Voices of Charity Oral History Project

1968 Building and staff

I. Project Overviewtop

The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul first arrived in Chicago in 1861. This order of nuns, like many others called to this growing metropolis, responded to the urban needs of their time by ministering to the sick and poor through hospitals (such as St. Joseph’s), and orphanages (such as the St. Vincent Infant Asylum), which they administered. In 1914, seeing a need to offer childcare and social services for Chicago’s working mothers, the Daughters of Charity helped found the Catholic Social Center in what is today’s West Loop. A year later, in 1915, seeing similar needs in the largely working class immigrant neighborhood of Lincoln Park, the sisters helped found the DePaul Day Nursery and Social Center in a two-flat donated by labor leader Agnes Nestor at Halsted and Webster. Over the course of nearly a century, the two organizations—now called Marillac Social Center and St. Vincent de Paul Center – have seen new buildings, and name changes, but the missions of both remain committed to “strengthening and empowering those most in need to reach their greatest potential.” Female workers –including nuns, teachers, social workers, administrators, and clerical workers – have been at the vanguard of seeing this mission fulfilled.

In preparation for their upcoming Centennials Sr. Patricia Dunne, DC [Daughters of Charity]—Director of Mission Integration for both Centers—has been collecting and assembling historical materials to document the Centers’ histories. Unfortunately, the extant archival traces are somewhat scant. While the uneven collection of archival materials pose significant challenges, there is a yet untapped source of material that would help us document histories from the last several decades: the stories of those who have worked at the two Centers.

Feminist historian Margaret Stroebel has observed that many nonprofit grassroots organizations that are mission-driven and understaffed (and disproportionately female) “often do not prioritize keeping records that tell their side of the story on issues about which they are passionate.” As a corrective, Stroebel recommends that those working for such organizations develop a forward- thinking consciousness about the value of their documentary records, and also tap into complementary oral histories of those who carry important insights and memories about their organization’s history. In that spirit, the Voices of Charity Oral History Project is an oral history project with the following goals:

  • To document the histories of those who have worked at these social service centers.
  • To explore the unique role that women have played in administering social services to Chicago’s low- income families and residents, through their own words and stories.
  • To make the oral histories available to the public
  • To analyze the significance of how workers at the two Centers have recalled and understood their labor

The Voices of Charity website can be found here.

II. Context, Methodology & Primary Findingstop

In the Voices of Charity Oral History Project the project interviewers (including graduate research assistant Eleanor Bossu, undergraduate students enrolled in HST 392: Oral History Project, and I) practiced feminist standpoint epistemology. To that end, before entering the field and engaging in the interview process, project interviewers were asked to consider how their own identities might play into the shaping of the interview, and to contemplate the uneven power relations between oral history narrators and the interviewer. All project interviewers participated in University-required training for research with human subjects. To ensure that narrators understood the purpose and parameters of the oral history project, project interviewers discussed and obtained “informed consent” with narrators prior to beginning the interview process.

Twenty-one narrators from each site were interviewed between October 2012 and October 2013. In order to ensure that interviews would help shed light on how the Centers had changed over time, narrators were selected based on their having worked at one of the Centers for at least ten years or more. At the project’s conclusion, a total of sixteen women and four men were interviewed; of these, 75% of the interviews were with people of color. Interviews lasted anywhere from one to over three hours. In all cases, the lead interviewer for any given interview transcribed verbatim the interviews they conducted. One or more team members checked the transcripts against the audio for omissions/errors, and made minor edits to ensure clarity and continuity between transcripts.

After auditing, the project materials—including audio files, transcripts, interview abstracts, narrator biographies, selected quotes from interviews, and photographs—were prepared for digital display through the Voices of Charity oral history website, which will launch in 2014, and will be hosted by (and accessible through the websites of) Marillac Social Center and St. Vincent de Paul Center.

Primary Observations

Some narrators shared memories of the Centers dating as far back as the 1960s. Accounts show how the histories of both Centers have intersected with the wider histories of their respective Chicago neighborhoods (Marillac is in East Garfield Park; St. Vincent’s is in Lincoln Park). Narrators describe working with children and families through the daycare, and through neighborhood programming—including memories of organizing basketball tournaments, designing programs to prevent teen pregnancies, teaching etiquette classes, making house calls to homes and public housing projects, and taking children on field trips. Perhaps most significantly, the oral histories demonstrate how the narrators themselves have been impacted by their jobs.

