While our girls campus didn’t open until 1987, Mercy Home began its tradition of serving young women long before that through its Rita Clubs.
Named for St. Rita and Rita Eppig, the niece of Archbishop George W. Mundelein, the Rita Clubs were homes opened through the city of Chicago for working young women. These homes were meant to assist women living in the city “without the protection of Home or guidance and direction of relatives or friends.” Residents paid a nominal fee to live in the Rita Clubs based on their earnings. The women who lived in the clubs were often not from Chicago, but from small towns in Illinois and surrounding states. Some even came from other countries. Each club was directly supervised by a house matron, as well as being overseen by Fr. Quille and Archbishop Mundelein.
In a 1922 issue of The Waifs Messenger, the Rita Clubs were explained as a passion of Fr. Quille, who would “never be satisfied until he is able to offer in the name of The Mission of Our Lady of Mercy accommodation for all Working Women, irrespective of age, nationality, and creed.” The idea of the Rita Clubs, the article went on to explain, was “to place Women in home-like surroundings and enable them, even though their means are limited, to better their conditions and to help those they love without endangering their mortal souls.”
Following the idea of making each club home-like, the Rita Clubs were not set up as dormitories—they contained both private single and double rooms. Each room was outfitted with a bed, large closet, dresser, table or stand with an electric lamp, and two chairs (one straight-backed, one a rocker). Also included were free hand towels, bath towels, facial and bath soap, and laundry service. The residents received breakfast and dinner each day.
The first Rita Club opened on October 1, 1921, in a four-story building located at 1700 West Jackson Blvd, only blocks from Mercy Home. Archbishop Mundelein was at the opening to dedicate and bless the building, which had space to house 50 young women.
Fr. Quille explained in the December 1921 issue of The Waifs Messenger that they could have filled the home “in two weeks,” but standards for who could live at the home were set very high. “The standard of Rita Club Number One we knew would be the scale on which future Rita Clubs would be weighed,” he wrote. “We, therefore, determined to aim so high that even if we missed our mark we could not fall to a low level.”
From the start, hopes for the Rita Clubs were high. “A start has been made, and I hope with your help and the continued help of the multitude of sympathizers outside, it will grow by leaps and bounds so that the Rita Clubs may be many and in all sections of the city,” Archbishop Mundelein said in his address at the opening of the first Rita Club.
In that spirit, Rita Club No. 2 opened on December 8, 1922, and housed 150 women in a building located at 158-162 W. North Ave., near Lincoln Park.
The road to opening the second club was not an easy one. After finally gaining possession of the building on May 1, 1922, Fr. Quille employed the young men at Mercy Home who were part of the “Mission Trade School” to work on the building. Due to “unsettled conditions of the mercantile world,” finishing the building took longer than scheduled when furnishings arrived months later than promised.
Despite these delays, the Rita Clubs were in enormous demand by the young working women of Chicago. By 1923, each club had a long waiting list and Fr. Quille was determined to open the third Rita Club as soon as possible.
The third Rita Club opened sometime in 1924-1925. Located at 6328-6336 Woodlawn Ave. on the south side of Chicago, this club also housed 150 young women. With the opening of this club, Rita Clubs were now on every side of the city.
At some point in the late 1920s, an age limit was set requiring that residents be under the age of 25. Those in financially stable positions, such as nurses or teachers, were also not eligible for residency, in order to focus on serving those who needed the help of the Rita Clubs the most.
Each club submitted notes to Waifs occasionally about the various activities they were involved in. These notes show a home full of thriving young women who, after enjoying dinner together, gathered in the living room to listen to the radio, chat, play bridge, and sing or dance. On weekends, they went rowing in the Garfield Park Lagoon and took trips together. The Rita Clubs were lively places where the young women truly felt at home.
Though these clubs eventually closed, they certainly laid the framework for the importance of helping young women and building the bonds of sisterhood in Mercy Home’s later years.