At the age of four, Katherine Weiler, who later became a teacher in Collinwood, felt the presence of God. During a revival meeting led by her father, a Methodist minister, she broke out sobbing. When asked about her trouble, she toldDolls and other playthings were more objects of care than of enjoyment or diversion. They had to be kept scrupulously clean, and so there was little real playing done. the Reverend Weiler, “I want my heart to be clean.” At the age of six, a second episode of ecstasy and longing for the Lord consumed her. At twelve years old, Katherine was born again, feeling “full assurance of her acceptance with God.” Her father wrote that throughout childhood a “quiet seriousness” distinguished Katherine from her peers: “Dolls and other playthings were more objects of care than of enjoyment or diversion. They had to be kept scrupulously clean, and so there was little real playing done.” At sixteen, Weiler left home for teacher training at Berea College. Berea educated teachers for often neglected, rural schools, and Katherine took her first job three years later, in the small town of North Baltimore, Ohio. Much of Katherine’s meager pay went home to help her family, to whom she remained devoted. When Weiler’s brothers moved to the growing city of Canton, Ohio, she feared for their moral well-being. “If I knewTuscawaras Street, Canton, Ohio, c. 1910. PC. Katherine Weiler must have been worried about Canton’s pool halls, theaters, and saloons. The city’s thriving red-light district was blocks away. that I could keep them from temptation,” she wrote to her father, “I would give up my school and keep house for them.” The young men must have loved their sister, but probably preferred to navigate Canton’s spiritual hazards on their own.
As a devout Methodist, Katherine saw the world and people as flawed and sometimes cruel, but she hoped to steer herself, her family, and less fortunate schoolchildren to as much good as possible. Jane Addams, who led Chicago’s Hull House, saw in young, Christian women like Weiler a generational awakening to the imperative of social service. “Pleasure . . . freedom from care, [and] innocent little ambitions” she explained, failed to satisfy “the wish to right wrong, and alleviate suffering.” Hemmed in by middle-class expectations of propriety, young women had no “outlet for their active faculties, ” even as “the desire for action . . . haunts them daily.” Service in immigrant neighborhoods, Addams believed, offered fulfillment born of generosity and human connection. Efforts to uplift the impoverished sometimes drifted toward the rough imposition of middle-class, American standards of decency and decorum, but a young woman like Katherine Weiler worried less about the loss of immigrants’ cultural heritage and more about molding children to her own confidently held priorities.
In a memorial booklet written after Katherine’s death in Collinwood, her father expressed his certainty about the goodness and purity of his daughter’s mission. Her “reserved nature,” he said, “made it impossible for her to express her love in words. But she could deprive herself of the half-hour rest at noon to help children of emigrants learn to understand English.” Though she taughtWeiler’s compassion and distaste ran throughout the public schools. Teachers, administrators, and public health officials worried about crowded schools of immigrant children as vectors for infection and parasitic disease. The roots of contagion lay in the unsanitary living conditions forced upon those inhabiting urban slums rather than in the immigrant populations, but that distinction could easily be lost. L. Gulick and L. Ayres. Medical Inspection of Schools, 1913. children who “belonged mostly to the lowest stratum of social life,” she struggled to offer them the advantages that she could. After receiving a necklace as a present, Katherine wrote home excitedly: “Everyone admires my pearls. I believe I’ll wear them to the school so my children get the benefit of them. The poor things see so seldom anything nice and they enjoy it so much.” A different letter spoke most clearly to the complexity of her “love” for the children she taught: “During recess my little Hungarian girls gather round me and feel my brooch and comb. Some of them are so untidy, it makes my flesh creep to have them touch me. But they have such a poor home, I have not the heart to deny them the few pleasures they find.” In Weiler’s final letter home, she contemplated leaving teaching, but concluded that “I believe I can do the most good in making teaching my life work.”
Katherine Weiler died in the Lake View School, crushed by the stampede of children as she tried to steer them away from the jammed door. Her body was never recovered. Unlike Lulu Rowley, a teacher who chose flight through a window, Weiler stayed but couldn’t make the children listen. Maybe they would have ignored any voice in the smoke and flames around them. Maybe part of the problem was that Weiler literally and figuratively failed to speak their language, calling out in English and German to a crowd of children used to hearing Eastern and Southern European languages at home. Or maybe so many children ignored Miss Weiler because, though they never would have dared to say it out loud, she sometimes made their skin creep.