The "Godmother of Guadalupe"

Dorothy Gallagher with children
Dorothy Gallagher with children

Dorothy Gallagher was born on January 8, 1894, to a wealthy Kansas City family. Not content to live quietly in affluence, Gallagher gained interest in a Catholic women’s group called the Agnes Ward Amberg Club, which carried out social work in Mexican communities in the west side of the city.

A sizable Mexican population in Kansas City originated in the late 1800s after the U.S. government strictly limited Chinese and Japanese immigration, which caused the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroad companies to hire Mexican laborers for construction of railroads in the Southwest. Some of these lines connected to Kansas City and brought Mexican immigrants. A second large migration came with refugees from the 1910 Mexican Revolution, many of whom were Catholics fleeing persecution by the incoming regime.

When they arrived at Kansas City most Mexicans faced racial and language barriers. Many landlords refused to rent to Mexicans, causing them to live in railroad boxcars or other shanties. There were virtually no Spanish-speaking institutions such as churches, markets, or schools. Their first parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe, opened in 1914 with Fr. Jose Muñez serving as the first priest. The name Guadalupe referred to the patron saint of Mexico.

The first church initiated a barrio style of community organization, which was a Mexican term referring to a community with strong social and economic ties. By pooling resources, the immigrants could form their own institutions and cope with living in an unfamiliar culture. The Amberg Club opened the Guadalupe Center at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish at 1015 West 23rd Street in 1922 to assist the barrio. In essence, the Center’s goal was to help Mexican immigrants adjust to American life while still maintaining much of their cultural heritage.

On a practical level, this meant the Center offered English classes, instructed newcomers on applying for jobs, organized communal activities, and operated a health clinic. The biggest event preserving Mexican culture was the fiesta on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It featured courtship dances, mariachi bands, food stands, and games. The fundraising contributed to the Guadalupe Center’s general operations.

The Gallagher family donated land for a large Spanish Mission-style building to house the growing organization in 1936. Working at the Guadalupe Center without pay, Gallagher became known as the “Godmother of Guadalupe” until she left in 1944. After 1944 she resumed social work in war-torn France, taught classes at the University of Kansas and College of St. Teresa, and returned to public welfare work in the Kansas City area before dying in 1982.

Unfortunately, aside from a few newspaper articles and some brief descriptions in local histories, Gallagher’s contributions have not been well-remembered. Guadalupe Centers, Inc., on the other hand, operates today as a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the Latino communities of the greater Kansas City area with services such as employment assistance, a credit union, a health center, counseling, youth programs, a preschool program, and the Alta Vista Charter High School.

 

Read biographical sketches of early Hispanic leaders in Kansas City, prepared by the Missouri Valley Special Collections, The Kansas City Public Library.

 

Check out the book Kansas City Women of Independent Minds by Jane Fifield Flynn that contains a biographical description of Dorothy Gallagher on pages 67-69.

 

View images of the Guadalupe Center that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections. These are just a handful of the hundreds of photographs in the collection.

 

Continue researching Dorothy Gallagher and the Guadalupe Center using archival material from the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

 

References:

Duncan, John T. and Severiano Alonzo. Guadalupe Center: 50 Years of Service. Kansas City, Missouri, 1972.

Flynn, Jane Fifield. Kansas City Women of Independent Minds. Kansas City, MO: Fifield Publishing, 1992.

Magerl, Barbara. Biography of Dorothy Gallagher, Social Worker. Missouri Valley Special Collections, 1999.

Schirmer, Sherry Lamb. Historical Overview of the Ethnic Communities in Kansas City. Kansas City, MO: Pan-Educational Institute, 1976.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a digital history specialist and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. He earned a doctorate in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column. For assistance with general local history questions, please contact the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
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Comments:

To all the ,(Directors) past

To all the ,(Directors) past and present, I was born and raised in the west side and all my parents, family, and relatives have help out with the center in one way or another. And i'm very proud to be a westsider. THANK YOU MANUEL AGUIRRE

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