Catholic Charities USA by: Jack Hansan

Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) is a national association of local and diocesan Catholic charitable agencies founded as the National Conference of Catholic Charities (NCCC) on the campus of The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C. in 1910. The organization, which became CCUSA in 1986, has grown into one of the largest social welfare associations in the nation, and currently has 1,735 branches throughout the United States. More than 240,000 volunteers, staff, and board members comprise the Catholic Charities network, serving over 7.8 million people of all faiths yearly. The national office of Catholic Charities, USA, currently located in Alexandria, Virginia, consists of 40-50 staff members.

Early History. The Birth of the National Conference of Catholic Charities

First National Conference 1910

First National Conference 1910

In September 1910, nearly 400 people involved in Catholic charitable work—clergy, lay and re­ligious men and women, social workers, and academics—gathered at The Catholic University of Americain Washington, DC, for the historic founding of the National Conference of Catholic Charities (NCCC). Inspired by a vision of charity and justice, they embraced this opportunity to join in solidarity with each other and work together in meeting the needs of the poor in their midst.

The United States that gave birth to the National Conference of Catholic Charities in 1910 was in transition—from an agrarian rural nation to an industrialized urban one, from a regional economy to a national economy, from a continental power to a world power. This tumultuous time in our nation’s history was marked by great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few and abject misery and poverty among the masses. It was also an era marked by large scale reform efforts, ranging from the call for “good government” to the betterment of the working class.

Millions of immigrants had entered the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, swelling the ranks of the foreign born and contributing significantly to the trends toward urbanization and industrialization. Newcomers, already poor and eager for work, concentrated in cities and industrial areas, providing emerging industries with cheap and plentiful labor. The over­all result was widespread poverty, overcrowded and unhealthy living conditions, and abusive work­place practices.

Ellis Island Kitchen

Ellis Island Kitchen

Immigration not only reshaped the face of America, but the face of the Catholic Church in America. The most recent immigrants came from Southern and Eastern Europe and were mostly Catholic. The church faced a host of new issues with these newcomers, who were largely working class peas­ants from agrarian areas who couldn’t read or write and spoke little or no English. They were sin­gularly unprepared for American urban life and culture and joined the millions of Catholics al­ready destitute. In 1910, one half of the approximately 15 million Catholics in the United States lived in poverty.

Poverty was one of many concerns for Americans. Across the land, outrage had been growing about the political, social, and economic inequities in American society, inequities which middle class reformers saw as threats to the traditional values of economic opportunity and democra­cy. Enthusiasm for reform spilled into politics and other areas of American life, becoming the hallmark of the movement known as Progressivism. Progressivism was not a united, monolithic movement; progressives did not all have the same agenda. They did agree, however, that the in­telligent application of practical knowledge could solve human problems, that they could reform the system for the good of all and correct social injustices. One facet of this movement was the call for social justice for the masses of poor Americans.

The social justice impulse of the Progressive Movement had a significant impact on the develop­ment of the National Conference of Catholic Charities. Challenged by the overwhelming needs and issues of poor Catholics, those involved in Catholic charitable work saw a need for better training and methods. Further, they recognized that Catholic charitable organizations, working locally and largely in isolation, could serve and advocate better if they were unified through a na­tional organization. Such an organization would be able to harness more talent, energy, ideas, and funding to further their cause, while providing solidarity and support to those serving the poor. This recognition led to the founding of the National Conference of Catholic Charities, now Catholic Charities USA, in 1910. The participants in this historic event embraced not only a re­solve to support each other in the work of charity, but to be “the attorney for the poor,” advocat­ing on their behalf for a just and compassionate society.

Coming to America

New immigrants from Europe entered primarily through East Coast seaports, most notably New York City. Prior to 1892, New York State immigration officials met immigrants at the state’s Emigrant Landing Depot in lower Manhattan. In January 1892, Ellis Island, a federal facility in New York Harbor, opened and became the nation’s premiere immigrant processing center, with nearly 12 million immigrants passing through it by the time it closed in 1954. All stages of immigrant processing were handled at Ellis Island, a complex of buildings that included hospitals, dormitories, sick wards, and kitchens. An Ellis Island kitchen was staffed both by employees and detained immigrants. Immigration officials and medical crews also boarded incoming ships to conduct medical exams of immigrants.


The American economy was becoming increasingly industrial, driven by technological innovations in energy production, agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing. Industrialization brought

Breaker boys working in the Woodward Coal Mines in Kingston, Pennsylvania, ca. 1900.

Breaker boys working in the Woodward Coal Mines in Kingston, Pennsylvania, ca. 1900.

about enormous changes in society and contributed to urbanization and the development of a consumer culture in the United States. Large industries manufactured hundreds of thousands of products; the emerging advertising industry convinced people they needed these products; and more people had money and time to engage in the consumer culture.  One of the largest and most important industries in the early twentieth century United States was coal mining. This valuable ore provided fuel to heat homes, generate electricity, and power blast furnaces.

