Donna T. Haverty-Stacke

Grace Holmes Carlson


1906 (November 13):  Grace Holmes was born to Mary Nuebel Holmes and James Holmes in St. Paul, Minnesota.

1906 (December 9):  Holmes was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church at St. Peter Claver in St. Paul, Minnesota.

1922:  Holmes’ father, James, participated in the Railroad Shopmen’s strike.

1924–1929:  Holmes attended College of St. Catherine in St. Paul.

1926 (May 11):  Holmes’s mother, Mary, died.

1929–1933:  Holmes attended the University of Minnesota and earned a Ph.D. in 1933.

1934 (summer):  Holmes witnessed the Minneapolis Teamsters strikes.

1934 (July 28):  Holmes and Gilbert Carlson were married.

1935–1940:  Grace Holmes Carlson was employed as a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the Minnesota Department of Education.

1937:  Carlson left the Catholic Church and separated from Gilbert.

1937 (December)–1938 (January):  Carlson served as a delegate at the founding convention of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Chicago.

1940 (September 1):  Carlson resigned from the Department of Education and ran for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota.

1941 (July):  Carlson and twenty-eight other Trotskyists were indicted in Minneapolis for violating the Smith Act.

1941 (December):  Carlson and seventeen other defendants were convicted and sentenced to prison.

1942:  Carlson ran for mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota.

1944 (January)–1945 (January):  Carlson served her sentence at Alderson Prison.

1945 (June–September):  Carlson conducted her nationwide “Women in Prison” speaking tour and published articles on working women’s struggles in The Militant.

1946:  Carlson ran for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota.

1948:  Carlson ran for U.S. vice president with Farrell Dobbs who ran for president in the SWP’s first national campaign.

1950:  Carlson ran for the U.S. Congress from Minnesota.

1951:  Carlson’s father James Holmes, a large influence in her life, died.

1952 (June 18):  Carlson resigned from the SWP, returned to the Catholic Church, and reunited with Gilbert.

1952 (November)–1955 (August):  Carlson worked as a secretary in the pediatrics department of St. Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis and engaged in various charitable endeavors.

1955 (August)–1957 (April):  Carlson worked as the social director for St. Mary’s Hospital’s School of Nursing; Carlson delivered public speeches before Catholic groups on topics such as “The Return to God” and “The Paradox of Communism.”

1957 (April):  Carlson was hired as an instructor in the Department of Nursing at the College of St. Catherine.

1957–1965:  Carlson delivered speeches to various Catholic and secular audiences on the importance of the Catholic lay apostolate as well as on women’s career paths.

1964:  Carlson and Sister A. J. Moore, CSJ, released the St. Mary’s Plan, the founding plan for the new St. Mary’s Junior College (SMJC) in Minneapolis where Carlson was hired as a professor of psychology.

1968:  Carlson delivered her speech, “Review of Catholics and the Left.”

1979:  Carlson retired from teaching at SMJC and began her “Carlson’s Continuing Commentary” column in the college’s newspaper Good News.

1980–1984:  Carlson worked in the SMJC alumnae office.

1982:  Carlson established the Grace Carlson Student Emergency Loan Fund to assist SMJC students with small, no-interest loans.

1984:  Carlson left her alumnae and newspaper work at SMJC to care fulltime for Gilbert who died on May 13.

1988:  Carlson moved to Madison, Wisconsin.

1992 (July 7):  Grace Holmes Carlson died at the age of eighty-five.


Grace Holmes Carlson [Image at right] was raised a Catholic in St. Paul, Minnesota, but left the Church in the late 1930s at the end of the Great Depression to pursue a career in the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP). For more than a decade, as an organizer, political candidate, and contributor to the party’s newspaper, The Militant, she dedicated her life to the SWP. When she returned to the Catholic Church in 1952, Carlson did not shed her Marxist understanding of the need to eliminate exploitative capitalism. She viewed her commitment to pursuing social justice through that Marxist lens but, as a Catholic once again, she also understood that commitment as a gospel mandate to involve herself in worldly affairs to “restore all things to Christ” (Carlson 1957). Carlson engaged in this work as an active laywoman in her parish, as an educator at St. Mary’s Junior College (SMJC), and as public speaker. Unlike well-known figures of the Catholic Left, like Dorothy Day, Carlson did not take a personalist approach to faith and social reform. Nor did she believe in individual acts of witness as resistance, as famously engaged in by Fathers Daniel and Philip Berrigan. Instead, she remained committed to effecting social and economic change through what she called the slow and “laborious process of educating and propagandizing” (Carlson 1970) in her public speaking and in her work at SMJC.

