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Christodora Settlement House

Introduction: Written by Dr. June Hopkins, this article presents a well-documented history of an early settlement house serving immigrant families living in the crowded slums of the Lower East Side of New York City. It is an especially important part of American social welfare history for two reasons: a) the article describes a settlement house whose founders, unlike most of their colleagues, maintained an unabashed Protestant religious agenda; and, b) it was at Christodora House where Harry Lloyd Hopkins, an important architect of the New Deal, was first introduced to social work and the need for social reforms. There is also a link to the organization’s Annual Report of 1909. This annual report includes a list of the Board members, programs, photographs of children at a camp, a financial report and a list of organizations helping with Christodora Settlement’s programs and services.

(Note: Today, Christodora, Inc., continues to serve New York City’s neediest populations as a non-sectarian nonprofit organization, offering environmental education, wilderness camping and leadership programs for New York’s low income youth. To learn more, visit

The Sacred And The Secular In Christodora Settlement House, 1897-1939
June Hopkins, Ph. D.

In 1897, when Christina Isobel MacColl and her friend Sarah Carson founded Christodora Settlement House in the slums of New York City’s Lower East Side, they believed that there they would find an abundance of angels. No matter that some observers had found many of the young people in the neighborhood to be alarmingly “fierce” and “as untamed as so many little wildcats,” these two indomitable women, inspired by such social activists as Jane Addams and Lillian Wald, intended to settle in the slums and form bonds of “love and loyalty” with their immigrant neighbors while helping them adjust to the mean streets and squalid tenements of urban America. Like so many founders of settlement houses during the Gilded Age, MacColl and Carson seized upon the tenets of the Social Gospel?, which proclaimed that organized religion had grown overly “popular, prosperous, and proud” and had ignored the social evils born of industrialism. Social Gospelers such as Walter Rauschenbusch exhorted individuals to join a “New Apostolate” to champion social justice. Josiah Strong called on Protestants to attend to their brothers and sisters enduring inhuman conditions in slums, those “putrefying sores of the city.” MacColl and Carson had both worked at the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) an institution built in response to the Protestant Evangelicalism of the 1850s and they took away from the association not only a conservative religiosity but also a firm belief in the Victorian ideology of separate spheres for men and women. Thus, they would bring to their settlement the religious impulse, the social mores, and the reforming spirit of the late nineteenth-century in response to the social and economic inequalities prevalent in industrial America.

MacColl was not a trained social worker, neither was her co-founder, Sarah Carson. They had met while they were both working uptown in the YWCA’s Harlem Annex. Responding to what Miss MacColl described as a “sob of the spirit,” they decided to establish a settlement house in the Lower East Side, “a social center that should be tolerant, educationally effective and conducted without evasion on a truly religious, non-sectarian basis.” In June of 1897, although they had no outside support and almost no money, they rented the cellar of a delicatessen at 163 Avenue B, just a few blocks from Tompkins Square Park, also taking rooms on the second and third floors as living quarters. They called their enterprise the Young Women’s Settlement, which at first had a somewhat seedy quality about it. The basement room, which they used for an activity area, also served as the delicatessen’s store-room for limburger cheese and sauerkraut Until they moved to larger and more genteel quarters down the street at 147 Avenue B, the activities had a distinctly German flavor.

Undaunted by their inelegant quarters, MacColl and Carson filled the basement with flowers, stuffed daisies in the holes in the walls and, with less confidence than bravura, painted hand-made signs to announce the opening of the Young Women’s Settlement. Ninety-eight girls came that first night, many from the nearby pencil and tobacco factories. Although the area had a substantial population of Jews, only four Jewish girls responded. Miss MacColl admitted to being frightened at first by the roughness of the girls (it seems she was referring especially to the Jews) claiming that she “had no experience with such people.” But she quickly defeated this fear and became a beloved mother figure to the entire neighborhood. That evening the founders, responding to individual requests from the girls, established classes in millinery, dressmaking and typewriting. Within a few months, with the unanimous approval of the newly formed Council, the settlement’s name was changed to Christodora House, meaning Gift of Christ, admittedly as an anchor against the secularization of so many settlements during that time. Thus, Christodora House was born. Its roots might have been in the cellar but, as Miss MacColl repeatedly said, “it always reached upward and onward.”

