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Friday, December 24, 2010

Esther Lovejoy's Paris Settlement House, La Residence Sociale, Still Going Strong, and Esther Lovejoy's Christmas Eve 1917

During her wartime service in France in 1917-1918 Esther Lovejoy lived and worked at a settlement house, La Residence Sociale, in a working-class factory district of Paris. Settlement houses were reformers' solution to early twentieth century urban problems -- an oasis of social services in the midst of inner city needs.
The best known U.S. settlement house was Chicago's Hull House, directed by Jane Addams joined by a host of reformers. Addams famously outlined two roles for social settlement houses -- the "objective value" providing services to urban residents in need, and the "subjective value" to settlement house workers themselves who were forging new careers in social service, often women who carved out new opportunities.
Esther Lovejoy worked with Marie-Jeanne Bassot, the Parisian Jane Addams, and experienced both the objective and subjective sides of its service. After her return to the States she continued to support and raise funds for the Residence Sociale and was a frequent visitor. Lovejoy and Bassot maintained a strong friendship and worked as colleagues in social reform.
In association with conference travel this month I had the incredible good fortune to visit the Residence Sociale.

La Residence Sociale is still in use today -- more in the next post about its work and the neighborhood honoring Marie Bassot.
For today, let me share part of what Esther Lovejoy wrote about her Christmas Eve of 1917 at La Residence Sociale, from her House of the Good Neighbor (MacMillan, 1919), a book about her experiences in France during the First World War.
Lovejoy had bronchitis and sciatica and came from a military camp to La Residence Sociale on Christmas Eve to recuperate. The only person there was the cook, Madam Fleuret.
"The room was lighted by a solitary candle supplemented by a reluctant fire in the grate and the feeble flames made wavering, fantastic shadows on the wall. My storm coat was hanging on the hat-rack in the corner. It was surmounted by a German helmet showing a bullet-hole, which the American boy who gave me the helmet said was made by an American bullet . . . [Madame Fleuret left] me alone with that German ghost . . . As the fire burned lower his features seemed dimly outlined. He did not look like a Hun. There was nothing about him to suggest Bismark or Von Hindenburg. I had seen so many boys in the War Zone that boys were on my mind and heart. Perhaps that is why he looked so young, so like an innocent boy protesting against a cruel fate that had marked him for this sacrifice. He was dead -- cut off in his youth when he had just tasted life and found it sweet, and somewhere, beyond the Rhine, this Noel night was bleak and blank to his mother. No he was not a Hun. He was just a boy, an average type of the uncounted millions of the boys of different nations that had died in that same zone during the succeeding ages of war. . . there in the corner stood War--not the martial figure of Mars as it is usually depicted, but a fair young boy cut off in his youth when life was very sweet." (Lovejoy, House of the Good Neighbor, 214-18).
Lovejoy worked for the next fifty years to provide medical humanitarian relief. This was a result of her belief, forged in the war, that social justice and international health -- not war, poverty and disfranchisement -- were the only possible paths to take.
May all of us take action along this same path to peace, social justice and health as we end 2010 and enter 2011.