Traveling on Interstate 55 between Springfield and St. Louis, the motorist sees the sign indicating the “Mother Jones Monument” at exit 44 in Mount Olive.
Mother Jones? Isn’t that a magazine?
Well, both the monument and the magazine refer to Mary Harris Jones (1837-1930), a labor organizer. Her monument is in the Union Miners Cemetery, where she is buried. According to the biography Mother Jones by Elliott J. Gorn (2001), “it was (and is) the only union-owned burial place in America, opened by United Mine Workers Local 728 in 1898.” Although Mother Jones died in Maryland on Nov. 30, 1930, it was her desire to be buried in this cemetery, along with four miners of Mount Olive who died in the Battle of Virden on Oct. 12, 1898.
Mary Harris was born in Cork, Ireland, and lived in many places, in Canada and the United States. Her biography is difficult to pull together, in part because of her mobile, peripatetic habits, but also because of a certain reticence on her part and some self-invention. We know that she worked as a teacher and dressmaker.
The obvious turning point in her life was in Memphis in 1867, when yellow fever killed her husband George Jones, and all four of their children, who were 5 years old and younger. George had been a member of the International Iron Molders Union.
Although Mary had lost her husband and children, she came to style herself “Mother,” as she considered herself as mother to workers — “boys,” as she called them — who faced exploitation and required the protections which organized labor could provide them.
Among her best-known efforts was a march in New York City in July 1903 to protest child labor. She aimed to meet President Theodore Roosevelt at his home on Long Island, but she did not manage to do so. Her oratory stirred thousands of miners and other workers in various places throughout the United States.
Mother Jones was a Catholic, and after a funeral Mass on Tuesday, Dec. 2, at St. Gabriel’s in Washington, D.C., her body was brought by train to Mount Olive, where, before her burial, admirers packed Ascension Church on Sunday, Dec. 7, and heard an oration by Father John Maguire, a fellow labor activist and president of St. Viator’s College, Bourbonnais.
Gorn’s book is silent on whether she was influenced by the teachings the Catholic Church presented in the late 19th century on the rights of workers — the outstanding example being Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter Rerum Novarum of 1891. The biography does note that she expressed impatience with many clergy, often calling them “sky pilots.” It seems that she found many clergy to be overly preoccupied with the hereafter when they needed to be focused on the here and now: the establishment of justice for workers and their families, in accord with the Christian emphasis on human dignity.
This is just an overview of the eventful life of a woman whose 90th anniversary of death is approaching, and whose 93 years of earthly existence were, and are, a call to conscience to recognize that the core of the Christian mystery — the Incarnation of God the Son — demands that we acknowledge the image of Jesus, “the carpenter’s son,” in all who seek a meaningful and dignified life in their efforts for themselves and their families.