Christina Isobel MacColl (December 1864 – 1939): Founder of Christodora House on the Lower East Side of New York
By June Hopkins, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Armstrong Atlantic State University
There have been countless lives lived by women who had a very significant and enduring impact on the direction of history. Many of these women exercised a great deal of political clout and made their voices heard and effected change – but in too many instances these voices have faded from memory, we do not read about them nor do we write dissertations about them. One such woman was Christine Isobel MacColl who founded Christodora Settlement House in 1897 in the Lower East Side of New York City and was head worker there until her death in 1939.
A remarkable woman who was a powerhouse in the progressive movement in a most progressive city, MacColl was a political animal and knew how to manipulate through the city bureaucracy and the partisan jungle on Manhattan. If anyone knew that politics is the art of the possible, it was Christina MacColl. She started with almost nothing and built an influential institution that served an enormous number of people in many different ways for a very long time.
Christina MacColl did not leave much of a personal record – she did not write about herself or keep a record of what she thought or what she did. Some information about her comes from a short draft of an unpublished biography by Edward Steiner entitled “A Tribute to a Great Personality” written upon the occasion of her death in 1939. Steiner was one of the social gospelers on the faculty of Iowa’s Grinnell College in the 1890s and a close friend of Christodora House. He claimed that the social settlement solved the dilemma of the inability of religious institutions to respond effectively to the problems experienced by immigrants. The settlements, Christodora House in particular, used “cultured” men and women to help individual immigrants solve their own problems, largely through the process of Americanization. Steiner described the settlement as the “portal into America.”
The history of Christodora and of Christina MacColl are inexorably intertwined. She was born in December 1864 in upstate Mumford, New York, into a devout Presbyterian family that valued education and service to others. Although she suffered from what her niece called “undependable health” she nonetheless vigorously pursued her education and drive to be “socially useful.” She attended the Emerson School of Oratory, whose mission was to “build up and strengthen the entire individuality, to open the mouth of the spirit and put self in the right relation with the universe.” In one of the few written comments by MacColl about her education she notes “A hero is distinguished by will –. When a principle has taken possession of the will, a person cannot change.” This reveals a person driven by will and a dedication to a goal that persevered despite frightening obstacles, for almost half a century.
After graduating, MacColl went to work for the Harlem YWCA and quickly rose to be secretary of the state organization. There she met Sarah Carson who became her lifelong partner in the effort to establish a social settlement in Lower Manhattan. The two women joined forces and used their experience with the Y to enter into settlement work.
In 1897, Christina MacColl responded to what Steiner called “a sob of the spirit” and resolved to join the new settlement movement and settle in New York City’s Lower East Side ghetto, in New York’s Sixth Assembly District, an area rife with social and economic problems, but also rich in culture. In the 17th Ward, one of the most densely packed areas of the city – over 100,00 people, more than half of the population were women and half of these women were under 20. Fifty-five percent of the inhabitants were foreign born and the neighborhood supported the greatest concentration of immigrants in the United States, about 4,000 per block. This was the area that inspired Jacob Riis to show the nation through his photographs how the other half lived.
MacColl had visited Toynbee Hall in London, the birthplace of the settlement house movement but found it less than welcoming, overwhelmingly male. She wrote: “We gathered around the fireplace – all the young men seated themselves upon the floor and on hassocks. Only the hostess, my friend and myself surrounded by so much manliness – doctors, lawyers, students and bankers were gathered there. . . . That night they were discussing the labor situation and they asked me to tell about the labor situation in America. I pointed to Mr. So and So who had been as student of just such things here in the United States for several years while I explained that I had been abroad for four months and knew only what was in the London Times. They discussed the coal miners and their conditions, then there was an awful hush, a sob of the spirit of the spirit, as they realized the problems of the people.” (Steiner) She felt overwhelmed by this crowd, it is clear, but it is also clear that she felt the sob of the spirit just as deeply as any of them. She resolved to open a settlement house in New York City.
MacColl and Carson first rented somewhat seedy basement quarters in a delicatessen near Tompkins Square Park for their venture and eventually, with the help of wealthy patrons, Christodora moved to a much larger down the street, at 147 Avenue B. By 1928 the settlement had been enlarged to a 16 story building that took up the entire block. As MacColl was fond of saying, the roots of Christodora House might have been in the cellar but it always reached upward and outward.
Christodora House and Miss MacColl became an integral part of the Lower East Side neighborhood and provided a wide variety of much needed services for the people who lived there. The settlement offered clubs for mothers, for young girls, for men and boys — whatever they wanted or needed — clubs for art, poetry, language, sports, bible classes, needlework. It offered medical and child care, citizen aid classes. Its debating club discussed current issues. It boasted one of the best music schools in NYC, it had a theater and a poets’ guild. In 1914 George Gershwin made his public debut there – his brother was a member of the Finley club at the settlement. It offered job training, naturalization assistance. During WWI, the settlement rolled bandages and knit clothing for servicemen abroad, it held war bond drives, treated victims of the influenza epidemic and provided low cost medical and dental care for its neighbors. During the Great Depression Christodora helped many of the destitute in the area by distributing food and helping to find employment. In addition, Christodora trained a new generation of social workers collaborating with the New York School of Social Work and New York University.
MacColl saw firsthand that the reality of life in the slums had shattered many immigrants’ dreams of the good life in American and she declared that she hoped to keep these beleaguered, hardworking people from becoming embittered over what she called their “lost dreams.” Not only would the educational and recreational activities provided by her staff temper the effect of the urban slum on its inhabitants, but the strength derived from living a Christian life would, in her mind, enable the immigrant to adjust to a largely hostile and cheerless environment. MacColl did not minimize the physical effect of slum living, but for her the moral dangers inherent in the urban environment presented much the stronger challenge.
A great deal of her efforts went to raising money and recruiting workers for Christodora, most of whom came from colleges and universities. Syracuse University was the first, then Smith, then many others followed, always with very small sums, five or ten dollars. But she was a genius here – within four years she had found 250 individual contributors, 25 churches and their organizations. That year the settlement collected over $11,000. She nurtured friends of Christodora so that many of them became lifelong contributors and avid supporters of the house. Whenever a visitor would come to Christodora, MacColl saw them as “grist for her mill” and it was said “people who came to slum, stayed to pay.”
After MacColl died in 1939, Christodora’s work continued to provide help for the low-income families in Lower Manhattan, first at the nearby Jacob Riis Houses and then at an additional site on East First Street, in the city’s growing Puerto Rican neighborhood. By the mid 1940s, the settlement faced insurmountable financial problems and the Board of Managers sold the house to the City of New York as a shelter for children. The proceeds from the sale established a fund that enabled Christodora to continue some in-city social services.
During the 60s and 70s, Christodora responded to the growing ecological awareness of the times and decided to devote a good part of its resources to outdoor recreation and nature study. A grant from the Astor Foundation helped allowed Christodora to experiment with environmental education. This venture extended the house’s activities into the Adirondacks and the Berkshires, where high school children were brought for hands-on environmental education and wilderness activities. (See: www. Christodora.org) The landmark building was sold by the city to private developers in the 1980s and it was quickly and profitably converted to residential use in the 1980. Today it is an very upscale building of expensive condominiums. For Christina MacColl, though, Christodora House was a living organism, more than just bricks and mortar. It was her life’s work and by all accounts she was beautifully successful at what she did.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hopkins, J. (2011). Christina Isobell MacColl (December 1864 – 1939): Founder of Christodora House on the Lower East Side of New York. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/people/maccoll-christina-isobel/