Justice Junction in the Heartland: A Labor Day Reflection on the Catholic Church’s Commitment to Immigrant Justice, Then and Now

Kimball Baker

Credit: Everett Historical/Shutterstock

Justice Junction in the Heartland: A Labor Day Reflection on the Catholic Church’s Commitment to Immigrant Justice, Then and Now

In 1828, an immigrant to America, young Italian Samuel Mazzuchelli, braved the challenges of the US frontier. He became a Dominican priest and traveled widely throughout the Midwest, ministering first to Native Americans and fur trappers, then to the Irish lead miners of the Upper Mississippi Valley. In 1847, he founded the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin Territory, where he and they soon established Santa Clara Female Academy, an educationally-advanced secondary school. Santa Clara College was established there in 1901. It was the second Catholic college for women in the United States.

In 2017, Atzimba Rodriguez and Raunel Urquiza, children of parents who immigrated to America, study at a school which is directly descended from Santa Clara College. It is Dominican University, in River Forest, Illinois, 10 miles west of Chicago, and it is now a top-ranked coeducational (since 1970) institution with 3,500 students, 50 undergraduate programs, and five graduate schools.

The challenges faced by the University and its students are much different from the challenges faced by Father Mazzuchelli and the Sinsinawa Sisters, but they are just as real and just as daunting, and they are based just as fully on the long-held American value of immigrants and their descendants helping later immigrants. Urquiza and Rodriguez, for example, help folks who struggle daily with social injustice as student interns for Ministry en lo Cotidiano (“ministry in the everyday”), a Dominican University project in Chicago.

One of the project’s major tasks is to help immigrants – documented and undocumented – deal with the adverse effects of a national immigration policy in dire need of reform. Many project beneficiaries are gaining greater justice and safety in their workplaces and elsewhere in their lives. The project also celebrates the extensive and vibrant contributions of participants and their families to this country and to the communities where they live.

“Growing up Catholic,” Urquiza says of his internship experience, “I came to see my faith as an expression of community. Family gatherings were centered around the holidays and special religious traditions. In my understanding of Catholic social teachings, it is imperative to do social justice work as part of my faith in order to be grounded in community.”

Ministry en lo Cotidiano has a dozen student interns annually, and places them in groups throughout the Chicago area. Urquiza and Rodriguez have interned with Arise Chicago, which is active in many aspects of social justice. There are also internships in One Northside, Catholic Charities, Cristo Rey, St. Joseph Services, Taller de José, and the Quinn Community Center at St. Eulalia’s Catholic Church.

Each group has an on-site supervisor for its student interns. At Arise Chicago, the supervisor is Luke Sullivan, who gained experience in social justice ministries through serving in Dominican Volunteers, a group of laypeople who live out their faith by helping others.

“When students come here,” Sullivan observes, “they have a good base of knowledge of social problems, because that’s a strong focus of Dominican University. What they learn here is the community-organizing skills they need in order to apply that knowledge.” Raunel, for instance, prepares paid-sick-day ordinances and presents them to local governments. He has contributed greatly to the success of this much-needed effort. Dominican University makes Ministry en lo Cotidiano an integral part of its academic structure, giving interns a generous stipend and making them eligible for up to two credits per semester.

The University also has an academic minor in Social Justice and Civic Engagement, points out MaDonna Thelen, the director of that minor. She cites as an example of the minor’s effectiveness Project ImpACT, whereby students help labor organizations push for measures like a $15 minimum wage and a living wage for working families. Members of such families often go hungry or otherwise suffer in an economy with inadequate worker protections.

Claire Noonan, Dominican University’s Vice-President for Mission and Ministry, notes that several years ago, workers for the University’s dining-service vendor successfully organized as members of the UNITE HERE union. It was definitely putting principles into practice when this development was warmly welcomed by University President Donna Carroll and by faculty, staff, and students throughout the University community.

One of those who welcomed this development was, naturally enough, faculty member Dr. Liesl Orenic, a labor historian. She brings to Dominican University, and to her students, a labor perspective which is both academic and experiential. She has been both a worker on the ramps at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and the author of On the Ground: Struggle in the American Airline Industry (Illinois University Press, 2010). Currently, she is writing a history of Chicago’s Teamster Union Local 743.

All of these examples illustrate the distinguishing characteristics of the Dominican Order. Among these, says Sister Janet Welsh, a former University faculty member and now Director of the University’s McGreal Center for Dominican Historical Studies, are educating students in the pursuit of justice and equality, serving the needy, and understanding people’s lives where they are actually lived.

University President Carroll puts it this way: “Dominican University thrives today because our academic community knows its true values, and continues to be inspired by our history of activism in the face of injustice. Mission gives us heart and courage.”