Preliminary analysis of the interviews reveals two major themes: workers’ emotional investment in their jobs, and a sense of loss of community over time.

Loss of Community

All narrators had worked at the Centers for ten years or more. Narrators from both Centers tended to express a sense of loss of community at their respective worksite over time. At both Marillac and St. Vincent’s, the sense of loss of community was often marked in the narrators’ recollections by transitions to new buildings. Old buildings metaphorically housed cherished memories of the workers’ early years at the Centers, and—at least for these narrators—literally changed the geography of how narrators interacted with co-workers and clientele. At St. Vincent’s, for example, several narrators noted that they felt like the new building (built in 2002)—while impressive for its amenities—isolated them from interactions with coworkers: “This building: there is too much space, too much room, and it’s bigger and it’s like, it don’t look like a daycare it reminds me of something big like condominiums or a condo or something. It don’t look like a daycare center like we used to have. Where the kids come in, we had a little hall; the rooms were all next to each other. It’s like, it was all closed in, to me that made us more like a family.”

Multiple narrators described early memories of working with coworkers in familial terms. Indeed, at both Centers, expressions of loss of community may be typified by this remark: “It was, well, back then – then – it was more of a … we were family. We were thick. Thick like blood. Thick. Thick. I mean, thick. You know, we were – we were the family outside the other family. This was family. And no matter what, if you were in the room by yourself, and I was getting off from work, I would get off from work, and come back to help you.” Here, the expression of the loss of community is coupled with a perception that more recent employees may not be as self-sacrificing as the older guard of workers.

Sacrifice and Emotional Investment

While the interviews demonstrate the roles the Centers have played in the lives of those who they have aimed to serve (i.e., low-income families and children), they most significantly demonstrate how the Centers have impacted the lives of those who have devoted a considerable amount of their lives to working at the Centers. Two narrators, for example, expressly noted that in order to commit to full time work at Marillac Social Center, they had to make the difficult decision to leave better-paying positions elsewhere. Time and again, multiple narrators (which included workers at all levels within the organization, including teachers, social workers, clerical workers, and administrators) described the ways in which they invested in their work, particularly noting how they were committed to their jobs for emotional—not financial— rewards. As one narrator noted: “I love my job. Because it’s like I said; it’s my passion. It’s not about money or anything like that. It’s just me giving back. This is my community where I grew up. I just want to just give back to it.” Giving back through their work at the Center, although emotionally rewarding, often came with emotional challenges. Several narrators shared heart-wrenching stories of working with children who were victims of sexual abuse; others described the struggles of keeping neighborhood children away from the significant influence of drugs and gangs. Expressions of emotional investment and self-sacrifice can be seen among narrators of both genders, but it merits noting that employment in both Centers is overwhelmingly feminized.

III. Leadership Team and Community Partnerstop

DePaul University
  • Prof. Amy Tyson, Project Director, Associate Professor, Department of History at DePaul University

Amy Tyson received her Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Minnesota in 2006. She is an Associate Professor of History, where she directs the Public History Concentration, and has taught courses on Oral History, Local and Community History, Performing History, Women & Gender in Public History. Her book, The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2013. http://works.bepress.com/amy_tyson/

  • Eleanor Bossu, Graduate Research Assistant and Lead Interviewer

Eleanor Bossu conducted and transcribed 11 of the 20 interviews for the Voices of Charity Oral History Project. Eleanor graduated summa cum laude from DePaul University in 2008 with the honor of top student in both the History and Women’s and Gender Studies departments. She has worked as a research assistant to Dr. Valentina Tikoff (DePaul) for a project on the history of early modern education, and while attending graduate school in the Women’s History Department of the Ohio State University, served as a research assistant to Dr. Susan Hartmann, aiding her research on Republican Congresswomen. After leaving Ohio State, Eleanor enrolled in the Master’s program at DePaul in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department, and is expected to graduate in 2014, with a focus on transnational feminist theory and feminist epistemology.