Grace Holmes was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1906 into an Irish and German working-class Catholic family. The women religious who taught her at St. Vincent’s parish school, St. Joseph’s Academy high school, and the College of St. Catherine (CSC)  [Image at right] were a formative influence. Through religious instruction and extracurricular activities, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet taught Carlson that serving all people without distinction was a way to serve God. Their communication of this gospel mandate of service was informed both by scripture and by the sisters’ founding mission. These women religious, along with parish priests who were trained by Father John Ryan at St. Paul Seminary established by Archbishop John Ireland, also exposed Carlson to the Catholic Church’s social teachings on the dignity of work, the legitimacy of workers’ associations, and the need for a just wage to support a decent life for laborers. Among the many texts Carlson read as an undergraduate at CSC was Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, which advanced these social teachings. She was thus aware of the Church’s arguments for workers’ assertion of their human dignity through the cooperation of labor and capital. But Carlson was also educated in worker solidarity and class conflict when her father, James Holmes, who was a boilermaker on the Great Northern Railway, joined his fellow railroad shopkeepers on strike in 1922. Carlson recalled other, purely secular, influences on her maturing working-class and social-justice oriented consciousness, including her maternal uncle who read the Socialist Appeal.

When Carlson began her graduate study at the University of Minnesota in 1929, she already was committed to helping the exploited and had a strong working-class identity. After earning her Ph.D. in psychology in 1933, she became politically active and supported the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party campaign of Floyd Olson for governor. But during the summer of 1934, as she witnessed the momentous Minneapolis Teamsters strikes, she became attracted to the revolutionary Marxism that the Trotskyist leaders of that work stoppage advocated. Carlson began attending the weekly Sunday Forums of the Communist Left Opposition (as the followers of Leon Trotsky, who had been ousted from the Communist Party in 1928, had come to be known) and learned about their commitment to international revolutionary socialism. The 1934 strikes were a seminal moment in her evolving political identification, as were her years working as a vocational rehabilitation counselor (1935–1940). While she struggled to help disabled clients find work in a crashing economy and as she attended the Trotskyist Sunday Forums, she came to believe that only socialism would meet people’s economic needs. As Carlson and her sister Dorothy became more deeply committed to the Trotskyists, Carlson’s husband Gilbert, a law student whom she had married in July 1934, became wary. Warned off by a local priest that one could not be a good Catholic and a socialist at the same time, Gilbert Carlson did not become a formal member of the Left Opposition. Grace Carlson, however, did: she joined the Trotskyists in the Workers Party in 1936. At some point during this period, Grace and Gilbert separated and Grace left the Catholic Church. Carlson became a delegate to the convention in Chicago where the Trotskyists founded their own revolutionary socialist party, the Socialist Workers Party, in January 1938.

For the next fourteen years, Carlson was an important figure in the SWP, serving as a state organizer in Minnesota and becoming the first woman to serve on the party’s National Committee. In 1941, Carlson gained notoriety as one of the twenty-nine Trotskyists who were indicted by a federal grand jury for violating the 1940 Smith Act. She was one of the eighteen defendants who ultimately was convicted of conspiring to advocate the violent overthrow of the government because of her political beliefs. On December 8, 1941, she was sentenced to sixteen months in federal prison. After a failed appeal, Carlson served just over a year in Alderson Prison and was released on parole in January 1945. She remained active in the SWP, conducting a nationwide
speaking tour on “Women in Prison,” writing for the party’s newspaper, The Militant, working as a party organizer in Minnesota and New York City, and running for office in various campaigns, including for vice president of the United States in 1948. [Image at right] Carlson almost ran for vice president again in 1952 but pulled out of the race in June when she announced that she was leaving the SWP and returning to the Catholic Church.

Carlson’s departure from the SWP stemmed from personal, not political, reasons. Her father, James, died in September 1951 and his passing led Carlson to realize that she needed God back in her life. Marxism no longer seemed to have all the answers, yet it was difficult for her to acknowledge the call of her faith. She later explained how “I thought I was seeking personal satisfaction and betraying the movement” (Romer 1952:8). She spent months struggling with her feelings. In her conversations with Father Leonard Cowley, the priest who guided her in her return to the Church, he explained that she did not have to choose between her God and her “opinion on social problems so long as it doesn’t conflict with moral principle” (Romer 1952:8). With this reassurance, Carlson left the SWP in June 1952 and rejoined the Catholic Church with her Marxist viewpoints largely intact. She also reunited with her husband Gilbert at this time.

As a Marxist, Carlson’s return to the Catholic Church during the McCarthy period was not an easy one, but she soon found more progressive circles within which she could simultaneously pursue her spiritual devotions and her political activism. These included St. Mary’s Junior College in Minneapolis. After she left the SWP in 1952 it was hard for Carlson to find employment because she had been blacklisted. Sister Rita Clare Brennan, one of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, helped her secure secretarial work at St. Mary’s Hospital. By 1957 Carlson was hired to teach in the hospital’s nursing program and became an indispensable member of the faculty at what became St. Mary’s Junior College (SMJC). She relished the opportunities to “teach and practice social justice” until she retired in 1979. With Sister A. J. Moore, CSJ, Carlson co-wrote the founding plan for the college in 1964 that called for a broad-based liberal arts education to complement the technical training for the nursing students so that they could use their talents to serve others as a means of serving God. Carlson incorporated this mission into her many volunteer activities on and off campus. She became a mentor to countless female students, delivered numerous public speeches during the late 1950s and 1960s in which she articulated her vision of an activist Catholic lay apostolate, volunteered at a home for at risk women in Minneapolis, and served on her parish’s liturgy committee. Carlson found the Catholic lay apostolate (the Church teaching that all laypersons are entrusted by God with a common vocation through their Baptism and Confirmation to build up the Church and sanctify the world in their actions in everyday life) to be an inspiration and guide to her work in this new phase of her life.