Nowhere are these qualities better exemplified than in the field of worker justice. The current examples we noted above are based upon the lives and activities of the worker-justice pioneers among the faculty of Dominican University and its predecessor institutions (Santa Clara College and Rosary College). Prominent among these pioneers are Sister Vincent Ferrer Bradford (1889-1972) and Sister Thomasine Cusack (1905-1978).

Sister Vincent Ferrer Bradford was Ann Bradford when she joined the Dominican Order in 1912, fresh out of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in economics in a department which was a center of progressive thought and action. Leading economists Richard Ely and John Commons taught there as members of “the ethical school of economics”.

As such, they worked with fellow Midwesterner Father (later Monsignor) John Ryan to promote worker-justice legislation at a time (like the present) when economic reform was sorely needed. One can easily imagine student Ann Bradford reading with great interest Father Ryan’s ground-breaking work A Living Wage (1906), with its introduction by Richard Ely. The book’s central concept and applications have since become key elements of economics.

Worker justice and immigrant integration were conjoined issues at that time in American history, and this had been true for the Dominican Order in America as well. As noted, the mission established by Father Mazzuchelli increasingly ministered to the many immigrant groups who settled that part of the American frontier. As the 19th century proceeded and the region increasingly industrialized, most members of these groups faced a constant need to fight for economic justice at their workplaces.

Before the 19th century closed, the Catholic Church had gone on record, with the issuance of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (“New Things”), in support of worker organizing. American Catholics, increasing in number and influence as immigrant populations increased, strongly supported early 20th century worker-justice measures, as evidenced by the Jesuit Order’s Xavier School of Social Sciences in New York City from 1911-1922, and by the Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction of 1919, a document which proposed strong worker-justice measures. It was written by Father Ryan, who by that time was a Catholic University of America (CUA) economics professor.

In 1922, Father Ryan was appointed to head up the American Catholics’ Social Action Department, and one of the first things he did was set up the Catholic Conference on Industrial Problems (CCIP) to help implement the Bishops’ Program proposals. For two decades, in industrial cities around the country, CCIP convened representatives of business, labor, and community groups to discuss problems and come up with solutions, and it featured regular speakers who had both economic expertise and a solid grounding in Catholic social teachings. Sister Vincent Ferrer Bradford was one of those speakers.

The careers of Sister Vincent Ferrer and of Father Ryan had intersected before CCIP started. She taught economics at Santa Clara College for about five years after she entered the Dominican Order, then went to CUA and earned her Master’s degree in 1918; Ryan was one of her teachers. She returned to the faculty at Santa Clara College and began making frequent trips for CCIP soon after its establishment in 1922, the same year in which the school changed its name to Rosary College and moved to its present location in River Forest, Illinois. The move from a small Wisconsin town to the outskirts of Chicago reflected the expanding ministry of both the school and those connected with it.

In classrooms and conferences, Sister Vincent Ferrer was a tireless advocate of Catholic social teaching on worker justice. When she crisscrossed the country for CCIP, she often summed up what the social encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI (whose Quadragesimo Anno, or “Fortieth Year,” was issued in 1931, 40 years after Rerum Novarum) meant by the concept of the living wage. “It embraces,” she declared, “a guaranteed annual wage, comfortable family living, healthful food and proper clothing, a worthy habitation, a good education for the children, and enough over and above to provide for periods of stress and old age….America has proved its power of production, but now she must do something about distributing this production equitably to all.”

The appearance of Quadragesimo Anno, two years after worldwide and US economic collapse had plunged people everywhere into the decade of the Great Depression, presented constructive and hopeful economic answers at a time of widespread want and deep despair. Many of the measures proposed in that decade by the administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Dealers were based upon proposals in the Bishops’ Program of 1919, nearly all of which were adopted. US Catholics, inspired by the social encyclicals, cooperated enthusiastically in recovery efforts; the most significant of these, for worker justice advocates and activists, was the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1937. This legislation featured strong protections for workers to organize and to bargain collectively with their employers for fair treatment and for an influential voice in determining their own workplace destinies.

For several years prior to NLRA, two massive movements of American Catholics energetically and ecumenically supported worker organizing and collective bargaining, and worked for these causes side-by-side with members of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and other industrial unions. These movements were the Catholic social-action movement and Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement. Sister Vincent Ferrer Bradford was active in both movements, and was instrumental in arranging the several visits by Dorothy Day to the Rosary College campus.

