Systematic Change from the Start: Marillac Center, Chicago

On official White House stationery, an assistant to President Lyndon Johnson sent a message of congratulations for “the valuable contributions which the Sisters of Marillac House have made toward the progress of our nation’s education and toward the general betterment of living standards in their community.”  Sent to Sister William – actually Sister Mary William Sullivan – the letter reflects the priorities of Civil Rights and fighting the War on Poverty undertaken by the Sisters at Marillac House, Chicago throughout the 1960s.

Marillac Social Service Center relocated to its building in the East Garfield neighborhood in 1947.  Over the next 15 years, as suburbanization changed the composition of American cities, the neighborhood rapidly changed from largely white ethnic groups of Catholic background to poor African-Americans who had difficulty purchasing their own homes due to rising housing costs.

In an area with high unemployment and death rate, Marillac Center provided a day nursery, held events for teenagers to keep them safe and off the streets, “Chess and Chatter” events once a week, religious counselling, events for senior citizens, and Bible study on Sundays.

In the tradition of the settlement houses as originated in Chicago, Marillac Daughters did not shy away from living within the neighborhood.  Marillac sent representatives to the Catholic Inter-Racial Council and Chicago Youth Commission, and they began to hold leadership programs to assist African-American youth with both personal growth and promoting systematic change.

In 1964, Sister Mary William served as the emcee for the leadership dinner of the Catholic Inter-Racial Council, where she had the honor of introducing the recipient of its highest honor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Among the most prized artifacts in the archive is the handwritten note from Dr. King to Sister Mary William that reads, “In appreciation for your devotion to Christ and your love for all mankind.”

Four years later, in the anger and frustration of the aftermath of Dr. King’s murder, Marillac opened its doors and provided food and clothing to those who had lost their homes.

In 1965, Marillac Center received some negative publicity, but for all of the right reasons, when six Daughters of Charity were arrested during a march to end the de facto segregation in the Chicago school system.  The Daughters walked into the street singing Freedom songs, and were taken into custody as they knelt in prayer at the corner of Madison and State.  By all accounts, they were treated courteously by the police, although they later attested at their unhappiness of being kept in the police station office rather than in the cells with the other prisoners.  Among other religious arrested were three priests and 14 Protestant ministers.

Sister Mary William paid the Sisters’ bail, and they appeared in court.  The judge sentenced them each to a fine, which they refused to pay.  According to the account in the July 10, 1965 Chicago American, “…the nuns had taken vows of poverty and felt they could not use money contributed to their religious order to pay personal fines.”  Facing jail time for refusal to pay, two lawyers, Maurice Scott Jr. and Howard Geter Jr., whom the sisters had never met, heard what was happening and paid the fines.  Marillac Center suffered as a result of donors withholding their funding after the incident.

In 1968 while serving at Marillac Center, Sister Julia Huiskamp directed the advocacy program, primarily concerned with freeing up aid programs to the poor run by state and federal agencies.  Part of this job was educating lawmakers and bureaucrats about the truth of poverty and correcting myths about the poor.  Her ultimate belief and goal was to put a human element back into agency and ensuring that the poor have advisors and advocates in the halls of power, those that really understand the nature of poverty.

High-intensity advocacy continued at Marillac into the 1970s, when Marillac led the way in combatting high infant mortality and began to stock infant formula for families who could not afford it, provided a protective home for children who were in abusive situations, and educated for family members to better themselves. Today, the mission of Marillac continues on its old campus in East Jackson as part of the larger Marillac-St. Vincent Family Services, a combined mission with two campuses in the city, featuring a food bank, social workers, opportunities for students to pursue their interests in a secure environment, and a scientifically and spiritually minded daycare centers for children of various ages, abilities, and interests.

New building of Marillac campus, 2004

1 Comment

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One response to “Systematic Change from the Start: Marillac Center, Chicago

  1. Betty Ann McNeil, D.C.

    The Daughters of Charity, associates, and volunteers of Marillac St. Vincent Family enable challenged children, families, senior and homeless persons secure dignity and respect as they strive to reach their greatest potential. The agency empowers families at two sites in Chicago: East Garfield Park and Lincoln Park.

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