The National Catholic Community Service (NCCS) organization was established in 1940 as an official agency of the Roman Catholic Church. It was created during a time of crisis to support military personnel and civilian defense workers and their families. In February 1941 it became one of the six founding institutions of the United Service Organizations (USO). The NCCS was involved in several types of initiatives, including establishing and operating clubs for working women. Manchester had the distinction of being the first city to host such a club, which was opened in September 1941 as the USO Women’s Center.
On May 11, 1942, the national director of the NCCS women’s division, Anne Sarachon Hooley, spoke at a formal luncheon at the Carpenter Hotel in downtown Manchester, which was attended by community leaders. In a tone that implied that America’s young women were in moral peril, she explained the lofty goals of the local Women’s Center and other similar NCCS facilities. In speaking about the female workers toiling in America’s factories, she said: “Such girls may be the mothers and the homemakers of tomorrow. Total war is a devastating thing and it could bring defeat to the victor as well as the vanquished. … It was imperative that those at home must share in a challenge to protect the security of youth, and to protect the standards of freedom.” Her closing remark was, “We must keep all that is safe and great in this democracy safe and great for another day.”
Fortunately for Manchester, this somewhat somber outlook did not prevent the USO Women’s Center from developing into an institution infused with a sense of joy and adventure. The club was housed in a former mansion on Myrtle Street that had once served as a hospital, in the midst of a pleasant, middle- to upper-class neighborhood. The operation was supervised by a paid staff of two or three trained women, who set the guiding policies and standards. But, most of the work to create, organize, and implement programs was done by the numerous eager volunteers.
An atmosphere of friendship and cooperation allowed the USO Women’s Center to live up to its motto, “A Home Away from Home.” There seemed to be no limit to what the facility could offer. Social activities for local women included dances, parties, “informal at home” get-togethers, and movies. The Outing Club organized softball games, as well as hay rides, scavenger hunts, and outings to local parks and to Bear Brook State Park, Mount Monadnock and other tourist sites in the state. Arrangements were made for young soldiers and airmen from Grenier Field to participate, and GIs could just come by to enjoy ping-pong, listen to music, read in the library, or play card games in the Service Men’s Lounge.
Enrichment programs for women included a photography club, arts and crafts club, tennis club, bowling club, and a sewing club. Classes were available in home nursing, sewing, Spanish conversation, bridge, cooking, fashion, nutrition, dance, music appreciation, mathematics and even sex education. Women who wanted to learn about the Roman Catholic faith could join the Liturgical Study Club that featured classes taught by Reverend Casimir Mulloy, a professor at Saint Anselm College.
In 2006, several women who had participated in USO activities in Manchester during World War II were interviewed for an oral history project conducted by the Manchester Historic Association. The women who had been involved with the USO Women’s Center had fond memories of the club. One recalled, “I liked that USO! The one … in the Old Armory (the USO Club, known as the USO Men’s Center) … had mostly dances, I think. But I liked that one up there (on Myrtle Street) because … if the men wanted to drop in, we kind of just talked or cooked meals for them …We’d sit together and have a meal. It was more … giving them a home feeling with friends their own age. We had good times and we made good friends …”
She admired the house. “It was a lovely, lovely, lovely home. I used to go up there and think, when I’m rich, I’m going to live in a house like this … It was a big house, so it had rooms big enough so you could dance in the hallways!”