Here again, we see the importance of the conjunction between worker justice and immigrant integration. Many of the industrial workers unionizing in the 1930s and many of their supporters – often Catholics, in both cases – were in (or descended from) the masses of immigrants who came from southern and eastern Europe to escape the economic upheavals in those areas during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Unions and other worker-justice efforts gave these new arrivals or their descendants a good pathway into American life, at a time just following the restrictive immigration laws of the 1920s. History may not be repeating itself now, but it is certainly rhyming closely, at least in terms of America’s present moment of destiny.

In 1937, the year of NLRA’s passage, Sister Vincent Ferrer entered upon a new phase of her worker-justice efforts when she embarked upon a decade as one of several regular teachers at the summer institutes held by CUA’s National Catholic School of Social Service. These institutes brought together women unionists and other labor activists from industrial cities across the country. As a worker-justice pioneer, she was highly effective in passing along practical knowledge to the women pioneers of industrial unionism under the NLRA. The summer institute of 1944 was held at Rosary College.

As much as Sister Vincent Ferrer travelled around the country, she still found the time to actively promote worker-justice efforts close to her home base. Chicago played a central role in the Catholic social-action movement, often through the efforts of prominent Catholic layman Edward Marciniak and the Catholic Labor Alliance, whose creation he spearheaded in 1943. Marciniak believed strongly in “vocations,” which to him meant all the roles in which Catholics could live out their faith (in 1970 he established the National Center for the Laity, which is still going strong), and he brought Sister Vincent Ferrer into the Alliance as someone who represented several vocations – an economist, a woman religious, and a woman worker-justice activist. Like many members of the Alliance, she taught evening courses at the Sheil School of Social Studies, an ecumenical adult-education venture established by social justice leader Bishop Bernard Sheil.

In Sister Vincent Ferrer’s activism throughout the 1930s and World War II, she displayed a toughness and persistence which not only expanded the rights and roles of women, both within and outside of Catholicism, but tremendously advanced progressive economics nationally. On the eve of World War II, under the New York Times headline “A Sister Gives Warning,” she cautioned that statesmen “seem to be unaware of the insidious dangers which modern capitalism has constituted for all spiritual values; the enemy is within as well as without.” In February 1943, Ralph McGill – the influential editor of The Atlanta Constitution – wrote in the paper about Ferrer’s speech to a CCIP audience in which she urged the nation not to “fall into the post-war errors of the 1919-1929 period.” The speech, he said, was “as bold and stark a challenge to all who heard her…as has ever been said.”

Throughout the late 1940s, the 1950s, and the 1960s – and into the 1970s (she died in 1972) – Sister Vincent Ferrer devoted herself to her teaching and to various forms of social justice ministry throughout the Chicago area. She imparted to generations of students compelling lessons about Catholic social teachings and how to apply them, something many of these students did in their classrooms and throughout their careers.

If Sister Vincent Ferrer’s entry into the Dominican Order was rather straightforward, the entry of Sister Thomasine Cusack was much more dramatic. She was born Evelyn Cusack. On the eve of her entry into the Order in late December 1927, in the heart of the Roaring Twenties, she was a dashing debutante in Chicago high society. Her father, Thomas Cusack, an Irish immigrant sign-painter who rose to become a multi-millionaire advertising magnate, had died the year before and her mother five years before. Evelyn lived in the family’s palatial estate in Chicago’s exclusive Oak Park neighborhood with a maid, the use of a private car, and a $250,000 share of the Cusack fortune.

Just before Evelyn’s entry into the Order, in the midst of one of her many trips around the world, she was touring the Egyptian pyramids when she was overcome with a feeling of total dissatisfaction with her life, an experience described in the Fall 2013 Dominican (the University magazine) as part of “a shocking collision of wealth, culture, and inequality.” On the spot, she decided to become a nun, and immediately upon her return, she followed through on that decision.

Whatever all went into that experience, it energized her, and in the year after her entry into the Dominican Order, Sister Thomasine completed her college studies and earned a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Rosary College. She went on to get an MA (1935) and a PhD (1940) in the same field, both from CUA. She then embarked upon her career as a highly-regarded economist and as a teacher of economics and moral philosophy at Rosary College for the next several decades.

Like Sister Vincent Ferrer, Sister Thomasine had the professional benefit for an economist of having a career linked with the career of prominent US economist Monsignor (as of 1936) John Ryan. Actually, both sisters had CUA involvements at the same time, the late 1930s – a good time to be in the Ryan orbit. Monsignor Ryan was an advisor for Sister Thomasine’s 1940 dissertation The Significance of a Changing Concept of Ownership in Social and Economic Planning, which got off to an auspicious start when it became Volume 1 in the CUA series Studies in Economics.