In comparison to the attempts made by most settlements to present a non-religious face to its diverse immigrant neighbors, Christodora House was unique in its religious emphasis. This settlement had an unabashed religious agenda. On the first pages of a scrapbook begun by the Settlement house in 1897 is an announcement which reflects the founders’ frame of mind: “In the belief that the time was ripe for an organization which should combine the fine principles and methods of the ‘settlement idea’ with definite religious work, the Christodora House of the Young Women’s Settlement was opened June 10, 1897, at 163 Avenue B, New York City. . .”

The story of Christodora House and its emphasis on Christian ethics is especially relevant to American welfare history because this particular settlement house served as the training ground for one of the major architects of our welfare state. Harry Lloyd Hopkins, who served as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt‘s relief administrator during the Great Depression, came to work at Christodora House in 1912, fresh from Iowa’s Grinnell College with its strong Social Gospel tradition where he had taken classes in Applied Christianity taught by Dr. Edward Steiner. Young, naive, and enthusiastic, and steeped in the Methodism of his mother, he cut his social welfare teeth under the tutelage of Christina MacColl. For this reason, it is important to understand more fully the nature of Christodora House and how it might have played a significant part in the development of our welfare state.

Soon after Hopkins joined the settlement staff, he met a colleague, a young Jewish woman named Ethel Gross, who had migrated in 1891 from Hungary with her newly-widowed mother, two sisters, and three brothers. Ethel and her family lived in one of the grimy tenements on Tenth Street, a few blocks from Christodora, and she was very likely one of the first young Jewish girls to come to Christodora House. She would have been about eleven years old when the settlement opened and in her own words, her life started at the settlement. There, a frightened child became a confident young woman under the kindly guidance of Miss MacColl. Her particular experience at the settlement was played over many times in various cities and exemplifies the way the settlement house helped so many young immigrants adjust to life in America. But her story is particularly interesting because of the decided effect she had on Harry Hopkins.

The settlement house provided a context for what historians refer to as the dual migration to American cities during the late nineteenth century. Ethel Gross coming from Eastern Europe and Harry Hopkins from the American Midwest depicted one facet of this phenomenon, the mutual fascination of east and west. Ethel Gross and Harry Hopkins, who were my paternal grandparents, met and fell in love almost immediately. They were married within a year at the Ethical Culture Society. The two influenced each other tremendously, but there is no doubt that Christodora House and MacColl stirred a passion for social justice in both of them.

Christodora House provided Ethel Gross with a bridge from the Lower East Side slum to middle-class America. By the time she met Harry Hopkins in January of 1913, she was a member of Christodora’s paid staff and a relatively sophisticated twenty-six year old New Yorker. She had rejected the orthodox religion of her mother and embraced all things American, including the ambiguities inherent in the nineteenth-century attitude toward gender roles. On the one hand she learned typing and shorthand and took courses at New York University so that she could benefit from the new employment opportunities opening up to women in the early twentieth century. She fought for woman suffrage by taking an active role in the Equal Franchise Society and the Women’s Political Union. But Ethel Gross Hopkins also regarded her role as the wife of a budding young social worker and mother of three young sons as much more important than any of these other activities. This was largely due to the early influence of Miss MacColl with whom she formed a lifelong friendship. In essence, the beginning for both of them was at Christodora House.

The link between religion and social reform is uniquely manifest in the American settlement house movement and an investigation of New York City’s Christodora House can illuminate the complexities of the relationship between Christian morality and progressive reform. Although strongly influenced by London’s Toynbee Hall and the social Christianity which formed its ideological base, American settlement leaders typically felt that religious social work would be too narrow and “counterproductive” in light of the Protestant church’s failure to respond in any positive way to the extreme poverty that had plagued the immigrant population concentrated in our cities. But, however averse the settlement idea might have been to religious proselytizing, the majority of the settlement workers embodied the Victorian middle-class culture so deeply embedded in Protestantism. Christodora House, on the other hand, placed primary emphasis upon Protestant ethics and morality, confident that for their Jewish and Catholic neighbors, an imitation of the manners and mores of nineteenth-century Victorian culture would follow. The influence of the Social Gospel at Christodora House as the religious expression of progressivism and communalism reinforced the traditional work ethic and family ideology for its immigrant clients. Thus, this settlement house combined the sacred with the secular in its humanitarian efforts to ease hardships of the urban poor.

