by Heidi Grosch • Anyone who knows the history of Neighborhood House on Saint Paul’s West Side probably knows the name Constance Currie. Born March 18, 1890, in Saskatchewan, Canada, to a family with a long history of social service, she began her career at Unity House in Minneapolis. But it is her many years as director of Neighborhood House (1918–1957) that best mark her legacy.
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Founded in 1897 by the women of Mount Zion Temple, Neighborhood House has always been a place of refuge for those seeking it, the Ellis Island of Saint Paul. From the Eastern European immigrants it first served to the over fifty ethnic groups now using the new Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center, Neighborhood House has been a good neighbor to those who live in the surrounding community.
Miss Currie was still young and naïve on that hot, sultry June day in 1918 when she set off to find Neighborhood House. Assuming the work of helping new immigrants was important enough to warrant the most prestigious structure in the area, she confidently marched up to a large building with white pillars. After pounding on the door for a long time, she became frustrated. Why was no one there to greet the new director of Neighborhood House? She was quickly informed that she was at the synagogue and that Neighborhood House was a block and a half away.
From the beginning, even though surrounded by people from other countries with unfamiliar customs and speaking unfamiliar languages, Miss Currie was determined to make her time at Neighborhood House matter. She felt a community must be built on a foundation of personal relationships, so one of her first steps as new director was to get a job with the school department taking a city census. She and her assistant gathered statistical information door-to-door and soon could greet every neighbor by name. Since she lived on the third floor of Neighborhood House, Miss Currie worked incredibly long hours: “I could look out my window at night and feel the pulse beat of the hundred lights of the ‘flats’,” she later said.
Currie was a tall, imposing woman, with a strong sense of discipline. “Being at Neighborhood House is a privilege,” she would say to her young wayward charges. “If you’re not happy then I’m afraid you will have to go home and stay away from everything for 3 days, or 5 days, or 10. And after you’ve thought about it, I mean really thought about it, we’ll have another talk and see if you are really ready to return.” One visit with Miss Currie was usually enough to restore order.
She was aggressive in a time when women were not expected to be. Though she kept her personal feelings to herself, Constance Currie spoke up on issues that were important to her. She sat on the board of the National Federation of Settlements and Community Centers as well as on legislative committees, was a consultant to the United States Children’s Bureau, and in 1951 served as a delegate to the International Conference of Settlement Houses in London.
Many say that their lives are better thanks to Miss Currie. Many say that under her leadership, Neighborhood House was transformed into the oasis of hope and possibility it is today. People still look to Neighborhood House to find a teacher, an interpreter, a counselor, a confidante in times of trouble, and a community of friends. Services like emergency assistance, programs for children, adults, and seniors, English classes, cultural empowerment groups, transitional services for newly arrived immigrants, and scholarships are still offered. Constance Currie would be proud.