Abuses of Industry

By the beginning of the twentieth century, American industry was characterized by the development of giant faceless corporations or trusts. The prototypical example of big business was the United States Steel Corporation. Incorporated in 1901 as the world’s first billion dollar corporation, “US Steel” came to epitomize the monopolization of industry through mergers and acquisitions, practices which had become common in American business. Muckraking journalists like Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair vilified the trusts, condemning not only their monopolizing business practices, but their treatment of their workforce, particularly unskilled laborers. The steel industry—with its man-killing twelve-hour work days and its notorious “long turns,” where a laborer worked two shifts back to back, twenty-four hours straight—was widely disparaged.

An Image of U. Steel

An Image of U. Steel


With the massive wave of immigration in the early 1900s, the trend of urbanization in the United States continued. Urbanization, however, was uneven. More than two thirds of the urban population in 1910 was concentrated in three areas: New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and East North Central, which included the states of Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. These largely industrial areas attracted new immigrants, who were eager to find work. However, as more people crowded into cities, the problems of a densely packed population became apparent. High crime rates, disease, and unhealthy living conditions plagued American ghettos and slums. Rapidly growing cities lacked sufficient infrastructure and decent housing to keep up with the needs of their residents.

Progressivism and Social Justice

While many progressives were interested in political and governmental reform, many others—such as doctors, social workers, teachers, and clergy in urban congregations—were interested in helping society’s less fortunate. These men and women, products of newly developed professional schools and programs, gained through their work a detailed knowledge of the dislocations caused by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. In addition to having specialized training and skills, they were strongly motivated by a deeper commitment to society at large and launched what is often referred to as the “social justice” movement. One of America’s best known social justice advocates was Jane Addams, who established the famous settlement house, Hull House. Hull House offered people in Chicago’s urban ghetto essential welfare services such as food, shelter, child care, adult education, and Americanization classes. The settlement house movement spread throughout the United States, especially in places with large working class and immigrant populations. Msgr. John O’Grady, the second executive secretary of the NCCC, became acquainted with Jane Addams while studying in Chicago and later wrote of her, “I came to regard Jane Adams [sic] as one of the great leaders of American life.”

Only three diocesan charity agencies were organized prior to the founding of the National Conference of Catholic Charities in 1910. One of them, now known as Catholic Charities CYO, was founded by the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 1907. The devastating 1906 earthquake and ensuing fire that destroyed the city prompted the agency’s formation the following year to assist destitute families and care for children who were orphaned by the disaster.

Only three diocesan charity agencies were organized prior to the founding of the National Conference of Catholic Charities in 1910. One of them, now known as Catholic Charities CYO, was founded by the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 1907. The devastating 1906 earthquake and ensuing fire that destroyed the city prompted the agency’s formation the following year to assist destitute families and care for children who were orphaned by the disaster.

Catholic Charity

The Catholic Church in America had long provided for men, women, and children in need, particularly through the efforts of women religious. In 1727, Ursuline Sisters from France settled in New Orleans and established there the first Catholic charitable organization in the territory that would later become the United States. Other religious orders as well as lay men and women followed in their footsteps, establishing a variety of charitable institutions—infant asylums, orphanages, maternity homes, reformatories, schools, hospitals, homes for immigrant girls and the aged—as well as societies, leagues, auxiliaries, and councils to meet the enormous needs of the Catholic poor. The German Catholic Orphan’s Asylum was established in 1869 by the Church of the Assumption Parish in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and was later run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. The orphanage was later renamed St. Joseph’s Home for Children and is now a child-serving agency of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul-Minneapolis.

Society of St. Vincent de Paul

Throughout the nineteenth century, the organization of Catholic charity in the United States remained a largely local phenomenon. One exception was the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP or Vincentians), which was organized in the United States in 1845 in St. Louis, Missouri, but soon spread to other cities and dioceses. The Vincentians initiated many programs that would become core services for NCCC diocesan agencies, such as home-finding bureaus for foster children, residential centers for youth, emergency food and clothing, youth clubs, and salvage bureaus. The SVDP Society played a significant role in the formation of the NCCC and in its early local leadership. By 1910, it was, with 12,000 members, “the only organization in the Church devoted to the service of the poor which held national and even international meetings,” as noted by historian Donald Gavin. Through these meetings, Catholics who ministered to those in need, lay parish volunteers as well as professional social workers, became more aware of their isolation and the need to meet and compare their experiences and problems.