The study was a timely and influential exploration of the contending economic systems in the United States at that time. The author compared and contrasted the economic and moral philosophies of three major thinkers – John Locke, representing unrestrained free enterprise; Karl Marx, representing communism; and Thomas Aquinas, representing a way between the other two that recognizes the individual right of ownership, but maintains that this right is limited by community needs. Sister Thomasine strongly and effectively advocated for the Aquinian approach and for democratic socialism, a current of thought which heavily influenced the Catholic social-action movement and which seriously contends for an expanded role in American life at present.

Sister Thomasine, like Sister Vincent Ferrer, was active in Chicago’s Catholic Labor Alliance. Sister Thomasine contributed to its newspaper Work, a must-read then in labor circles. Ed Marciniak, its publisher, greatly valued her contributions, especially an April 1946 article which is one of the finest explorations anywhere of the major postwar issue of what to do with the women (like Rosie the Riveter) who had filled key jobs during World War II but were being displaced by returning men veterans. The article, “What About Women Workers?,” includes a reminder that the living wage of many families would be severely weakened by the loss of female breadwinners’ incomes, and that jobs must be found for these breadwinners. The article concludes with this pioneering thought: “Where men and women are doing the same work, there should be equal pay for equal work.”

Sister Thomasine’s forward-looking economic observations were a constant in all of her post-World War II career. She was an international economist, and gained a worldwide reputation for the astute way in which she combined economics with the upholding of moral values and the condemnation of inequalities. She had articles in many leading journals, including “Lord Keynes and the Morals of Money” in the May 1945 America, and “Economic Progress Under the United Nations” in The Review of Social Economy for March 1964. In 1956, she co-authored The Everett Report, which strengthened economics curricula for teaching sisters throughout the United States.

Over her long career, Sister Thomasine received many awards for her economics excellence. The award she esteemed most highly was the Mother Evelyn Murphy Excellence in Teaching Award, which she received in 1977, one year before she died as a result of injuries sustained in a traffic accident. What made that award special for her was that it came from the Rosary College juniors and seniors who had taken her economics classes, and who valued both her friendship and the lessons they would carry into the future, many into social justice careers.

There’s a line in the old song “Talkin’ Union Blues” which reminds worker-justice activists that they stand on the shoulders of those who preceded them – history’s pathfinders, who certainly include Sisters Vincent Ferrer Bradford and Thomasine Cusack. Dominican University’s administrators, staff members, teachers, and students are very aware and appreciative of this truth. More importantly, they are doing everything they can to blaze trails which future social justice activists can follow.

Dominican University President Donna Carroll, for instance, who took on her position in 1994 when the school was still called Rosary College, has extensively displayed professional competence and commitment to students – qualities which the institution has emphasized throughout its history. Three years after she became president, the school took on its present name and solidified its social justice curricula and ministries. President Carroll is active in many social justice arenas, including the Center for Migration Studies’ innovative initiative to strengthen the work of Catholic institutions in helping to integrate immigrants into American life, as well as efforts to increase partnerships between Mexican and American universities.

“Dominican University’s history is rooted in immigrant communities,” notes President Carroll. “Since 2007, the University has committed more than $3 million in support of undocumented students in the form of merit scholarships, restricted need-based scholarships, Sinsinawa Dominican emergency funds, and some parish assistance. The investment has not been without controversy. But our Dominican sisters are proud, not surprisingly, and parishes have been encouraging. And while there was some skepticism among some alumni, most now understand and applaud the University’s stand in the context of our Catholic Dominican mission and the tenets of Catholic social teaching.”

In 2001, Dominican University established the Bradford-O’Neill Medallion, which is awarded for distinction in social justice; the award is named for Sister Vincent Ferrer Bradford and Sister Thomas Aquinas O’Neill, another social justice pioneer. In 2015 the recipient of the award was Interfaith Worker Justice, a Chicago-based organization which brings together activists of all faith traditions to help workers organize and thrive; it operates in scores of communities across the nation. Ecumenism has long been an essential ingredient in the activities of Dominican University and its predecessor institutions.

One comes away from exploring the Dominican University experience with the definite conviction that we could all use a lot more of that hallmark Dominican trait of “understanding peoples’ lives where they are actually lived.” Perhaps Arise Chicago’s Luke Sullivan says it best when he observes that “there’s too much fear swirling through our nation and its communities these days, and this fear tends to have a paralyzing effect. It’s a time for us to dig deep into our spiritual resources, and above all to see ourselves in terms of how we can help our communities and their people.”


Kimball Baker is the author of “Go to the Workers”: America’s Labor Apostles (Marquette University Press, 2010).

Author Names

Kimball Baker

Date of Publication September 2, 2017