This story is about unaccompanied young women who came to live in Omaha in the times when that was a new thing. These intrepid pioneers left farms and small towns across the Midwest and road the railroad to the city seeking to live a more fulfilling life on their own. A philanthropist whose family donated money for a college, a high school, a few monasteries and several churches had a paternalistic vision of a safe place to live for these secretaries, seamstresses, clerks, and other female laborers after the turn of the 20th century. This is a history of the Creighton Working Girls Home.
Opening a New Type of Institution
When Count John A. Creighton died in 1907, Omaha was bummed. The Count, who was given his title by the Pope, was widely admired for donating millions of dollars to a wide array of religious and non-secular efforts throughout the city. Along with his late sister, he funded a lot of Creighton University from the start of the institution in 1878. He donated money for several churches, including the Holy Family and St. John’s Catholic parishes, as well as several non-Catholic institutions like the Nebraska Methodist Hospital. However, one of the burning disputes after his death was his bequeathment to create a hitherto non-existent type of facility in Omaha to be called the Creighton Working Girls Home.
The nonprofit John A. Creighton Home for Working Girls was officially established in 1913. The first board of the organization was John D. Creighton, John A. McShane and John Daughtery. The original director of the home was Miss Fleharty, and she was assisted by Miss Tully and Miss Cleveland, all from from the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Count Creighton left $50,000 in his will for the creation of the home. However, there was a fight when a note he wrote was discovered that altered the will to allot $110,000 for the home instead of the original amount. A court battle ensued and the presiding judge allocated $85,000 instead, with $50,000 for construction and $35,000 for ongoing expenses.
Prolific Omaha architect John A. McDonald designed the building in 1914. His plans called for a three story rectangle building with rooms for 58 residents. Originally managed by three women from the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the residence featured a large chapel in a separate building. The Omaha World-Herald gushed when the building was opened in January, declaring,
“Count Creighton’s ideas for a great work are well carried out. Now institution extends hospitality and friendliness to girls in strange city.”– “Generous plan realized in working girls’ home,” Omaha World-Herald, January 23, 1916.
The newspaper kept gushing: “There is an enclosed porch across the whole of the home with a wide roof; the main entrance is on the west. You ring the bell and one of the three ladies comes and takes you by the hand in a frank, friendly fashion that sounds the keynote to the hospitality of the home, for is it not your as well as hers? Did not Count Creighton leave a bequest to build and maintain it?… Certainly, and now you know it.”
The newspaper fawned over the interior, giving a flowery and generous description too: “In the living room, which is the full width of the building and facing south toward the high school [Central], are leather cushioned divans and rockers, chairs and tables, a big fireplace and many rugs, and when the home is filled, the scene of evenings will be worth a picture. There is the dining room at the north end, facing east, also with tables for seventy girls; a beamed oak ceiling, high wainscoting, indirect lighting, choice china, silver and linen.” And so on…
Although a chapel was built next to the facility, residents from the home were never forced to attend. The residents were said to be half Catholic and half Protestant.
Within a month of opening, there were 25 women living in the facility, and although a priest at Creighton was assigned to the chapel, the institution was never affiliated with Creighton University. Apparently, everything hummed along in the decades afterward.
Rebranding as Creighton Hall
In 1941, the religious order left the facility permanently and the nonprofit hired an outside manager. That same year, the nonprofit changed its name to “Creighton Hall.” Rules were adopted enforcing a low-income requirement, and to ensure residents were between 17 and 24 years old. Residents were limited to a 3-year stay except with permission, along with the requirement of being employed, with a few exceptions made for students at the nearby business schools.
In October 1966, the newspaper ran another feature on it and said, “Girls and young women who qualify can still find economical board and room and a measure of security on a limited-stay basis at Creighton Hall, 2104 Davenport Street, which this year is observing its fifty-first anniversary.”
Paying $15 per week, residents had to obey strict rules, including:
- 1am check-in Sunday through Thursday, 2am on Friday and Saturday;
- No residents could leave the building after 10pm without permission;
- The entrance had “adult” supervision 24 hours a day, 7 days a week;
- Boyfriends had to register at the front desk;
- Visits by boyfriends were limited to the front parlor and they had to leave by 10:30pm;
- Residents had to dress for the dining room;
- Shorts were permitted only in bedrooms, halls, recreation and the laundry room;
- Shorts were permitted in public, but residents were told to, “Look in the mirror before you leave.”
- Residents were told to pull the shades before they turned on their bedroom lights.
The newspaper quoted a young woman from a farm in Minnesota whose older sister lived at Creighton Hall before her. “I like living here in the hall. It was quite a change living in the city and you feel a certain security with other girls like you.”
Oblate House of Studies
In fall 1971, there were only 22 residents in the hall when the nonprofit decided to close permanently. They gave the building to Creighton University, whose lawyer snidely stated “The hall has outlived its usefulness,” as the university accepted the building as a donation and the $400,000 remainder of their funds to become a scholarship for low-income women to attend the university.
After it closed, Creighton Hall lost its name and gained other purposes. The Oblate Missionaries operated a “Christian Vocation Office” there for several years, with 15-20 seminarians and priests living there. By the 1980s, the building was called the Oblate House of Studies, and was home to Omaha Pax Christi, a worldwide Catholic peace movement.
The Oblate House was demolished after 1991. Today, there’s no indication there was a ground-breaking institution on this site, whether a plaque, marker or stop on a tour. Until now, there has also been nowhere in Omaha’s written history that a fine building at North 22nd and Davenport housed thousands of residents doing important work, including moving to the city and serving their faith in the world, for more than 80 years.