The Early Years of the National Conference

Once the National Conference of Catholic Charities was organized, its early leaders took on the challenging task of forging a meaningful and lasting national federation, while building skill and capacity at the local level. Msgr. William J. Kerby, who served as the first executive secretary from 1910 to 1920, used his considerable diplomatic and organizational skills to bring the diverse inter­ests and parties engaged in Catholic charitable work together. He also worked to instill Catholic theology and social teaching into social work, seeking to balance professional training and meth­ods with theological grounding.

One of Kerby’s most significant contributions was his mentoring of his successor, Msgr. John O’Grady, who served as the NCCC’s second executive secretary for more than four decades. A native of Ireland, O’Grady became involved in Catholic Charities while studying at Catholic University as a young priest. Under Kerby’s guidance and tutelage, he came to a greater under­standing of and appreciation for the work of Catholic Charities and worked alongside Kerby for several years. When Kerby stepped down as the NCCC’s executive secretary in 1920, O’Grady was his natural successor.

O’Grady’s appointment marked the beginning of significant changes for Catholic Charities. He was determined to see professionals replace the volunteers that had previously worked at all levels of Catholic charitable institutions and he sought to increase the involvement of religious commu­nities in the NCCC.  O’Grady also worked to organize the work of charity within dioceses. The founding of the NCCC had inspired a number of dioceses to create their own Catholic Charities organizations with ties to the NCCC, but this movement started slowly, with only five “bureaus” organized prior to 1917. O’Grady was adamant that the clergy and bishops needed to actively support charitable efforts in each diocese in order for them to be successful. This led to an increase in the appointment of di­ocesan directors of charity and an explosion of Catholic Charities bureaus after the end of World War I. By 1931, fifty-eight diocesan organizations were in operation.

O’Grady traveled throughout the United States to urge the formation of diocesan bureaus, nur­ture relationships with diocesan directors, the majority of whom were priests, and to learn both about the needs of the people being served and the needs of diocesan Catholic Charities agencies. The agencies were changing rapidly with the emergence of strong diocesan leadership, program development based on survey and research data, and a new emphasis on planning that resulted from more stable funding through community chest campaigns. Diocesan agencies also began to move from dealing almost exclusively with the care of children to addressing the wider issues of family welfare.

The greatest challenge that Catholic Charities faced during O’Grady’s tenure was the Great Depression. The misery and poverty brought on by economic disaster and unemployment became too large for private charity to handle, and it became clear that only the federal government had the resources to cope with the incredible need. When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president of the United States and proposed extensive legislation to cope with the Depression, O’Grady saw it as an opportunity to inject dialogue about social justice into the legislative agenda. Doggedly advocating for workers and for the poor, he was instrumental in the passage of historic economic security, labor, and public housing legislation.

At the end of World War II, O’Grady engaged in the work of assisting people displaced by the war. To that end, he campaigned for a program to admit displaced persons to the United States and traveled around the country to gain support from politicians as well as other religious leaders. O’Grady also travelled to South America, trying to gain support from nations there to admit displaced persons.

At the end of World War II, O’Grady engaged in the work of assisting people displaced by the war. To that end, he campaigned for a program to admit displaced persons to the United States and traveled around the country to gain support from politicians as well as other religious leaders. O’Grady also travelled to South America, trying to gain support from nations there to admit displaced persons.

Msgr. O’Grady made an indelible mark on the Catholic Charities movement. Under his four decades of leadership, the NCCC became a force in American social work and social justice. O’Grady’s insistence on professionalizing the Catholic Charities movement contributed to im­proved services to the needy, and his tenacity in seeking redress of social ills led to important leg­islation that bettered people’s lives.

Following the founding gathering, the NCCC held conferences every other year until 1920, when the meetings became annual. These gatherings were vital to overcoming the isolation in which Catholic charitable organizations largely worked. Msgr. O’Grady observed that those who planned and participated in the first conference “…assumed that one of the fundamental weaknesses of Catholic charitable agencies was their isolation,” and that they needed to exchange ideas and experiences with each other. This approach reflected the concerns of those who had real world experience in the field. The founding members of the NCCC also recognized “…the wider implications of Catholic Charities. They saw that Catholic Charities could not isolate themselves.”

Catholic Charities Review

The leaders of the NCCC recognized that professional publications needed to be developed, especially for those who could not attend the gatherings, to provide another forum for the exchange of ideas and theories. At the time of the NCCC’s founding, the only such publication was the Vincentians’ Quarterly. By 1916, due to the work of the NCCC, the Quarterly ceased publication and was succeeded by the Catholic Charities Review in 1917. This publication became a clearinghouse of material and information related to the work of Catholic Charities. The NCCC encouraged the presenters of papers at the annual meetings and authors of articles published in the Catholic Charities Review to base their work on factual studies. Scientific surveys were to form the core of the research. Msgr. O’Grady was one of the most forceful advocates of conducting systematic surveys, seeing them as a means to gaining factual information that would make the work of Catholic Charities more efficient and useful to its clients. O’Grady did note, however, the importance of humanizing professional social work. “Rigid analysis carried to an extreme may be just as bad as emotionalism run riot,” he stated.