Judith Trolander observed that settlement work gave influential people such as Frances Perkins, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Harry Hopkins a new awareness of the horrors of the urban poverty and “real opportunities for communication” with the poor. In the slum Hopkins saw poverty in its ugliest form. This was not the dignified lack of ready money he had seen among his neighbors in rural Iowa, and the squalor and degradation of New York City’s Lower East Side shocked and enraged him. According to biographer Robert Sherwood, “…this was his real birth as a crusader for reform.”

The story of Christodora House is, of course, tied to the larger study of the place of the social settlement in the development of social reform in America. Historians such as Allen F. Davis and Mina Carson have described the more prominent social settlements established in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era as “spearheads of reform” and the work they did as models for the reforms institutionalized by New Deal and Great Society programs. If this is indeed true, and I believe that the settlement house movement was in the vanguard of the progressive march toward social justice in America, then it is important to understand the interplay between the sacred and secular there.

Hopkins has had a rash of biographers and documentation of his life is vast and rich. However, most accounts gloss over his early years as a social worker in New York, and do little more than mention his stint at Christodora House. It is through Ethel Gross Hopkins Conant that some pieces of information about Christodora House and MacColl have filtered down to the 1990s: A 1964 taped interview by UCLA Professor Roger Daniels and various letters and memorabilia refer to her early experiences at the settlement house. In addition, a more complete, if still tentative, portrait of Christodora House can be drawn from its papers archived in Columbia University’s Butler Library Special Collections.

Historians, Ruth Crocker being one exception, have usually viewed the settlement houses as essentially similar, modeled on Hull House or Henry Street Settlement, and surely many did fit this mold. Yet there was a wide variety of contemporary opinion as to the actual purpose of the social settlement. Dr. John Lovejoy Elliot of the Hudson Guild and the Ethical Culture Society (dubbed the patriarch of settlement work) described settlement work by using the rather unpleasant simile of “neighborhood nose-wiping,” and as performing “the homely, friendly, intimate, and orphaned jobs that other social agencies could not or preferred not to do.” Several decades later, one member of the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, articulating the social control theory of progressive reform, defined settlement work as “an enlarged course in mental hygiene—meaning a correction of poor thinking, and adjustment of warped philosophies, a development of proper view-points and attitudes. . .” Neither describe settlement work satisfactorily.

Mina Carson describes settlement work as a two-edged sword, including both humanitarianism and social control. However, although she admits that middle-class reformers attempted to impose their Victorian moral laws and social codes on what they considered to be the marginal segments of society, their ultimate goal was to break down class barriers through individual friendships between rich and poor. The settlers themselves, according to Carson, asserted that their work was not simply acts of charity toward their immigrant neighbors, but was “an attempt to heal society by restoring social intercourse between artificially sundered classes.” Ruth Crocker, in her investigation of second-tier settlement houses, sees the importance of religion as influenced by Social Gospel movement in reinforcing women’s traditional roles. This is reflected in the settlements’ concern with protective legislation and special treatment for women rather than the principle of equality.

Yet most settlements did not actively promote Protestantism. Allen Davis states that “…almost without exception, the settlements that became important centers of social reform attempted to avoid anything that might give the impression of proselytizing.” Clearly, Christodora was an exception. Historians have not recognized it as a major settlement but its residents did participate, albeit marginally, in the progressive reform movement. Yet, while it did have an avowed religious agenda, it did not actively suppress the beliefs of its Catholic and Jewish neighbors. Christodora, hoping to demonstrate the social benefits of Protestant Christianity to the Jewish and Catholic immigrants, attracted them by offering recreational and educational services. If Headworker Christina MacColl had ulterior motives behind her philanthropic work, it was always tempered by love for her neighbors, respect for their culture, and her heartfelt belief that leading a Christian life could temper the hardships of tenement life.

