NOLA’s Irish American heritage: The life and legacy of Eleanor McMain

McMain was a champion of social services and progressivism in the early 1900s.

by Matt Haines
March 10, 2020

New Orleanians with Irish American heritage have shaped this city for more than a century.

Margaret Haughery famously built orphanages, fed the poor and cared for the destitute in the late-1900s; boxers like Martin Burke inspired the community by going toe-to-toe with elite sportsmen from around the country in early-20th century Irish Channel’s “Bucket of Blood”; and restaurateur, Richard “Dickie” Brennan elevated the city’s cuisine via his renowned Commander’s Palace and revived Krewe of Bacchus as a tool to draw tourists to the city for Mardi Gras.

There were many others, as well, and this article focuses on one of the most important: Eleanor Laura McMain. She placed the Irish Channel’s Kingsley House into the center of several New Orleans-area progressive movements, and became known as the “Jane Addams of New Orleans.”

Her early years

McMain was born on March 2, 1860, on a farm in East Baton Rouge to a family of Scottish/Irish descent. Her father took a job as dean and secretary at Louisiana State University, and her parents provided her with a private school education — uncommon for girls to receive at the time.

She briefly became a teacher in Baton Rouge, before relocating to New Orleans in the late-1890s to train in the Free Kindergarten Association, an Episcopalian effort to design innovations in pre-school education. At the turn of the century, the association combined with the Trinity Church Mission to form Kingsley House.

Photo of Eleanor McMain, courtesy of Eleanor McMain Secondary School

Providing services to the Irish Channel

Kingsley House is an example of a settlement house, which began popping up in American cities in the last decades of the 19th century. They were designed to create educational, recreational and social services to members of often impoverished, inner-city communities. Shortly after forming, Kingsley House appointed McMain as the director with the mission of improving the integration of the city’s poor into society.

McMain traveled to Chicago to examine and learn from two settlement houses run by renowned progressive reformer and activist, Jane Addams — the Chicago Center and her famous Hull House.

She took these lessons back to New Orleans and Kingsley House grew impressively. The settlement house provided a medical clinic, a kindergarten, a library, a night school and the city’s first vocational school. McMain reorganized Kingsley’s board so that it represented more of the city by including Roman Catholic and Jewish members instead of being exclusively Episcopalian.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BzimdgEF7PB/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

In addition to providing opportunities for education and medical care, Kingsley House also became a social center. McMain established the city’s first public playground and created programming that included concerts, dances, athletic events and lessons, and select recreation specifically for children.

These services were critical to a community with thousands of immigrants trying to acclimate to their new home.

A Center of progressivism

But McMain’s work didn’t stop with Kingsley House. That was just the start of it. She called public attention to substandard urban living conditions as president of the local Tenement House Association, beginning in 1904. The next year, she led education and clean-up campaigns to eradicate yellow fever from the Irish Channel, going door to door with Kingsley House volunteers to instruct residents on preventive health measures. She lobbied the State Legislature for child labor laws, founded an anti-tuberculosis association in the city and became the first president of the Women’s League of New Orleans.

In 1910, McMain worked closely with leading New Orleans suffragettes, Kate and Jean Gordon, to pass a Women’s League-sponsored compulsory education bill.

She took a leave of absence from Kingsley House in 1912 to recover from malaria and used the opportunity to renew her relationship with Addams and to learn from her and Hull House. Later, Addams would sometimes visit New Orleans and Kingsley House, referring to it as “Little Hull House.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/B5n3lednqb5/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

McMain trained Red Cross nurses during World War I, and she collaborated with Sophie Newcomb College to establish a school for social workers at Kingsley House in 1921. This was the forerunner to the Tulane University School of Social Work, which is the fifth oldest institution of its kind in the country. That same year, she prepared the charter of the organization that would later become the United Way, and she became its president in 1927.

Her presence didn’t stop in New Orleans. In fact, it spread across the country and globe. McMain served on the board of directors for the National Federation of Settlement and Neighborhood Centers, was on the executive committee of the National Institute of Social Science, and replicated her efforts at Kingsley House at a Parisian settlement house that served 70,000 people in its first decade.

A Legacy

After returning from Paris, McMain’s health declined and she died in 1934 at home in Kingsley House at 66 years old. Her legacy, however, continues to the present day.

