Mother Jones: A Model of Catholic Action for Today?

“I’m not a humanitarian. I’m a hell-raiser.”  ~ Mother Jones

It was a long drive from South Bend to Jefferson City, and I had a van full of cranky, road-weary kids. We were on I-55 heading south through Illinois to visit Aunt Mary Katherine, and the sooner we got there, the better.

Then a brown highway marker loomed on the horizon, and everybody knew what that meant: A reduction in speed, dad quickly scanning the sign, and then (most likely) a detour and delay as we tracked down a “Point Of Historical Interest.”

To a degree, I sympathized with my children. Those brown highway signs were the bane of my own family vacations growing up—my dad couldn’t resist them. No matter how obscure the event or reference, and regardless of our itinerary or tight schedule, a brown highway sign always meant a stop.

Often, the POHI did turn out to be pretty lame—an empty field that might’ve once held a factory, or maybe a gulley marking the border of a long forgotten settlement. You get the idea.

Sometimes, however, my dad hit paydirt, and a brown sign would lead us to a site of undeniable historical magnitude. In such cases, even my preadolescent stubbornness would give way, and I’d join my father in reveling in a proximal connection with the momentous past.

And that day on I-55 with my own kids? I was sure I had stumbled on a winner.

“Hey, kids,” I called out from the driver’s seat. “It’s the burial place of Mother Jones!”

“Who?” a sleepy voice inquired.

“Mother Jones,” I said, “a famous trouble-maker. Let’s check this out.”

“Nooo-ooo, dad,” came the cry in unison. Too late—we took the off-ramp, and we headed over to Mount Olive and the Union Miners Cemetery.

Once called “the most dangerous woman in America,” Mary Harris Jones was an Irish Catholic dressmaker and schoolteacher who went on to become the most famous (infamous?) labor organizer of her times. After losing her husband and four children to yellow fever in 1867, and then losing everything else in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Mary dedicated the rest of her life to the working poor, and became the de facto face of the labor movement—and its most ardent champion.

For example, when the press refused to cover unsafe mill conditions for child workers in Pennsylvania, she led a Children’s March to President Roosevelt’s residence in New York in 1903—although, in the end, the President refused to see her. On the other hand, Jones was able to meet with the likes of J.D. Rockefeller after a group of striking Colorado coal miners and their families were slaughtered in the 1914 Ludlow Massacre. After meeting with Jones, Rockefeller made the trip out West to visit the mines he owned and then introduced significant reforms.

Jones was probably best known for her solidarity with the miners of West Virginia—her “boys” as she called them—as they agitated for safer working conditions, and she was not afraid to take to the streets with them. She defied strike-breakers, disregarded threats to her life, and was jailed numerous times. Never afraid to take on all comers, Mary tirelessly served all who required her aid, starting with her beloved coal miners—the “slaves of the caves,” as she called them—but virtually anyone else burdened by hardship or injustice. Once, when asked where she actually resided, she replied, “Well, wherever there is a fight.”

Wearing her trademark fusty black dress and hat, Jones crisscrossed the country well into her 70s on behalf of the downtrodden and forgotten—a steadfast dedication that earned her the universal moniker of “Mother.” Even Dorothy Day, no stranger to selfless service, admired her tenacity and resolve:

Right now I’m in a feeble state. Too conscious of my 79 years! But Mother Jones, the great labor organizer, tramped the country from Colorado to West Virginia at a great age!

Despite Mother Jones’s socialist flirtations (and the fact that her name has now become synonymous with an exceptionally “progressive” magazine), she was actually quite a traditionalist. Far from being a proto-feminist, for example, she not only assailed the idea of women entering the workforce (because their absence from the home and child-rearing led to juvenile delinquency), but even fiercely opposed women’s suffrage. “You don’t need the vote,” she would say, “to raise hell!” Moreover, Jones was an unabashed Christian, and “drew heavily on biblical lessons and imagery to inspire her ‘boys’ the union workers and offer them a vision of a happier future” (Catholic University).

Jones died in the arms of the Church in 1930, and she was given a funeral at St. Gabriel’s Church in Washington, D.C. Afterwards, her body was shipped to Illinois where she was honored with another funeral Mass attended by an overflow crowd at Mt. Olive’s Ascension Church. “Because of her great struggle for economic justice,” Father J.W.R. Maquire said in his homily, “she became a world figure.” She was laid to rest in the country’s only union owned cemetery, close by the graves of miners who died in the 1898 Battle of Virden labor conflict.

Of course, none of that mattered to my kids as they clambered about the Mother Jones memorial. They were too young to comprehend such details at the time, and, to tell the truth, I wasn’t even aware of most of them when I insisted on diverting our journey to her resting place. So, aside from paying our respects, what was the point of stopping?

Two reasons at least.

First, to highlight the sacramentality of place. As we drove down the highway, I could’ve just settled for pointing out the roadside sign and making a general comment about Mother Jones, but the act of physically seeking out her grave enfleshed her memory with an actual encounter and it became a pilgrimage. Plus, the towering memorial itself was testimony to the fact that Mother Jones mattered—my kids didn’t have to take my word for it. Finally, a prayer for the repose of her soul said on the road as we sped by the marker would’ve been just as efficacious as the one we said at her graveside, I suppose, but I think our stopping made it all the more seemly, not to mention more edifying.

Second, and maybe more importantly, I wanted to honor Jones’s impetuosity. Although I didn’t know much about her life at the time, I was confident of her reputation as a scrapper and a rabble-rouser, especially on behalf of the poor, and those were traits I definitely wanted to hold up to my family for emulation. “The Christian is not to ‘be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord,’” the Catechism teaches us, quoting St. Paul. “In situations that require witness to the faith, the Christian must profess it without equivocation.” It’s precisely what we hear in the readings these days following Easter as Apostles go about disrupting the peace in Jerusalem.

While Peter and John were still speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple guard, and the Sadducees confronted them, and put them in custody. But many of those who heard the word came to believe.

Jones was a show-boater, it’s true, and maybe not always the most prudent. Yet she was absolutely dedicated to the underdogs of her day, and her Catholic formation clearly informed her flamboyant efforts to better their lot. “Pray for the dead,” she famously recommended, summarizing her unique vision of Catholic Action, “and fight like hell for the living.” What’s more, she got others to follow her radical lead. “Wherever she went,” Sinclair Lewis wrote of Jones, “the flame of protest leaped up in the hearts of men.” Truly, Mother Jones lived a life that modeled what the Catechism calls the “transmission of the faith in words and deeds.”

Many years have passed since we made that brief stop in Mount Olive, and I was curious about its lasting impact—if any. So I recently asked my two oldest what they remembered about Mother Jones. “She was a labor organizer,” Joan answered. “Also, it’s a left-wing magazine, I think.”

“Not bad,” I thought to myself. I pressed her for any associated childhood recollections.

“Like what?”

“Like visiting her gravesite.”

“No, you’re kidding, right?” came the answer. “I don’t remember anything like that.”

Ben’s response was even leaner. “Who was she again?”

“Basically an agitator,” I told him. “We visited her burial place once when you were little.”

“You’re such a liberal, dad,” he came back.

Perhaps. Even so, it would seem I’m in good company.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is President Coolidge and Mary Harris “Mother” Jones in 1924. A version of this essay first appeared April 11 on the author’s blog “A Thousand Words a Week.”

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Richard Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He blogs regularly at God-Haunted Lunatic.

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