Evolution of Girls' Town

An Idea: Boys Town as a Model

Father Edward J. Flanagan (1886-1948) became famous as the founder of an orphanage for boys in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1917, which developed into  Boys Town,  "one of the largest non-profit child care and healthcare organizations in the country" serving troubled youth and those without family resources. ("Boys Town Kicks off Centennial Celebration,"  October 26, 2016;  Stevens, C. J. (2010). Father Flanagan and the founding of Boys Town: Omaha, Nebraska (1917-1925). American Catholic Studies, 121(1), 91-97.)  Boys Town captured the popular imagination as the subject of a 1938 Oscar-winning film starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney.  Flanagan was a tireless promoter of Boys Town, with its philosophy of "no bad boys":  "Boys are better capable of governing themselves than of submitting to government by adults. Don't repress a boy, give him outlets for his energies. Don't preach at him, give him the example you want him to follow. Make him responsible. Remember, there are no bad boys." (Flanagan, Edward Joseph. (1948). Current Biography (Bio Ref Bank).)  He was a prominent speaker during the 1930s and 1940s at meetings of educators and other child welfare professionals and religious and charitable organizations.

There were clearly parallels with the mission and clientele of Boys Town and that of Our Lady of the Woods.  Flanagan spoke in Cincinnati  in September 1939,  November 1940, and June 1945.  According to an article in the Cincinnati Enquirer, he reportedly suggested  a name change to Girls' Town during a visit to Our Lady of the Woods in 1945 ("'Girls Town' is Inaugurated at First Fete in Carthage Institution’s 59-Year History,"  9/24/1945). Though there is no formal documentation of Flanagan's direct involvement in the name change, by September 1945, Our Lady of the Woods had adopted the name  Girls' Town of America.

Funding the Model

To fund this evolution, Joseph H. Albers, a member of the Board of Directors and a local car dealer, co-chaired the first Festival Planning Committee with Justin A. Rollman. The considerable efforts of Albers, Rollman, and other civic leaders  to publicize the first festival in the local press and in brochures touting the positive effects of the programs at Girls' Town were highly successful, with attendance estimated at 60,000.

Inspired by Boys Town,  Albers and Rollman were boosters of expanding Girls' Town's services and physical facilities.  Local newspaper articles reported various ambitious plans.  For example, a  1946 article said, "A program is being launched to make 'Girls' Town' rival 'Boys' Town,' Nebr. A model village, with new buildings, street, and even a weekly newspaper is envisioned, Albers said." ("Sophie Tucker Planning to Join Sunday Throng at Girls' Town Festival," Cincinnati Enquirer, July 12, 1946, 10:8.) In a 1947 speech, Rollman described "the proposed expansion of Our Lady of the Woods School--'Girls' Town'--at the Provincial Convent of the Good Shepherd, Carthage, [which] would include rasing [sic] the present old buildings and erecting modern ones at a cost of $2,000,000.  The result would be a model village, with a postoffice, newspaper, city hall and streets named in honor of philanthropists who have aided the growth of 'Girls' Town.'" ("Rollman Urges the Rebuilding of Girls' Town Housing," Cincinnati Times-Star, December 9. 1947,  2)  In 1948: "Receipts from the fete are expected to add materially to the Girls Town building expansion fund, the goal of which is $100,000.  New buildings planned at the institution include a $50,000 school, a theater, newspaper plant, a swimming pool and a town hall in addition to street construction. ("Cincinnati Officialdom to Aid Girls Town," Cincinnati Enquirer, July 6, 1948, 8.)  And in 1950: "Plans for a national campaign to raise several million dollars for a building and rehabilitation program at Girls Town of American...was announced Friday...the nucleus for the program will be provided by annual festivals similar to the 1950 festival to be held July 9...The bulk of the money, however, is to be obtained through a drive for "honorary citizens" and endowments from philanthropists. ("National Campaign for Girls Town Set," Cincinnati Post, June 6, 1950, 13.)

The first of the annual festivals, which continued for the next quarter century, took place in September 1945.  The initial rationale for the festivals was the need for funds to maintain the aging buildings and grounds.  Like other Houses of the Good Shepherd,  Our Lady of the Woods " received some per diem money from the state for each girl admitted from the local court [and] money from the Community Chest ... as charity providers. Families were asked to contribute financially on a sliding scale. The majority of the Good Shepherd schools supplemented their income by doing commercial laundry and sewing embroidered clothing. Rural facilities had gardens and small animal farms for provision of food. The girls in the facilities provided the manual labor as part of the re-education process. Each facility managed this workforce with slight variation according to the prosperity and socioeconomic climate of the community. Essentially, the labor supported the facility without formal wages for the workers. " (Phillips, N.  2008. "Education for girls in the House of the Good Shepherd in the United States, 1940 to 1980." Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Cleveland State University, Cleveland, OH.)

Festivals Put Spotlight on Girls' Town ...

The festivals were a way to change the image of Girls' Town from a mysterious , closed-off place perceived by the public as a penal institution, to a nurturing and supportive force in the lives of girls who needed help.  A brochure called "Happy Days at Girls' Town" and the many newspaper articles about the annual festivals and the good the Sisters were doing  were ways in which the Festival Committee reached out to the public with great success.  The festivals featured booths (including those selling the nuns' needlework), rides, food, games, and car raffles, and became a summer fixture for residents of the surrounding neighborhoods and beyond.

... But Not without Problems

Even with the leadership of energetic businessmen and an army of volunteers, the annual festivals took their toll.  The Sisters appreciated the successful fundraising efforts but, behind the scenes, some questioned the vision and the effort required to put on the festivals.  