The Professionalization of Social Work

Coupled with the upsurge in reform activity of the Progressive Era was the growing recognition that people who engaged in social work ought to be professionally trained. This reflected a general trend in the United States that had started in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Since the Civil War, there had been a proliferation of education programs geared toward professions such as the law, medicine, nursing, teaching, business, architecture, and social work. The new emphasis placed on training for social workers, advocated for by both the larger society and leaders at Catholic University, prompted the NCCC to set the professionalization of  social work as a major focus. It also led to the development of Catholic social work schools.  Catholic University’s School of Social Work was established for men in 1934 with O’Grady as its first dean.

The Development of Diocesan Bureaus

Under Msgr. O’Grady’s leadership, the number of diocesan Catholic Charities agencies, or bureaus as they were called, dramatically increased. By 1937, there were 68 bureaus. The Catholic Social Betterment League was initially formed in 1912 when representatives from eight Diocese of Spokane parishes met to explore working together to assist people with food, clothing, shelter, and medications.  Catholic Charities in Washington, DC, published its first annual report for the year 1922. It reported that in the preceding year, “…1,144 individuals or families were assisted by the office of the Director of Catholic Charities of Washington, which number includes 269 transients.” This does not include the people served by other Catholic agencies such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society. The report noted that most people needed service as opposed to “material relief.”

The Conference of Religious

O’Grady saw that charitable organizations run by religious communities had not become very involved in Catholic Charities. Thus in 1920, the Conference of Religious was formed within the NCCC to provide religious with opportunities for peer support, to promote specialized training and leadership development, and to foster improved institutional care and services. More than 25 years later, in 1947, the NCCC established the Standing Committee of Religious to bring more religious into the leadership of the NCCC.

The Great Depression

Poster Appealing for Funds

Poster Appealing for Funds

The enormity of human suffering brought on by the Great Depression taxed Catholic Charities agencies and other private charities to the limit. Diocesan agencies, desperate to raise funds to assist suffering families and children, made regular appeals for donations, as illustrated by the poster above. Yet, private charity simply did not have the capacity to meet the needs of tens of millions of Americans in crisis. Justified by the principle of subsidiarity, as discussed in Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, Catholic Charities leaders on the local, state, and national levels fought for public funds, calling on government to fulfill its duty to provide relief. City and state funding came through first, followed finally by federal funds.

O’Grady and Social Justice

O’Grady’s greatest contributions to New Deal legislation were his advocacy efforts related to old age pensions, labor law, and public housing. He was a strong supporter of the Social Security Act in 1935, and in this photo, he is meeting with Anna Roseberg of the New York regional office of the Social Security Administration. O’Grady was also a long-time advocate for workers’ rights. He worked closely with Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York, one of his closest allies in Congress, to pass pro-labor legislation, including the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act, in 1935, which gave labor the right to collective bargaining, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which mandated a minimum wage, maximum hours, and an end to child labor.

Housing Reform

Decent housing was long a concern of Catholic Charities. Msgr. O’Grady, who, according to one author, was the “unsung hero” of the American public housing movement, believed that providing a decent house was essential to helping people out of poverty. He helped to establish the first National Public Housing Conference in 1931, which helped to pass the National Housing Act of 1934. This act created the Federal Housing Administration and made housing and home mortgages more affordable. For more than a decade after, O’Grady worked tirelessly with Senator Wagner to ensure that legislation to provide for low-income housing was eventually enacted. In the 1930s and 1940s, several pieces of housing legislation passed, culminating in the Housing Act of 1949, a landmark law that provided for massive slum clearance projects and money to construct more than 800,000 public housing units by 1955. While the measure fell short, this piece of legislation had an enormous impact on the landscape of American urban areas in the second half of the twentieth century.

Refugees of World War II

At the end of World War II, O’Grady engaged in the work of assisting people displaced by the war. To that end, he campaigned for a program to admit displaced persons to the United States and traveled around the country to gain support from politicians as well as other religious leaders. O’Grady also traveled to South America, trying to gain support from nations there to admit displaced persons.

For more information:

Catholic Charities USA  https://www.catholiccharitiesusa.org/

American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives  http://archives.lib.cua.edu/

Source: This entry was prepared from two chapters in a 2010 Centennial Publication: Catholic Charities USA. A  Century of Service, Advocacy, and Convening. Published by Catholic Charities USA with the assistance of Historical Consultant Donna M. DeBlasio and Editor Ruth Liljenquist.