An examination into the nature of the religious idealism that influenced so many settlement leaders and how this was expressed in the actual day-to-day life of the settlement can shed light on our understanding of the sacred and the secular in the American settlement house movement. According to Judith Trolander, Stanton Coit, who started the first settlement in America after spending three months at Toynbee House in London, stressed the secular nature of his Neighborhood Guild. A Protestant and leader of the Ethical Culture Society, he settled in a largely Jewish neighborhood in New York City and sought to break down the barriers that might arise from an overemphasis on Christian religion. Likewise, Jane Addams, in her book Twenty Years at Hull House, addresses the place of formal religion in the settlement movement almost as an afterthought. She admits that “a certain renaissance going forward in Christianity” impels the settlement movement, that the simple gospel message to love all men had to be put into action. But if Christian charity was important to Addams as a motivating force for the settlement movement, it was not a Christianity “that tears down temples” but a humanistic spirit which is above all tolerant and accentuates likenesses among men while ignoring their differences. She speaks about the diverse religious beliefs held by the residents at Hull House, “Jews, Roman Catholics, English Churchmen, Dissenters, and a few agnostics” noting that because they could find no satisfactory form of worship which would express their religious fellowship, Sunday services were given up at Hull House. Yet, her statement in 1892 as to the motives underlying the settlement movement echoes the Social Gospelers’ warning against individualistic religion: ” . . .the good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

Lillian Wald also eschewed the religious element in her Henry Street Settlement. She states in The House on Henry Street: “Settlements suffer at times from the criticism of those who sincerely believe that, without definite religious propaganda, their full measure of usefulness cannot be attained. It seems to us that something fundamental in the structure of the settlement itself would be lost were our policy altered. All creeds have a common basis for fellowship. . .Protestants, Catholics, Jews, an occasional Buddhist, and those who can claim no creed have served together in the Henry Street house contented and happy, with no attempt to impose their theological convictions upon one another or upon the members of the clubs and classes who come in confidence to us.”

Wald leaves no room for misunderstanding when she announces: “As a settlement, nothing is said of religious teaching.” Yet Ruth Crocker points out that although settlement workers did cut themselves off from organized religion, their work was essentially redemptive and thus, in a broad sense, religious. However much they desired to distance themselves from institutional Protestantism, their aim was to create what Social Gospeler Walter Rauschenbusch called “a Christian social order.” She goes on to say that settlement workers were not cultural pluralists but essentially “missionaries for the American Way, bringing Victorian ideal of femininity and domesticity to the immigrants; they advocated femininity rather than feminism”

Arthur C. Holden is one of the few historians who includes (however briefly) Christodora House in his 1922 study of American settlement houses. And, interestingly enough, he refers to the ways in which it treated the religious issue in its day-to-day activities. He protests that even though the spirit of Christianity dominated the house, “its policy has always been non-religious” and that despite its name there was “no effort to convert Jews but any-one coming into contact with the settlement is influenced by its Christian spirit.” But more compelling evidence of Christodora’s religious spirit can be ascertained from its own documents. A close textual analysis of the minutes of Christodora’s Council meetings, its correspondence, and other relevant documents reveals a settlement with an assertively Protestant atmosphere. Not only did Christodora attempt to inculcate Protestant ideals in the immigrants who came in great numbers to its doors but also at the same time it re-articulated Victorian middle-class values in both the resident workers and the immigrant clients.

In 1897 Christodora House was the only settlement in New York’s Sixth Assembly district, an area of the Lower East Side rife with social and economic problems. Fifty-five percent of the inhabitants (54,714) were foreign born, and the neighborhood supported the greatest concentration (4000 per block) of immigrants in the United States. The settlement hoped to instill “a sane and reasonable attitude” in order to keep these beleaguered people from becoming embittered over what Miss MacColl labeled “their lost dreams.” As a settler in the slums, she saw first hand that the reality of life in New York City’s Lower East Side had shattered many immigrants’ fantasies of the good life in America. Not only would the educational and recreational activities provided by her staff temper the effect of the urban slum on its inhabitants, but also the strength derived from living a Christian life would, in her mind, enable the immigrant to adjust to life in a largely hostile and cheerless environment.

Although the Jews of the neighborhood (and some Catholics as well) would have good reason to be suspicious of the proselytizing that would likely come out of a place called “Christodora,” its supporters argued that no attempt was made to change the religion of immigrants who came to the settlement. Yet evidence indicates that the settlement workers did rejoice when a Catholic or Jew embraced Protestantism. Religious services were held each Sunday and the fact that both Jews and Catholics attended gave the settlement workers a great deal of satisfaction. They remarked, “even the Jews and Catholics feel the influence of the Settlement.” And that “through its influence many of the members have been led to Christ.”