Sister Mary Sylvester, Provincial, wrote to Archbishop Alter, December 1, 1950:

"We are fortunate to have a committee of men interested in the progress of Girls' Town, through whose efforts much has been accomplished here in the past five years.  These men are most enthusiastic about an expansion program, and we must say that thus far they have supported their enthusiasm with results.  Recently at a meeting, the question of improvements in the way of new buildings, etc., came up for discussion.  We immediately informed the good gentlemen that nothing could be considered until they first submitted their ideas to your Excellency, as no major program would be undertaken without first obtaining your approval.

"When you have the opportunity to make visitation of our Institution dear Archbishop, your Excellency will see that the buildings are outdated.  While we also recognize the need of new buildings, we of course would not entertain any project of an elaborate nature or one too large.

"In reference to which Rt. Rev. Monsignor August J. Kramer, Director, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati wrote to Archbishop Alter, 'Up until five years ago the Institution was known as "Our Lady of the Woods" but when this group of men of whom Mother Sylvester writes in her letter came into the picture, the name was changed to 'Girls' Town of America.'  A Mr. Joseph Albers of St. James Parish, Wyoming, was the organizer of the Board of Directors and the prime planner in the group.  From my conversations with Mr. Albers I gathered that his dream was to expand Girls' Town to a position comparable to that of Boys' Town of America, with a large Intake, and eventually to build sufficient support for it nationally that it would no longer need the Community Chest.

"After consultation with His Grace, the late Most Reverence Archbishop McNicholas, I informed Mr. Albers that His Grace did not wish such a program established in the Archdiocese.  I have endeavored from time to time to point out to Mr. Albers as tactfully as I can that it would be better in the interest of Child Welfare Services for his group to assist the Sisters to strengthen the present program rather than to embark on a wide expansion.  I tried to convey to him that there were a number of Good Shepherd institutions in this area, serving the same purpose as Girls' Town.  I feel doubtful that Mr. Albers was ever completely convinced of my reasoning and he possibly still holds on to his idea of a large number of admissions to Girls' Town.  Actually, there are a large number of men associated with Mr. Albers on the Board who do understand the value of strengthening the present set-up rather than extend it so generally and, while they do not approve of Mr. Albers' plan, they continue to work for the Institution because of their devotion to it.  I have tried diplomatically to secure an invitation to their Board meetings in the hope of discussing with the entire group the field of Child Welfare Service but have failed in this attempt.

"Under the chairmanship of Mr. Albers fetes have been held for the past five years and considerable money has been raised.  Since I do not receive a statement of the financial results, the best information I could ever get was through other members of the Board.  The figures I quote are, therefore, approximate, ergo:  in five years they have netted $125,000 from a gross receipt of $230,000.  Some of this money has been used for improvements such as modernizing an old laundry on the premises for school purposes, pointing up some of the buildings on the property and some heating, plumbing and minor repairs.

"From discussions with the Sisters in the Institution I believe they are thinking of a type of institution similar to "Vista Maria" in Detroit.  Factually, I question whether the Sisters are wholeheartedly in favor of big expansion in their Intake but they go along with Mr. Albers because of his ability to raise funds for their needs.  He does devote a full month of his time to the fete and is probably very sincere in his efforts -- but he is rigid in his notions about Child Welfare.  Without doubt, there are needs at Girls' Town since the building is very old and of a rambling type that is costly to heat and to keep in repair.  The dormitories for the girls are large, the dining rooms inadequate and unattractive. The recreational programs could be improved, especially with regard to the out-door equipment for play.  The medical program is weak.  The housekeeping standards are good.  This institution is certified by the State Department of Welfare which, of course, indicates that at least the minimum standards are met, however, in going through the building, some question has arisen in my mind relative to the possibility of the fire hazard in the structural set-up and living arrangements...

"If I may state my personal opinion, I believe that some type of building program might be in order.  However, any building program should be set up in the light of specific services which the Institution is to offer.  I feel certain that, in their present area of service, the program itself, could be strengthened and if this group of men could be made to see it that way and help the Sisters along that line, the best results would follow.  In any solicitation for funds, or fund-raising endeavors, perhaps there should be some distinction between what is to go for buildings which serve the girls and what for buildings occupied by the many Sisters stationed there in the Provincial Convent." (Rt. Rev. Monsignor August J. Kramer, Director, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati to Archbishop Alter, December 15, 1950. Archdiocese of Cincinnati Archives, Archbishop Alter papers, Belmont Avenue, Religious Communities, Box 10, Good Shepherd Sisters (Carthage) 1950-1973)

Sr. M. Rose Virginie, RGS wrote to Archbishop Alter, June 16, 1967: "Our work here at Girls' Town is so very difficult. The laborers are few and the work more demanding than ever.  It is pressure more than anything that is driving our Sisters out.  They do not lack in prayer and zeal and generosity, but their human personality is limited physically and emotionally considered.  As pastor please help our Sisters to devote more of their time to taking care of children's needs than to running festivals that sap our strength and are a source of scandal to many of our separated brethren and often lead to so much discord within a community." (Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Alter Papers Box 6 - Religious Communities.  Sisters of the Good Shepherd [file 1])

To which his aide replied, "As regards the festival and the attendant fuss and distraction (to say the least), I have long lamented this intrusion into the peace and tranquility of the convent.  I am sure that it does not improve the lot of the Sisters spiritually, but I'm not so sure that it does less than good for the girls.  Perhaps it is a boon to them -- to see that people, so many people, really do care about the work the good Sisters are doing.  And that means trying to help them.  I believe it could give them a big lift.  However, I do believe that such events are coming to less and less prominence, and will disappear in the note too distant future.  But I expect the big ones like yours, to be among the last to survive." (July 8, 1967)

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