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which dramatically curtailed the worst abuses of child labor in the United States.


See "Background" to begin.

One Hundred Years of Catholic Schools (1893–1993)

This exhibit explores the history of Catholic schools at the elementary and secondary levels between the 1890s and the 1990s. Intended as an introductory overview, it picks up four threads that run throughout the history of America’s second-largest school system: the construction of Catholic school identity, the rulings of the Supreme Court, the pivotal role of sister-teachers, and the pattern of service to the disadvantaged.

The exhibit recounts the history of Catholic schools through primary source material held by Special Collections at The Catholic University of America, chiefly the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

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Preserving Catholic Archives

This site features resources specifically focused on Catholic archives.  Most of the materials evolved from a series of conferences held at The Catholic University of America, Catholic Archives in the Digital Age on March 29, 2017.  This page contains talks and resources from the Catholic Archives in the Digital Age: The Fate of Religious Order Archives, which focused on discussing preservation of religious order materials in a variety of U.S. Catholic archives.  

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Sisters of Charity: Nuns, Medicine, and the Civil War

Though the Civil War is one of the largest fields of research in American history, little has been devoted to the study of the role of Catholic women during the war. However, the research of Dr. William B. Kurtz has uncovered a vast number of nuns serving in hospitals in both the Union and Confederate armies. In this single document site, Kurtz here gives insight into a letter written by U.S. Surgeon General William A. Hammond to President Abraham Lincoln that espouses the virtues of having nuns serve in this capacity. Hammond referred to these nurses as "Sisters of Charity," though numerous orders would serve during the war. Kurtz argues that the work of these nuns was crucial in eliminating at least some of the anti-Catholic bias that existed in the United States in the 19th century.


See "Letter from William A. Hammond to Abraham Lincoln" to begin

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