The 1908 Conference of Catholic Charities
From Sept. 27-28, 1908, a "Conference of Catholic Charities" was hosted by the Archdiocese of Boston in a year which not only marked its centennial, but also 75 years since the Society of St. Vincent de Paul was founded.
The Pilot announced the coming conference as early as the spring of 1908, and stated the purpose of the conference was to "give the general public an opportunity of learning the extent and efficiency of the charitable work which has been quietly going on within the limits of the Archdiocese of many years." It clarified the purpose was not to praise the work, but to gain the interest of those who might contribute to these works through their participation. While conferences focusing on charitable and philanthropic works were not uncommon, this was believed to be the first of its kind as it was devoted solely to Catholic Charities.
On Sunday, Sept. 27, the opening day of the conference started with a Solemn High Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross at 10:15 a.m. Then Father Joseph G. Anderson, director of the Catholic Charitable Bureau, was selected to give the sermon which he began by observing how it was appropriate that during the centennial celebrations of the archdiocese, "the various charities which have done so much good and have been carried on so successfully . . . Should be given a prominent place in this celebration."
He then remarked that "it is good for us to pause and see whether in our charitable efforts we are not being influenced by the spirit of the world about us and are working more from a material point of view rather than a spiritual." There is a danger, he continues, "that we may consider social questions and methods of relief from the materialistic humanitarian spirit of the age, while the true spirit of Christian charity, which has been the secret of our success, is at times apt to be lost sight of."
This theme is then carried throughout a lengthy sermon where he details the history of charity from pre-Christianity, through the arrival of Jesus Christ, and into the present when he again warns that "the separation and divorce of the Church and religion from charity, though not intended by any direct or concerted movement . . . Is gradually being effected." The science of sociology, he claims, is rooted in Darwinism and materialism, and he fears that modern secular charitable efforts address the material side of charity at the expense of the spiritual; without the latter, there can be no moral regeneration.
The conference continued Sunday evening at 8 p.m. in Jordan Hall, at the corner of Huntington and Gainsborough Streets, beginning with an opening address by Cardinal William H. O'Connell, who reprised the theme of Father Anderson's sermon, "the essential difference between Christian charity and mere philanthropy."
He commences by clarifying the purpose of the conference, which was to make Catholics and non-Catholics alike more aware of the works of Catholic charities. While the Church has quietly gone about its charitable works, he states, "there are . . . Times and occasions when another injunction of Christ must be heeded, when the candle must not be hid (sic.) under a bushel, but placed upon the candlestick."
He continues that in some parts of the world philanthropy is being elevated to the status of religion, and the belief that it is the affair of scientific experts, so the Church must be set aside. While he supports charitable acts no matter who attempts them, he maintains that "the Christian view of life, its duties and obligations, is the only true conserver of fraternal love, which must be at the basis of every movement for the betterment of humanity."
He also warns that altruism can lead to egotism: "The spirit of the world is generous to those who have something to give back in return. The spirit of the church gives because there is nothing to get but the smile of God's approval."
The rest of the evening was "wholly devoted to the work of the St. Vincent de Paul Society," with three speakers following Cardinal O'Connell lecturing on the society's growth and works.
The following morning, proceedings resumed at Jordan Hall at 9:30 a.m. with the first of six speakers addressing "The Care of Infants in Hospitals," and five more speaking upon various other aspects of childcare, including caring for children in institutions, industrial training for boys and girls, and the placing-out system.
An afternoon session commenced at 2 p.m. and consisted of seven speakers on subjects such as care for the aged, sick, immigrants, and neglected children. And, finally, the conference concluded with an evening session containing four speakers, commencing at 7:30 p.m. on the topics of "Day Nurseries," "Boys' Clubs," "Girls' Clubs," and "Settlement Work."
Although not mentioned at the time, from a historical perspective, the focus on Catholic Charities is significant because the Central Bureau of Information, the precursor of the Catholic Charitable Bureau and now Catholic Charities Boston, was only established five years earlier, on Jan. 1, 1903. At the time, it was intended to monitor the well-being of orphans placed into homes by the state, yet within the year was already renamed the Catholic Charitable Bureau and seemingly expanded its role as a central authority on Catholic Charitable works within the archdiocese.
- Thomas Lester is the archivist of the Archdiocese of Boston.