Saint Joseph's Home for Working Girls

A five-story red brick Georgian Revival-style building on street corner
Saint Joseph's Home for Working Girls, Worcester, Massachusetts

Photograph by Brian Lever, courtesy of Massachusetts State Historic Preservation Office

Quick Facts
52 High St.reet, Worcester, Massachusetts
Architecture, Social History, Women’s History
Listed in the National Register – Reference number 100006777
The Saint Joseph’s Home for Working Girls (St. Joseph’s Home) was built to provide temporary housing for women in Worcester, Massachusetts. Today, St. Joseph’s Home, which is known as Abby’s House, is used as a temporary shelter and affordable housing for women. Saint Joseph’s Home for Working Girls is a well-preserved example of an early 20th-century boarding house for working women. The five-story Georgian Revival-style main block and the Georgian Revival-style three-story annex were designed by Worcester architect Edward Fitzgerald and built by contractor James McDermott. The first two stories of the annex were constructed in 1920, while its third story and the entire main block were constructed in 1925.

Established by the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy (Sisters of Mercy), a Roman Catholic religious order, St. Joseph’s Home had its origin in the late 19th century when the founders adapted a series of former dwellings, which stood on the present site, for housing for working women. The city of Worcester's population grew rapidly during the late 19th-century as both native New Englanders and immigrants arrived in search of employment in the various mills and factories. Many working-class women of Irish, Italian, and Eastern-European heritage came to Worcester in search of work, yet many were unable to secure employment. With the increase in population came the need for a wide range of social services.

Recognition of the need for more housing led the Sisters of Mercy to open a home for “working girls.” The home was established to be a safe place for working women to live, and it was an effort to prevent homelessness and facilitate transition to permanent housing. Initially called Our Lady of the Wayside, it was established in 1895 in a pre-existing house (not extant) that was part of St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church complex. While it was established by a Catholic organization and likely appealed to Catholic women, the home was open to women of all denominations. St. Paul’s Church experienced a rapid expansion in membership at the beginning of the 20th century, largely due to the high number of Catholic immigrants arriving in Worcester. Steady expansion within the city continued until the end of the First World War, at which time there were over 187,000 residents, many of whom were foreign-born. However, after 1920 local commerce began to stagnate, as many of the city’s manufacturers were consolidated, and population figures declined. As businesses closed, many who had the means left the city to find work. At the same time, a significant portion of the population that remained in Worcester struggled to get by. This period of economic and social change in the 1920s coincided with an increase in church membership and an expansion of the Sisters’ charitable services. 

To meet this need the annex was built in 1920 and the main block in 1925. The main building featured 46 bedrooms while the annex held 22. The first floor of the home had two parlors in the main block and a dining area in the annex, with recreation space located in the basement of the main block. The upper floors all contained the resident units and shared bathrooms. Informal instruction from the Sisters, such as sewing and cooking classes, apparently took place in the common spaces.

Fifty women were listed as residing at St. Joseph’s Home in 1920 prior to construction of the annex, after which there were 79 residents. The majority were single and in their twenties and thirties. Nearly all were Massachusetts-born, many of Irish or Eastern-European descent, but there were also some Irish immigrants. Most of the women worked and held positions including saleslady, stenographer, servant, clerk, bookkeeper, and machine operator. Residents stayed for weeks or months at a time, in some cases years, but generally this was a transition point toward more permanent housing. 

In 1928, St. Joseph’s Home housed 63 women. The 1930 census lists 41 women boarding at the home, demonstrating a significant decrease. The women ranged in age from 18 to 84, but most were between 20 and 40. Nearly all were single while a few were widows. Many were employed in domestic, factory, administration, and sales positions. Some held positions as public school teachers and nurses. Even in the early years of the Great Depression, only five residents were listed as unemployed in 1930, demonstrating the continued emphasis on providing housing for those who could work.

In the late 1930s residency at St. Joseph’s Home was more often long-term, with roughly 50 percent of residents remaining up to five years, likely as a result of limited employment options during the Great Depression prompting the women to stay in their current jobs and housing. Beginning in the 1950s, Worcester and surrounding cities saw an increase in Puerto Rican and Latin American immigrants, driven by the US Department of Labor’s Farm Infirmary Program. The influx of immigrants temporarily forestalled a population decline. Known as a home for immigrants, St. Joseph’s Home housed many women from a variety of countries as Worcester’s population diversified, in particular the Caribbean (especially Puerto Rico) and Latin American countries. Over its entire history, St. Joseph’s Home housed women from 43 countries.

Built to provide housing and such social services as cooking and sewing classes for working women, the home continued to serve women in need throughout the 20th century, and today serves as a shelter and affordable housing for women under the name Abby’s House. Saint Joseph’s Home was operated by the Sisters of Mercy until 2001, but the building remains a home for women up to the present. St. Joseph’s Home for Working Girls, now under the ownership and management of Abby’s House, underwent a tax-advantaged rehabilitation in 2019.

Last updated: February 15, 2022