At one of the early meetings of the settlement house Council, Christina MacColl “spoke of the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work among the young women in the fact that weekly one or more letters are received by her speaking of conversions through the Settlement work.” MacColl always seemed much more interested in conversions than in the state of the coffers. Despite the feeling that God would always provide, the house was constantly in need of money. In 1901 she noted that the treasury was empty but that there was “much interest shown in Bible Classes and some have lately expressed a wish to follow the Savior.” Describing Christodora’s activities, Dr. Parkhurst, a member of the Council, remarked that “this is distinctively religious work” and that “any work is comparatively thrown away if not distinctly and confessedly based on the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is the Divine One to stand back of this work.” At the same meeting, another prominent Council member, Mrs. Sangster, proudly gave an “account of one of the Jewish girls who had found the Messiah and who wished to prepare herself to be a missionary.” Social Gospeler Dr. Josiah Strong was from the very beginning closely allied with Christodora House. He was at the very first public meeting of the Young Women’s Settlement, chaired many of the monthly meetings, and it was he who usually read the opening Psalm and led the group in prayer. He was a zealous advocate for the urban poor who claimed that the city could not be saved while its people lived in squalor.

Showing the characteristic practicality of the settlement worker, Miss MacColl did recognize that the young women of the neighborhood needed much more than religion. She declared that the settlement was “not to be a mission. We are to have entertainments, musicals and social gatherings—good jolly ones—and while we will, of course, have the word of God, we do not intend to get unconverted girls out of heated shops and filthy tenements to preach to them. We will meet them as our sisters, our friends, and try to be a help and a blessing and God will do the rest.” But she then goes on to emphasize the importance of the religious element in settlement work: “It is a mistake to think that a settlement should not have the Bible. Every woman has a divine spark in her nature, and she longs for higher and nobler things than she has ever known, but she is often sick and tired of long-faced Christianity that is all criticism and condemnation. We have had Roman Catholic and Jewish girls come for months to the YWCA Annex prepared to fly into a fury of indignation if we spoke to them about religion, but we held our peace, and after a time they come around of their own accord and asked to be allowed to join the Bible class. Of course, the foundation of the whole thing is the Bible, and our aim is to bring the girls and women to Christ, and away from the possibility of following so many of their sisters to the Bowery and Chinatown.”

The relationship between the settlement worker, the immigrant, and the institutional church set the stage for a complex power struggle in urban America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century. Dr. Edward Steiner wrote a short, unpublished history of Christodora House in which he refers to the immigrant as being “the root and branch of every problem from birth control to the death rate.” Steiner goes on to say that although Catholic churches and Jewish synagogues can provide the immigrants with some “insurance against loneliness, sickness, death,” they also acted as “astringents, contracting rather than enlarging vision, and prolonging the period of adjustment to the new world. . .” In addition, Protestant churches, “not infrequently greeted with brickbats rather than ‘Hosannas,'” were more than a little uncomfortable with “these strange and unassorted sheep” The social settlement solved the problem, according to Dr. Steiner, through cultured men and women who helped individual immigrants to solve their own problems. Steiner describes “three strands in the pattern which was set for the House by its founder.” First, religious idealism, then cultivation of the arts and third, service but there was no doubt in this Social Gospeler’s mind that religious idealism was the most important. He clearly stated that “Christodora was built upon a religious foundation” and that “religion was the motivating power” behind the house. Protestantism was clearly responding to the call from Social Gospelers to look to the welfare of others, especially those suffering from the forces of industrialization.

Much of this work was done through the immigrant children who were attracted not so much by the Christian ideals of the settlement but by the playgrounds, libraries and clubs as well as by the “roominess, the cleanliness of the House and to the fresh air sweetened by the fragrance of flowers.” They saw “walls made beautiful by draperies and pictures when at home they saw them mostly in grime and soot.” To these children the settlement be-came a “larger and finer home and its residents their noble kinsmen…” In the minds of the Christodora residents, contact with settlement brought the best of American culture to the immigrant children and thus to their parents. And for Steiner and certainly MacColl, the best of American culture included the spirit of Christianity.

