As Labor Day 2016 recedes, there are fewer Catholics who recall that Catholic leaders and the labor movement cooperated closely. It’s no coincidence, for example, that many churches founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were called “St. Joseph the Worker.”
Even the lay business owners who began the Catholic Sentinel in 1870 half-heartedly recognized where their church stood.
“The extent to which many ecclesiastics sympathize with the labor movement is to grudgingly admit that workingmen do have some rights, and, that the good capitalists in the kindness of their hearts should pity their employees and grant them these rights,” the Sentinel editorialized in 1886, seven years before Pope Leo XIII wrote “Rerum Novarum,” an encyclical proclaiming the dignity of workers.
“The labor movement is not a mere economic force, but it has a fundamental moral purpose,” the Catholic Sentinel wrote in 1909, the editor clearly having caught on to Pope Leo’s teaching. “This moral purpose gives the labor movement stability, vitality and a wonderful power of recuperation.”
From the late 19th century until the 1970s, despite persistent fears of anarchy and communism, almost every diocese had a priest or two who helped working stiffs get a fair shake from employers. The Archdiocese of Portland is no exception.
Father George Thompson, a famed pastor at the Madeleine, teamed up in support of labor with Father Edwin O’Hara, who in 1939 would become archbishop of Kansas City. Both priests were appointed by Oregon Gov. Oswald West to the Industrial Welfare Commission and both collaborated with Caroline Gleason, whose research in Oregon factories and stores would lead to the nation’s first minimum wage and maximum hour law in 1912. In 1918, Gleason would profess vows and become Holy Names Sister Miriam Teresa.
By the 1940s, Msgr. Thomas Tobin was a mediator between labor and management and was trusted by both sides. Pastor of St. Francis and All Saints parishes, Msgr. Tobin is the one who established a union for clerical workers at the pastoral center, an arrangement that remains to this day.
Father Daniel Hurley, pastor of Queen of Peace Parish in North Portland and other places in the mid-20th century, was a strong teacher on the rights of labor. His father had worked for the unions.
Father Frank Kennard, who died in 1994, was a missionary to Peru who had a heart for laborers when he returned to Portland. Father Kennard not only would bring sandwiches and coffee for homeless people in parks, but would join striking workers on picket lines in downtown.
Father Bert Griffin, an acclaimed canon lawyer who died in 2000, preached on labor while he was pastor of St. Andrew, St. Pius X and St. Michael parishes.
Benedictine Father Bernard Sander, a legend at Mount Angel Abbey and Seminary, taught priests about labor and the Young Christian Workers movement, a Catholic organization founded after World War I. Father Bernard died in 2008 and a youth center in Mount Angel is named for him.
In the 1990s, Father Emmett Harrington of All Saints Parish came to the aid of hotel maids who were forced to used dangerous chemicals. That was the latest of his works on behalf of workers. It was Father Harrington’s teaching at Central Catholic in the 1960s that inspired a current labor priest — Msgr. Chuck Lienert.
“He introduced us to the social encyclicals,” Msgr. Lienert says of his old teacher. “He impressed on us the rights of workers to organize unions.”
As Catholics rose in U.S. social classes to become business owners and CEOs, and as labor unions lost some of their overall support, the church-labor partnership weakened.
But some priests in Oregon have kept up the ministry. Father Jack Mosbrucker has spoken out for airline workers. Msgr. Lienert and Father Bob Krueger are part of worker rights organizations.
Msgr. Lienert helped form a group of priests and laity trying to keep the labor and social justice ministry alive.
“Some church institutions really are resistant to labor,” Msgr. Lienert says. “That weakens the bishops’ voice. It’s clear that wages get better and conditions get better when you have a union. We have to work for the good of people in our parishes.”