Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Working Girls Home

St Patrick Calendar Magazine, 1899
Who knows how many tens of thousands left the homes of their mothers and fathers and made their way to the mill cities of New England?   During Lowell’s Golden Age, company housing was provided for the single women.  Their boarding house had strict regulations and was overseen by a matron who was there to ensure that the corporation’s reputation remained intact.  Lowell was not about to become another Manchester, England.

As the decades passed and more mill towns began sprouting up, the utopian ideal of the perfect mill town began to fade away.  That did not stop the number of females who made their way from foreign lands and small farms seeking mill jobs in the big cities.  But what would happen to them without the boarding house and matrons?  The newspapers were filled with horror stories of young girls coming to the city and being lost in the potential dangers with which they were confronted.

The solution was the Working Girls Home.  In the latter half of the 19th century, religious institutions, social organizations, and some individual philanthropists began finding homes where girls new to the city could find housing and where a clean bed, good meals, and a safe environment would help with the transition.  Lowell was no exception.  As the corporation boarding houses closed one after another, the need for such a home became evident.

In 1896 the priests of the St. Patrick parish took it upon themselves to purchase the property next to the church on Cross Street.  It was the old Moran’s Yard and everyone in the neighborhood knew what went on there at all hours of the night.   The architect was none other than the famed, Patrick Keely, the same architect as the church.  The four story brick structure would have granite window sills and doorways.  The 50 rooms would allow light to fill the building and make it an inviting home to those in need.  

The financial undertaking was massive.  The ladies of the parish sponsored a bazaar to help defray the cost.  The event went on nightly for two weeks and was held at the American House.  The grand prize was a diamond stick pin.  Other awards included a barrel of flour, a lemonade set, a print of St. Cecelia, “and a handsome writing desk.”  There was no grand opening to note, but the house filled up quickly.  Fifteen young ladies were the first guests.  It was decided it would be open to women of all faiths and would include those too old to care for themselves.  Even three years later, the Parish was still paying off the debt.  That is when Fr. Michael O’Brien gave a personal purse of $40,000 towards the mortgage.  This was money given to him in honor of his ordination anniversary.  It’s interesting to note that for many years the Fathers O’Brien would routinely make trips back to Ireland and bring back friends and family to find jobs in Lowell, some of whom would make the Working Girls Home their first home.

The Franciscan Sisters of Allegany were put in charge of the home.  They oversaw the physical and spiritual needs of the girls and took gentle care of the aged and infirm.  The girls paid a small stipend of what their take home pay would be.  Those who could not afford it paid nothing.  As the years passed, fewer and fewer young women saw the need for such a facility.  Eventually the home became “the old ladies home.”  By 1967 the building was showing its age.  Newer facilities were opening.  The government was providing better resources and there were fewer vocations to those who would give their lives serving the aged.  The building closed and remained empty until it was torn down around 1970.
A Franciscan Sister of Allegany
A personal note.  The Working Girls Home was where we’d run between the alley ways after school.  As we walked by we’d sneak a look into the wooden paneled and ceramic tiled foyer.  The Parish helped support the home for many years, but the Sisters who ran the home would annually go door to door seeking donations to support their mission of serving the poor and infirm.  I know this because each year for many years they would knock on our door on Broadway Street before beginning their rounds.  How it started I don’t know, but our home was their first stop.  It seemed they always chose the hottest day of the year to do their begging.  There would be a knock on the door, and they’d walk into our kitchen.  They would be carrying heavy, leather briefcases filled with their little religious magazine.  Our house was their rendezvous point.  There were always two of them, the Superior and a younger nun.  Throughout the day they would come back to the house to replenish their magazine supply.  The annual subscription was $3.  They would return to our tenement about 3 pm and wait for my father to return home so he could drive them back to the Home on Cross Street.  They would sit in the kitchen in the full Franciscan habit in the summer heat.  A white hanky would appear from a hidden pocket and wipe her face.  My mother would offer ice tea, but the Sisters only would drink water.  The older nun had a very heavy Irish accent.  I always wanted to ask where she was from, or why she was here, but my parents knew enough not to ask a nun about her life before receiving the habit.  The older Sister had a young face, but her hands were reddened and knuckles swollen.  She would sit there in the kitchen under the multiple layers of her habit with those heavy black shoes that had walked how many miles that day.  The younger Sister never said much, just sat their quietly waiting to go home.  The Sister would then collect the $3 from my mother, and in typical nun style, would ask if she wanted to make an extra donation. 
Right at four my father would come home for the half hour he had to eat supper before leaving for job number 2.  He’d see the nuns and immediately put out his cigarette.  The Superior would declare that they were ready to be driven home.  My father would cast a sideways glance to my mother, and my mother would return with a silent nod.  There was no escape.  The Superior would then announce, “The boy will come with us.”  Later I would learn the Sisters could not be alone in a car with a man.  The nuns would gather their goods, the older Sister holding tightly to her little purse filled with one dollar bills. The Sisters would say their goodbyes to my mother and assure her of their prayers.   In the car, the radio would be turned off for the drive.  Once again they’d tell my father that a place in heaven was made for him.  Then they would enter the aging brick building probably to work the night shift.  I often wondered why they did what they did.  Each month the little magazine appeared at our door; then they stopped.  There was no more Working Girls Home, and the Sisters went on to their next mission. 


  1. Thanks, Dave

    Back in 1958-1960, I attended St. Patrick's School and of course was an altar boy. Many a time I was scheduled to serve Mass in the "Old Ladies Home" -- Mass of course being at either 5:00 or 6:00 A.M. -- probably, the latter, but after more than 50 years I cannot really be sure. Along with the other altar boy, the good sisters would have prepared for us a wonderful breakfast after Mass was over. After breakfast I would cross the Canal to stay at my great-aunt's apartment on Lewis Street until it was time for school. Only many, many years later did I learn of a 'family' connection with the Home. Ellen (Flanagan)(Hogan)Crowe, a sister of my great-great grandmother, was a resident of the Home, where she died in 1923 at the age of 91. Walter Hickey

  2. Dave

    This is a 'twilight zone' -- 'you're not gonna believe this' addition to the previous...As with so many other instances in this adventure, this too has a most surprising twist...I n going back through notes I had not looked at in all too many years, I found Ellen, her sisters, nephews, and nieces in the 1870 at 3 Cummiskey's Alley !!!! This is going beyond weird!