Mina Carson, in her 1991 study of Settlement Folk, describes the “complex and almost overdetermined Victorian origins” of the founders of the settlement house movement and the settlements’ “central role in appropriating and re-articulating certain Victorian values” for the residents who became “the movers and shakers” of this social welfare experiment. What she calls “settlement ideology” is characterized by “old values programmed into the new.” Christina MacColl, born in upstate New York in 1834 and educated at the Emerson School of Oratory in Boston, certainly emerged from middle-class Victorian roots and probably inherited her evangelical bent from her Presbyterian minister father. But she reflected the reforming spirit of the Social Gospelers by combining the secular with the sacred in her attempt to ease the miseries of New York City’s tenement dwellers.

Christodora House sought to instill Victorian manners and morals in all those who visited the house, but especially in the children. This was the especial aim of the clubs, which formed the basis of all of Christodora’s activities. The Loyalty Club, for girls ten to fourteen, chose as their club song, “Loyalty to Christ,” which they sang at every meeting. Twelve-year old Ethel Gross served as Secretary for six months in 1899 and there is no evidence that, as a Jew, she was the least bit disturbed by this. The Sangster Club included girls over 14 and it seemed to have an immediate effect on its large member-ship. At the second meeting, on July 6, 1897, the minutes indicate that the girls of the Sangster Club were “already becoming more gentle and polite, and even rise to offer a chair to any one entering the room.” In describing the Children’s Club, for girls seven to ten years old, the minutes record that “the little ones learn to wait at the door, make beds, set the table and other useful things.” In an interview, MacColl remarked that “everything should be done in the very best way possible, one should put forth his best ef-fort.” For her this reflected, “maintaining the standard.” She was remembered by those who frequented Christodora as a perfectionist. She would tell the children, “Do not be content with second best. . . . Give yourself the best that you have, because in giving yourself the best that you have, giving the world the best that you have, you can then really and truly justify your-self.

The nineteenth-century Victorian cult of domesticity permeated Christodora House. In 1907, The Christodora, the house magazine, carried an article explaining the value of the Mothers’ Clubs that reflects the attitudes of the staff at Christodora House. “Clubs are like a great many other things, very good when taken in moderation. When a woman belongs to so many clubs that her home duties must be neglected to attend these meetings, the result will certainly be disastrous to her home. But when a woman of means so small that other entertainment is out of the question, becomes a member of a club that takes her away from her home duties only a few hours but once a week, where she meets women living largely in her own walk in life and mostly under the same circumstances, and where the aim is first recreation and the exchange of ideas educational along all lines—then the result is that tired brains and nerves are rested, views broadened and knowledge gained for the better management of self, home and family.”

An important element in the Americanization of the immigrant, the Mothers’ Club provided the overworked woman with a window on the world and was a vital part of Christodora. Yet the staff was careful to articulate concerns that the woman’s first duty, no matter how desperate for company, no matter how exhausted from the rigors of slum living, was to home care. Ethel Gross enthusiastically embraced this ideology and exemplified Christodora’ success in instilling the Victorian domestic ideal in its clients and workers. We can clearly see that Christodora supported what Sheila Rothman calls the “ideology of educated motherhood.” She asserts “some of the programs that took place within the settlement represented a self-conscious and even somewhat heavy-handed effort to make the immigrant over into the image of educated mothers.” Appropriately, the settlement house clubs became the vehicles of this enterprise, “an almost direct translation of popular female associations into the special environment of the ghetto.”

While the settlement ideology was nourished by the religious idealism of the Social Gospel, the day-to-day work of the settlements developed into the essentially secular and practical activities they offered to the men, women, and children of the neighborhood: clubs, classes, kindergartens, health clinics, camps, dramatics, and a host of other services and diversions. Yet Christodora managed to infuse these activities with a distinctive religious underpinning and exemplified the compatibility of the religious motive with the social scientific nature of their endeavor.

