In the first half of the 20th century, three Oregon Catholic leaders rose up as major figures to protect workers from unfair practices.

Sister Miriam Therese Gleason, Father Edwin O’Hara and Msgr. Thomas Tobin lived in an era when the state’s blue-collar labor force was filled by Catholic immigrants and their descendants — Irish, Italians, Germans, Poles and later Latin Americans.

Caroline Gleason was born in 1886 to politically active Irish and French-Canadian parents in Minneapolis. After finishing college in 1908, she came west and joined the faculty at St. Mary's Academy in Portland.

After study led her to become interested in women’s working conditions in mills and factories, she was hired by the Catholic Women's League, teaching evening classes and leading the League's employment bureau.

In 1912, the Oregon Consumers League asked Gleason to organize a survey of women's working conditions in Oregon. The abuses she uncovered led to Oregon's first minimum wage and maximum hour statute in 1913 and the U.S. Supreme Court's 1917 decision upholding the law. To implement the new regulations, Gov. Oswald West created the Industrial Welfare Commission, with Gleason as executive secretary.

With deep faith as well as a deep sense of justice, Gleason became Sister Miriam Theresa when she joined the Sisters of the Holy Names at Marylhurst in 1916. She chose a teaching community because she believed that Christian education was the path to a better life and social conditions.

In 1924, she became the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from the School of Social Work at the Catholic University of America. When the Holy Names Sisters opened Marylhurst College, she became the dean of the sociology department.

In the mid-1930s, Sister Miriam Theresa was asked to mediate disputes over Oregon's wage and hour law. In 1951, the Oregonian named her one of the 25 most outstanding women in Oregon history. She died at Marylhurst in 1962.

Edwin O'Hara was also from Minnesota, one of eight children born to parents who had fled Ireland’s potato famine. He moved to Oregon and was ordained a priest in 1905. He served as a parish priest but also became a leading force in enacting Oregon’s minimum wage law in 1913. He later stepped forward as the defendant in Stettler v. O'Hara when the Oregon law was tested and upheld in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1917.

He was chosen as chairman of Oregon's Industrial Welfare Commission in 1913, the same body Caroline Gleason served as secretary. In 1923, he became founder and director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, inspired by his ministry to those who lived in sparsely populated areas.  

In 1930, Father O’Hara was appointed Bishop of Great Falls, Mont. In 1931, he was the only American bishop present when Pope Pius XI delivered his major social teaching encyclical Quadragesimo Anno and spoke as U.S. delegate about the effects of Pope Leo XIII’s groundbreaking 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum.

He was later named Archbishop of Kansas City and became an early proponent of lay ministry. He died at age 75.

Father Thomas Tobin was a powerful figure in Oregon labor disputes in the 1930s — trusted by all sides.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pa. in 1897, he came to teach at Portland’s Columbia Prep. After meeting Archbishop Alexander Christie, he decided to study for the priesthood. After ordination, he began serving in parishes but also spoke frequently at parishes and at civic gatherings about matters Catholic, especially church history.  

In 1936, Father Tobin protested the plight of a bricklayer who was having difficulty with a union. He reminded parties in the dispute about Rerum Novarum, which he considered a “magna carta” of workers. The priest’s stature in the labor movement grew.

During World War II, by which time he had been honored as monsignor, he became the neutral member of an appeals commission for the War Labor Board in Oregon. His was the only name on lists submitted by both labor and management. One negotiator called the priest “the most prominent labor mediator in the area.”

Msgr. Tobin led a labor-management conference that featured national leaders discussing matters of social justice. The Conference on Industrial and Social Relations was seen as a way to apply the Gospel to everyday life.

A frequent speaker on labor and management, he was also a leader in liturgical reform and lay education, with ideas about 20 years ahead of the Second Vatican Council.

“Msgr. Thomas J. Tobin was one of those rare individuals who see the needs of their time and find the required solutions,” Father Edmond Bliven wrote in a Sentinel editorial tribute when the priest died in 1978.