  •  Caelin Niehoff, Volunteer Interview Auditor
  • Michael Cohen, DePaul University Alumni, Website Designer
DePaul University – Student Interviewers & Transcribers
  • Jeffrey Buchbinder
  • Molly Clark
  • Matthew D’Agostino
  • Carly Faison
  • Austin Kiesewetter
  • Joshua Messer
  • Anthony Natali
  • Caelin Niehoff
  • Olivia Orndorff
  • Jacqueline Román
Marillac St. Vincent Family Services
  • Sr. Patricia Dunne, D.C., Interview Coordinator

Sister Patricia is currently serving as the Vice President of Mission Integration for Marillac St. Vincent Family Services. Sister Patricia received a BA in mathematics from Marillac College in St. Louis and an MSW from Loyola University in Chicago. Prior to coming to Marillac St. Vincent Family Services, she served as Provincial Councillor at the Daughters Provincial House in Evansville, Indiana. http://www.marillachouse.org/about/leadershipbios.html

  • Katy Murphy, Website Coordinator
Marillac Social Center – Oral History Narrators
  • Betty Collins
  • Sr. Patricia Dunne, D.C.
  • Viola Floyd
  • Deanna Hallagan
  • Maureen Hallagan
  • Gwen Horton
  • Bessie Houston
  • Ora Lomack
  • Willie Morris Jr.
  • Albert Richardson
  • Ersilee Wesley
 St. Vincent de Paul Center – Oral History Narrators
  • Michelle Brown
  • Theresa Deal
  • Don Hamilton
  • Irwin Hermanowski
  • Maria Laverde
  • Edith Morton
  • Diane Prince
  • Sr. Katie Norris, D.C.
  • Pearl Washington
  • Zelma Wilson

IV. Funding & Sponsorstop

The William and Irene Beck Foundation

The William and Irene Beck Foundation is a long time sponsor of the Beck Research Initiative for Women, Gender and Community and provides generous financial support for community based research and special projects, graduate assistantships, the faculty fellowship program, and other underwriting. The Foundation was a generous supporter of the Women’s Working Lives project.

The William and Irene Beck Foundation is a not-for-profit corporation that provides grants, contributions, and in-kind services to other not-for-profit organizations with 501(C)3 status. It is a family foundation committed to helping programs that work against discrimination, particularly related to racism and sexism. Its primary foci are directed toward those with financial needs by providing program support and educational opportunities for low-income youth, children, as well as opportunities for job-related training for adults.

The foundation is intended to act as a catalyst for change, and supports innovative ideas, plans, and projects; it takes a pro-active part in the prevention of further problems. Its board and family members participate in as well as contribute to programs involving education, youth, and the disadvantaged. The foundation seeks to ally itself with activities and organizations which reach out to those who most need help.

Irwin W. Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning and Community Service Studies

The Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning was founded in order to integrate the service concept into the university’s curricula; the Steans Center is also an ongoing partner of the Beck Research Initiative for Women, Gender and Community and co-sponsors many of its programs and projects. At the center of the Steans Center’s mission is a commitment to foster, through higher education, a deep respect for the dignity of all persons and to instill in students a dedication to service to others. Not only has the Steans Center supported the work of the BRI financially, but it has also been instrumental in assisting and supporting the integration of service-learning pedagogy into our work.

The Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning provides educational opportunities grounded in Vincentian community values to DePaul students. The Center seeks to develop mutually beneficial, reciprocal relationships with community organizations in order to develop 
a sense of social agency in students through community internships and placements, and community-based student employment.

DePaul University – Vincentian Endowment Fund

The Vincentian Endowment Fund was established in 1992 by a gift from the Vincentian Fathers and Brothers who sponsor the University. The VEF generously provided funding for the design of the project website, which will be launched in 2014.

The endowment seeks to assist the university in its developing understanding of how it is to be Catholic as it enters its second century. This assistance will be achieved through funding appropriate grant projects that directly enhance the identity of DePaul University as a Catholic, Vincentian and urban university with special attention to the Catholic and Vincentian aspects of this identity.

V. Publications and Researchtop

Project materials—including audio files, transcripts, interview abstracts, narrator biographies, selected quotes from interviews, and photographs—are available through the Voices of Charity oral history website: voc.is.depaul.edu