She was awarded the Times-Picayune Loving Cup for her community service in 1918, placing her name beside other great New Orleanians honored with the award such as Isidore Newman, Sophie B. Wright, Archbishop Philip Hannan, Leah Chase and many others. Eleanor McMain Secondary School was named after her in 1930 while McMain, herself, was still alive, and it remains a lasting monument to her incredible effect on New Orleans.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BNpfyqgDTRc/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

But perhaps the greatest testament to her legacy resides in that the Kingsley House campus still stands at 1600 Constance Street in the Irish Channel all these years later. It still serves the neighborhood and city it was originally designed to, with a mission that focuses on educating children, strengthening families and building community.

Their website notes that McMain’s “vision and legacy continues to shape the mission of Kingsley House to this day by providing services the community needs most.”

This month, let’s remember the many great Irish Americans that have made New Orleans such a special place. And, when we do, let’s not forget one of the greatest: Eleanor Laura McMain.

Eleanor McMain Secondary School
Getting there
5712 S Claiborne Ave, New Orleans, LA 70125, USA
Hours
Mon-Fri 8am–4pm
Sat Closed
Sun 9am–5pm
More Info
Kingsley House
Getting there
1600 Constance St, New Orleans, LA 70130, USA
Hours
Mon-Fri 9am–5pm
Sat-Sun Closed
More Info

Matt Haines lives in New Orleans and writes about all the cool stuff. Visit his website MattHainesWrites.com. Follow him on Social Media: FB: matthaineswrites TW: matthaineswrite IG: matthaineswrites

More Local Stories

Eat Play Stay Orlando: Sanford

On this episode of Eat Play Stay Orlando explore what’s new in the Northern part of town. Sanford has a plethora of breweries, bars, and delicious dining options to choose from.

Hometown Tragedy: The Pike County Massacre

On this episode of Hometown Tragedy: Missing in Milwaukee, we’ll explore what happened to Jerica Banks, her children, and how it impacted their community.

Six New Orleans parks that are perfect locations to celebrate 4th of July

Head to one of these six New Orleans parks to celebrate Independence Day in the city.

Cheap Date Orlando: Punk Rock & Pooches

Two Orlando couples shop vintage, search for the perfect slice, visit a post-apocalyptic saloon, and take the stage on blind dates in Orlando.

Fit and Fab: Free summer workouts in Boston

Cover photo courtesy Getty Images Looking to get fit for the summer? Still wary of COVID-19 or just looking for some sunshine while you sweat? Here are some Boston free summer workouts across the city so you can keep moving all season long! Seaport Sweat May 2 to Sept. 29 Boston’s biggest free workout series…

What’s On the Menu?: Farm-to-table

The farm-to-table movement brings locally grown foods to your plate. Not only will enjoying farm-to-table meals allow you to indulge in fresh, nutritional, seasonal dishes, but farm-to-table dining helps the environment and supports the local economy.  Check out these delicious farm-to-table restaurants in Greenville, South Carolina on the latest episode of What’s On the Menu?. …

A guide to some of the best Black-owned brunch spots in NOLA

Gather the crew together, make those reservations, and celebrate all things Black at brunch. 

A guide to Pittsburgh’s summer events must-do list

Check out our roundup below for the can’t-miss events happening in the city over the next few months.

Eat Play Stay Orlando: Tarpon Springs

In this episode of Eat Play Stay Orlando you’ll be transported to a thriving Greek community nestled on Florida’s gulf coast. From sponge diving to flaming cheese to a Greek bakery that supplies a ginormous amount of baklava to the entire country, you’re sure to fall in love with Greek culture in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

Dorchester doughnuts that pack a paczki

These traditional Polish pastries are the real deal.

mister rogers latrobe

Guide to visiting all of the Fred Rogers’ sites in Latrobe, PA

Latrobe, Pennsylvania, is the birthplace of Fred Rogers. Less than an hour from Pittsburgh, here is what to see in Mister Rogers’ Latrobe.

obscure pittsburgh history

Six stories of obscure Pittsburgh history you probably haven’t heard yet

6 fun facts about the Steel City that you may not know

Indiana, PA: The Christmas Tree Capital of the World

Tracing its Christmas Tree roots back to 1918, local farmers are keeping the Christmas spirit alive just an hour from Pittsburgh in Indiana, PA.

Nazis, Intimidation, and Espionage: How a St. Charles Mansion Became Part of a WWII Conspiracy

It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood summer blockbuster — a vast campaign of espionage and propaganda taking place on U.S. soil that must be stopped before the fabric of America unravels. But this story isn’t fiction. Carried out from a stately St. Charles mansion, Baron Edgar von Spiegel, German Consul to New Orleans, undertook his campaign of intimidation, espionage, and misinformation.