Post Gold Rush, San Francisco often paired great wealth with grinding poverty. Unaccompanied children from working families played in streets lined with housing so crowded that disease, and fires, spread quickly.
The desperation witnessed by a privileged young woman named Elizabeth Armer drove her to tend to the poor, the sick, and especially the neglected children in her adopted city.
Impressed by her devotion, the local Catholic clergy in 1872 guided Armer to found the Sisters of the Holy Family—the first U.S. women religious group established West of the Mississippi—to help ease the plight of the City’s youngest impoverished residents.
She was a determined leader.
“You must be out of the house in the morning by 8:30 and among the people. We must always go to the people; they should not have to come to us,” she told her congregation.
Those who joined Sister Dolores—the name Armer chose when she took her vows in 1880—would make history by opening day homes to educate and care for the children of the poor. Like Armer, they trained and prepared to take vows of their own with the help of Charles Messea, S.J., founder of then-Santa Clara College’s science department, and spiritual director for the Sisters.
By 1906, they operated three such day homes in the City and after the earth shook that year, the Sisters taught children in tents until they could build again. The day homes and the order’s other social work became a vital part of life for many in the Western United States.
“It did not matter where you came from; everyone would have the same rich, educational experience,” says Michael Contreras ’98, the second generation of his family to attend St. Elizabeth’s Day Home in San Jose, where his mother was a social worker.