2010-08-21 / Columnists

Amberg Family, Mother Cabrini Provide Help to Italian-Americans

A Look at History Amberg Family
BY FRANK STRAUS

William A. Amberg became a leader at both Chicago and Mackinac Island in the 1890s as the inventor of a file-folder system for filing and retrieving loose business documents. With the fortune made from his temporary control over this invention, he and his wife, Sarah Agnes Ward, purchased the West Bluff’s Westover cottage, remodeling it in 1892 to become Edgecliff Cottage. Mr. Amberg also became president of his city’s Columbus Club of Chicago, a support group for the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition and then a Roman Catholic networking and service organization.

The Amberg family suffered a setback, however, in 1897 with the finding of the federal appellate court in “Amberg File & Index Co. v. Shea, Smith & Co.” By 1897, some of the value of the Amberg filing system consisted of what we now call “intellectual property” – in particular, the probabilistic distribution of American proper nouns around certain initial letters of the alphabet. Shea Smith started making and selling filing systems that closely resembled the Amberg system, and when Amberg File sued, their counsel’s response was that the Shea Smith system was not an infringement. The Chicago appellate court agreed with Shea Smith, and so the Amberg family no longer held a controlling share of the file-folder market.

View from Chicago Avenue on Mackinac Island Photograph courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) View from Chicago Avenue on Mackinac Island Photograph courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) In the years following the 1897 “Shea Smith” decision, Mr. Amberg, who was now 50, began to pull back from his full-time business leadership responsibilities at Amberg File & Index. Although the firm continued in business until the founder’s death in 1918, and appears to have been successful, the Amberg family seems to have turned toward other goals and achievements.

The 1880s and 1890s, meanwhile, were a time of rapid immigration from Italy to the United States. One of the most energetic of these newcomers was “Mother” Frances Xavier Cabrini, who had been, in 1880, the co-founder of a new missionary order, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (the order’s name is abbreviated M.S.C. in the Italian language that many of its leaders speak to this day). Pope Leo XIII had appreciated the new order, and encouraged its leaders to raise funds and move to the United States to work with the millions of new Italian-Americans who had begun to live there. Cabrini had taken ship across the Atlantic to New York in 1889.

As Mother Cabrini worked in New York in the 1890s, the Ambergs served as financial “angels” for efforts by the Catholic church to meet the growing needs of the Italian- American community of Chicago’s West Side. As the 1890s wore on, these needs were not only material but also, as the Ambergs saw it, spiritual; an increasing percentage of the social work in this community was beginning to be carried out by the pioneer settlement-house workers of Hull-House, led by a firmly secular woman, Jane Addams. With a wholehearted desire to help out, but also – and let’s not mince words here – in competition with Hull- House, the Ambergs and their friends set up the Guardian Angel Settlement, a competing settlement house, on the Near West Side in 1898.

The Ambergs’ goal was to make the Settlement different from Hull-House. Instead of being a free-standing center of Chicago social health, the Settlement would be the secular side of a Guardian Angel Mission that would include a parish church and parochial school. The Holy Guardian Angel Church, built as a place of worship for Chicago’s Roman Catholics of Italian- American background, rose in 1899; in the same year, Mother Cabrini and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart founded the Guardian Angel parochial school.

The Guardian Angel settlement, church, and school got a lot of help from the Ambergs in getting off the ground. With Cabrini in Chicago, however, no checkbook was safe. Existing Chicago hospital-bed infrastructure was grossly inadequate to cover the exploding population of the city, and Mother Cabrini appealed to Mr. Amberg and his associates in the Columbus Club of Chicago for help. Suitable ground was available, in 1904, near Chicago’s Lincoln Park. There, in 1904-05, William Amberg, Agnes Ward Amberg, Mother Cabrini, and the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus founded a new hospital for Chicago. In honor of the help given by Mr. Amberg’s Columbus Club, they named the new health facility Columbus Hospital. It opened in April 1905. Eventually, this hospital would have 525 beds and would be an anchor of the health-care infrastructure of Chicago’s North Side.

The Ambergs kept up their ties with the West Side. In 1911 the Ambergs’ daughter, Mary Agnes Amberg, who had summered on Mackinac Island during their family’s life here, shrugged off the temptations of the West Bluff and made herself the “head resident” of the Guardian Angel Settlement. The Guardian Angel parish was so successful that the Hull- House neighborhood surrounding it came to be known to Chicagoans as “Little Italy.” Its churchgoers were numerous and enthusiastic. As first-generation Americans, they had little money at first, but with the Ambergs’ help, this gap had been filled. The Ambergs’ generosity had played a key role in the formation of an entire ethnic neighborhood.

William Amberg would die on Mackinac Island in the summer of 1918. The Guardian Angel Church, for which he had been a financial angel, would continue as one of the backbones of Chicago’s West Side for decades. After World War I, Mary Agnes Amberg, with her lifelong friend, Marie Plamondon, moved the social work center a bit further west, to Loomis Street. The renamed Madonna Center would eventually take up the challenge of settlement work among another group of newcomers: the African-Americans who had begun to move to the north. Mary Agnes continued to lead the Madonna Center until her death; the center closed in 1962.

Starting in 1905, meanwhile, Mother Cabrini made Columbus Hospital her headquarters, traveling throughout the United States, weaving together what had become a patterned life of Catholic fundraising and missionary labors. When she died at the hospital in December 1917, a network of institutions affiliated with her Order of Missionary Sisters had arisen throughout the United States. To this day, anything that bears the name “Cabrini” is likely to hearken back to this heritage.

Rome would not forget Mother Cabrini and her work. Her work had made her the principal foundress of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. After her passing, voices testified to the sanctity of the order’s pioneer leader. When Mother Cabrini was canonized in July 1946, she was the first U.S. citizen to be recognized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. The help given to St. Frances Xavier Cabrini by a Mackinac Island West Bluff family, the Ambergs, had been one of the elements that had led to the success of her work. Like other saints, she has a feast day, which is December 22.

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