In 1892, Jane Addams gave a talk in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements,” in which she claimed that the American social settlement was “an experimental effort to aid in the solution of the social and industrial problems which are engendered by the modern conditions of life in a great city. . .” It cannot refuse admission to any idea, to any person, to any set of beliefs. “It must, in a sense, give the warm welcome of an inn to all such propaganda, if perchance one of them be found an angel.” Addams’ call to admit all ideas and ideologies (as well as all people) to the settlement became a model for the entire settlement house movement. Clearly Christina MacColl and Sarah Carson followed her mandate and a spirit of hope and acceptance characterized Christodora House. Christodora’s uncharacteristic religiosity could well have contributed to the belief among the settlement workers and neighbor alike that anyone who came through their doors might be an angel. Its historical significance lies in the fact that the lives of Ethel Gross and Harry Hopkins, immigrant and social worker, met here under the aegis of MacColl and this had a subtle effect upon the shape of our American welfare state.

This connection among the Social Gospel, the settlement house movement, the nineteenth-century cult of domesticity, and social reform needs more definition. This preliminary study of the intersection of religion and reform in a settlement house does not touch upon issues of race, class, and gender, which, of course, are vital elements in the development of the American welfare state. However, religion clearly plays an essential part in this story and more research into this particular area of our welfare history needs to be undertaken.

Note: Below is a description of Christodora House as recorded in 1910-1911. The excerpt is from the HANDBOOK OF SETTLEMENTS written by two settlement house pioneers: Robert Archey Woods and Albert J. Kennedy.  The book included the findings of a national survey of all the known settlements in existence in 1910 and was published by The Russell Sage Foundation of New York in 1911.

Chr1stodora House (Undenominational) 145 (1910-), 147 (1898-) Avenue B (Center for women’s work). 603 E. 9th Street (1903-) (Center for men’s work). Vacation House, Northover Camp, Bound Brook, N. J.

Established June 24, 1897, by Miss C. I. MacColI and Sara L. Carson for “the physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual development of the people in the crowded portions of the city of New York, and the training of those who shall be in residence in practical methods of settlement work.”

Neighborhood. Lower East Side. The people are Germans, Jews, Italians, etc.

Maintains religious work (children’s hour, Sunday afternoon service, Bible classes, men’s meetings, week day studies in religion, etc.); penny provident bank; classes in arithmetic, English, stenography, carpentry, sewing, music; clubs for adults, young people, and children, with athletic, dramatic, literary, musical and social aims. Entertainments, lectures, concerts, plays, etc. Summer Work.—Picnics; vacations at the vacation house at Northover Camp; vacations in co-operation with Fresh Air agencies.

Former Locat1on. 163 Avenue B, July, 1897-1898.

Res1dents. Women 9, men 4. Volunteers. Women 1, men 3. Head Resident. Miss C. I. MacColI, June, 1897-.

Literature. Author1zed Art1cles: Annual reports and pamphlets. 1902-19061907-1908-1909 — The Christodora (monthly), i, No. 1 (May, 1898); vii, No. 1 (June, 1907); viii, No. 1 (Nov., 1908); ix : Nov., 1909. See also: Sangster, Margaret E.: Christodora House. Congregationalist, Mar. 2, 1899 — Lippert, Frieda E.: Christodora House Settlement. Commons, vi, No. 64 (Nov., 1901). Christodora House. Outlook, Ixviii : 660 (June 20, 1902). Bureau of Labor Statistics State of New York. Eighteenth Annual Report, 19oo. Part ii, pp. 388-391.

13 Replies to “Christodora Settlement House”

  1. I lived in 101 Avenue D from 1943 until 1957. From the time I was six (1949) until eleven I spent part of each summer at Northove Camp run by Christadora House. I remember going to arts and crafts with Mrs Hyman and making key chain lanyards. The food at the camp was really delicious. I can even remember that some times on Friday we had baked fish with stewed tomatoes and mashed potatoes, Most importantly, I was able to get out of the city to the glorious countryside, The cost was thirty dollars for three weeks which was then decreased to fifteen dollars after a hefty contribution was made. I remember walking to the club office when I was eight with the money in my pocket to pay for camp.

