A devoted friend to Sioux City immigrants and their families, Mary Treglia (1897-1959) dedicated her life to helping those in need. For over 33 years, she served the immigrant population of Sioux City as director of the Community House.
Mary Treglia was born in Sioux City on October 7, 1897, the only child of Italian immigrants Rose and Anthony Treglia. Her parents left Italy in the 1880s and came to Sioux City where they opened a fruit stand at 415 Pierce. The family lived upstairs. Sadly, Mary's father died when she was just 22 months old, leaving Rose as the only provider for her little girl. Rose supported herself and her daughter with a confectionary and fruit store located at Sixth and Douglas. She sold candy, fruits, canned goods and her famous boiled ham.
As Mary grew up, she attended public schools in Sioux City and graduated from Central High School. She developed an incredible ability to play baseball and soon discovered that she could throw a baseball farther than most boys in her neighborhood. Sometimes she worked as an umpire for men's baseball games. Occasionally, she accompanied well-known umpire Bobbie Blank as he traveled across the district where he officiated. Mary gave pre-game exhibitions and amazed the crowds with her ability to catch high balls and throw the ball farther than most men.
In 1919, Mary's mother's health began to fail and she longed for the sunny warmth of her native Italy. Mary used her baseball earning to take her mother to the warmer climate of California. There, Mary was asked to play with the "Bloomer Girls" women's baseball team. While playing baseball in California, Mary also had a chance to act in several silent movies. At first she worked as an extra for $3 a day. Eventually, she even received a few bit parts. Later in her life, she recalled that while she enjoyed acting, she liked the technical aspects of movie-making the best.
In 1921, Mary's mother wanted to go home to Sioux City. Soon after their return, Mary attended the opening of the Community House, located on the second floor of a building at 1604 East Fourth Street. She volunteered to organize a club there that she called Alpha Sigma, for working girls of many nationalities. "I saw so much maladjustment," she would later say. "So many square pegs in round holes." Mary volunteered for a while, and then she was hired as an assistant to the Community House director, Dorothy Anderson.
Mary Treglia was sensitive to the needs and traditional values of the immigrant population. At a time when most settlement house workers were well-educated, middle class women, Mary brought a unique perspective to her job. She intimately understood the poverty, troubles and problems of the immigrant population. Her knowledge didn't come from books. She lived it every day.
In the 1920s, settlement house workers were expected to be educated professionals and Mary realized that she lacked the necessary education. She began to resolve that situation by taking special courses at the University of Minnesota. She also completed fieldwork at the New York School of Social Work and received experience at Ellis Island. She worked for a year at United Charities in Chicago and started classes at Morningside College in 1925.
Mary's studies at Morningside were interrupted when she was named executive director of the Community House in 1925. Faced with ever-increasing duties there, she still managed to finish her degree in 1933.
The Community House opened in 1921, sponsored by the YWCA. At that time, people of over 20 nationalities lived on the city's east side, sometimes referred to as "the bottoms". A survey conducted by the YWCA found that immigrant families lived in isolated little groups with others of their own nationality. Also, their children did not have the opportunity to learn English before they started school. A community house would provide a gathering place for immigrants where they could find help, companionship and education. The original purpose was to bring immigrants together, "Americanize" them, and prepare them for citizenship.
Community houses often used clubs to bring people together. The clubs gathered people of similar ages or interests in a comfortable informal setting. Sometimes the clubs lasted only a season, and sometimes they lasted for years. The "Women of All Nations Club" lasted for decades, serving the mothers of the neighborhood. Rose Treglia, Mary's mother, showed great interest in the club and spent many hours visiting homes in the neighborhood, encouraging mothers to participate.
Under Mary's direction, the Community House offered "Americanization classes." The classes, held day and night, taught English reading, writing, conversation, current events and citizenship. Workers helped immigrants complete their naturalization papers. They helped fill out forms and assisted with interpreting.
The services of the Community House Interpreting Bureau reflected the diversity of the immigrant population. They offered services for the following languages, free of charge: Armenian, Bohemian, Chinese, Danish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Jewish, Bulgarian, Lithuanian, Spanish, Norwegian, Persian, Polish, Russian, Romanian, Syrian and Swedish.
Mary Treglia counseled troubled children and helped those involved with the courts. She helped neighbors solve disputes, mediated quarrels, distributed clothing, helped with medical problems, made funeral arrangements, and encouraged pre-natal care. The Sioux City Journal in 1931 noted, "It has not been unusual to have mothers come to the house with problems of the husbands or their children or a father, a foreigner who was unable to adjust himself to the new world." Because of the language barrier, many immigrants made the Community House their first stop when they had a problem. Workers tried to solve the difficulty or refer them to the needed agencies.
Mary served immigrants in need in many other ways. In the aftermath of the Swift Explosion in 1949, the Journal reported, "Miss Mary Treglia, director of the Community House, helped identify the bodies. Many of the Swift employees were those with whom she worked at the Community House, she explained."
She also helped immigrants find jobs. In 1931, she began a campaign to find jobs for the unemployed workers in the neighborhood. Her "Help Fight Hard Luck" campaign received the cooperation of industrial plants and businesses. Treglia started files that detailed workers' needs and skills. She convinced the newspaper to publish the case histories and advertise the workers' abilities. The plan was successful, and from August 1931 to April 1932, 782 unemployed workers found jobs though the Community House effort.
Treglia objected to the east side neighborhood being referred to as "the bottoms," saying "Law abiding citizens who have lived in this district for two decades or more and newcomers as well, many of whom are home owners, resent having their neighborhood referred to as 'the bottoms,' she stated. "It is time for home, church, school, social agencies and law enforcement groups to unite to make for good citizens in all parts of the city without discrimination."
In 1933, the building that housed the Community House was condemned and Treglia went to work raising money for a new building. Although it was during the Depression, plans for a new house were made. Treglia started a "buy-a-brick" campaign that was well received in the business community. She found funding with government agencies and asked for donations of building materials from demolished buildings. With the help of workmen who contributed their time, a new building at 513 Morgan Street was erected in 1933.
The excitement of moving into a new building was dimmed, however, when the Floyd River rose out of its channel and flooded the gymnasium. Floods were a fact of life for that neighborhood and Treglia worked to find solutions to the problem. She organized the neighborhood residents and campaigned for flood control. Over a period of two years, Treglia chaired 215 meetings on flood control.
"Their homes mean just as much to them as more pretentious homes in other residence districts mean to their occupants'. Yet under present conditions, every spring they have to worry about the possibility of flood."
In November of 1956, a testimonial dinner was held in honor of Mary Treglia. At the dinner, a plaque was presented, officially changing the name of the Sioux City Community House to the Mary J. Treglia Community House.
In 1959, Mary learned that the Floyd River flood control project would mean that the river would be rechanneled through the very east side neighborhoods she served. The Community House she worked so hard to build would have to be razed along with many homes in the area. She began to search for ways to preserve the neighborhood, but she died October 10, 1959.
Much of the area that Mary Treglia served so courageously is gone now. The frame homes of the immigrants were sacrificed to create space for the new Floyd River Channel. In 1963, the Mary Treglia Community House moved to 900 Jennings Street, where it remains today.