  2. My family has a deeply ingrained history of involvement with Christadora House and Northover Camp. Beginning in the early 40’s, my Grandmother, Mrs. Bertha Hyman, began her many years of service to Christadora House. Mrs. Hyman was the Arts & Crafts instructor at Christadora House in NYC, and also established and ran the “Canteen” and Arts & Crafts program at Northover Camp. About 1947, my Mother, Mrs. Ruth Hyman, took a position at Northover Camp in the summer months, taking my brother Myron and me to camp with her (we were 3 & 4 yrs old). Mom eventually became Northover’s Camp Director, and also Director of programs at the NYC facility on Avernue D in the Riis Projects. I became a regular Summer camper at Northover until age 15, then (because of Grandmothers teachings in Arts & Crafts), began teaching that program at the Riis Projects facility. I feel that I was extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend Christadora/Northover and to meet and become friends with two of the major leaders there….Mrs. Daisy Strewing and Mr. Dan Toomey. Those years rest fondly in my heart, and will forever.

  3. I lived in building 152 Ave. D apt #4B of the Jacob Riis Housing Project.
    The Christadora House took over the ground floor of both Sections of the building (152 – 154). The first Building opened in the Project.
    At that time it cost fifty cents a year to join for the full year. I believe at that time it was managed by Mr. Thomy (I believe that was his name). I took classes in ceramics, learned how to mold the slip, paint and firer the pottery. Learned how to tool a picture on copper, and finish a picture I could hang on the wall. I made earrings out of copper and use ground glass to make a design on copper, I took ballet and joined the brownies, and would get tickets to the Circus.

    I lived in that building from the time I was eight years old until I was 17 years old. I know we were called the under privileged children
    but It was by far the best time of my life, thanks to all the caring people that managed, thought, and in a way molded our lives. We had much more going for us then many privileged children had..

  4. This was a very interesting article! I am competing in a history competition (NHD) and my topic is Harry Hopkins.Are there any documents or pictures having to do with him concerning the Chrsitadora Settlement House?

    • Hi Rachel,

      We do not have anything of that nature, unfortunately; however, the University of Minnesota has a great online archive that might be able to help you. Visit and use the search term “Christadora House” in the search box on the right side of the page. If you need more help, the librarians there will be a great resource. Good luck with your competition!

    • Hi Elaine,

      That’s wonderful to hear! Anything you would like to share–photos, personal recollections, for instance–would be great. You can post the information in a comment or, if you’d prefer, you can email it to me at

  5. Researching on web and came across your site. Comments above from Victoria brought back many memories. I to lived in the Riis Projects. Moved to 12-23 FDR Drive in 1948 as a baby. This was the last building – 6 story – in the projects up by 12th street. Before all us kids went to the center on 10th and Avenue D the Christodora House used to have workers/volunteers come to a lot by our building. It was surrounded by 12-25 FDR drive, 12th and Avenue D and if Victoria remembers the airplane which was located on the north side of the circle. They would bring all kinds of playground equipment that they set up for all us neighborhood kids to play with. I believe the site is now some kind of sewage treatment plant for nyc. When they no longer came to this site then we all attended the 6 story project location on 10th and Avenue D. If Victoria remembers – this was across the street from the Dry Dock Bank and the chicken market…………….

  6. wow , I live down town in New York city, ( in the project on 10 street and avenue D, and I remember all the fun and how much I learn at the Christodora house , I was just tell my husband of 51 years about all the fun I had there , he had never heard of it , so I look it up on the net and to my surprise i seen this web site .It was in the button of my building at 154 & 152 Avenue d , and all so went to the fresh Air , every summer , I only wish I know what happen to the pictures they took every year , all the kids in our building as well as other building would have there picture taken if you were enroll in the Christodora house , I think it was 25 cents for the year, and you got this card made out of clay . i want to say I learn how to sew there and still sew , the good old day Victoria

  7. My late mother-in-law, maiden name Esther Freedberger, who lived on East 10th Street in the early days of the 20th century, often spoke of being one of the “Christadora girls”. She and her friends, all Jewish, enjoyed the programs of the settlement; she never mentioned to me any attempts to proselytize any of them. I believe her experiences there enabled her to become the competent, loving woman I knew many years later.

    • Thank you for the comment. I really appreciate it. I am going to forward your comment to Dr. June Hopkins who is the granddaughter of Harry Hopkins who met and married his first wife (a Jewish staff member) while working there early in his famous career. By the way, Christadora House still exists. Regards, Jack Hansan

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