Carlson remained engaged with the SMJC community after she retired from teaching in 1979, working as an alumnae officer, setting up an emergency fund for students, and publishing a weekly column in the campus newspaper. In 1984 she focused her attention on Gilbert, becoming his primary caretaker in the last year of his life. In 1988 she moved to Madison, Wisconsin to be closer to her sister Dorothy. Grace Holmes Carlson died in Madison on July 7, 1992.


Carlson’s lay apostolate was rooted in her Catholic faith that was nurtured in the Church during her childhood and young adult years and during her late adulthood after she responded to the call of her faith again in 1952. Early in her life, her faith was shaped by the instruction she received from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and by her exposure to the Catholic Church’s social teachings. She undoubtedly was also familiar with the liturgical movement of the late 1920s that called for greater participation of congregants in forms of worship, particularly in the Mass. Carlson’s time at St. Joseph’s Academy and CSC included monthly adorations of the Blessed Sacrament and weekly reception of the Eucharist. Through these practices Carlson probably was exposed to the Church’s teaching on the Mystical Body of Christ, which held that through the Eucharist, Catholics’ union into a spiritual body with Christ as their head was strengthened. She was most likely taught that this mystical union with Christ also connected Catholics to one another in the Church and necessitated a duty to act in the world to serve Christ in one another (Ephesians 4:4-13; John 15: 5-12; 1 Corinthians 10:17). This doctrine influenced the Catholic Action movement of the 1930s that, albeit under the direct supervision of the bishops, called on Catholic laypersons to “engage in their faith in socially-oriented ways” (Harmon 2014:52). By this period, Carlson was on her way out of the Church, but the concept of a socially oriented engagement of one’s faith (and the Catholic organizations that mushroomed in its soil, like the Catholic Worker Movement) remained and provided a touchstone for Carlson when she returned to the Church in 1952.

In the many speeches she delivered from the late 1950s through the early 1960s, in the period immediately before Vatican II, Carlson repeatedly called for a Catholic lay apostolate that engaged with the concerns of the secular world and became “propagandists for Christ” (Carlson 1957, 1958). In speeches like “Nurse and the Parish” and “The Lay Apostle,” Grace grappled with an understanding of the Catholic faith that was at once focused on both the transcendent and the temporal, on loving and serving and uniting with God and humanity through lay Catholic activism. She argued that when it came to “contest for minds of men . . . atheism must be opposed,” but “as to Marxist economics” there could be a more “complex approach” in which there could be a “union and communion with God and with each other” (Carlson 1965). She made the case for an incarnational Christian response to the needs of the people by quoting Rev. Peter Riga, a professor of theology at St. John Vianney Seminary in East Aurora, New York, that “To be a Christian is not purely to serve God, but it is also a dynamic social ethic, a service to mankind; it is not merely a theology, but also an anthropology” (quoted in Carlson 1965).

Carlson had tapped into broader currents flowing in the Catholic Church before Vatican II (1962–1965) that stressed the importance of the laity as brothers and sisters in Christ who had a mandate to do God’s work in the world. Those currents (including the liturgical movement, the Catholic Action movement, and the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ that had been further developed in Pope Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi) “sowed the seeds for the frenzied activity that followed the Second Vatican Council” (Bonner, Burns and Denny 2014:17). But that activity was later nurtured by the decrees that emerged from the Second Vatican Council, especially Lumen Gentium (The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church) and Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World Today). Lumen Gentium “stressed that the church is a pilgrim people, not an unchanging institution.” It developed the notion of the Church as the People of God based on the belief that “by virtue of baptism, every Christian is called upon to minister in the name of Christ” (Gillis, 1999:86–90). Gaudium et Spes stressed that the faithful had to “decipher authentic signs of God’s presence and purpose” in the world and become “witness to Christ in the midst of human society” (quoted in McCartin 2010:114).


As a laywoman, Carlson repeatedly called on others (and took action herself) to be a lay apostle, a “propagandist for Christ,” in the world even before Vatican II issued decrees acknowledging that baptismal call to ministry. In addition to the many speeches in which she made the case for such work, Carlson’s efforts in crafting the curricular plan for what became SMJC in 1964 advocated this lay apostolate. Carlson and Sister A. J. Moore [Image at right] designed the new junior college as a place where the “students in technical programs are urged to develop a sense of social responsibility” not just their own self advancement and “To develop a person assured of the significance of spiritual values strongly imbued with a desire to serve God and his neighbor” (Carlson and Moore 1964). To help SMJC students complete their education so that they could undertake this mission, Carlson also established an emergency fund out of her own pocket in 1982 that provided small, no-interest loans to students in need.


Her work at SMJC was not the only way that Carlson was a propagandist for Christ. So too was her protest against America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam and her support for the anti-nuclear movement. Although Carlson cared about causes that were central to the New Left, she diverged from that movement because of her unique Catholic and Old Left Marxist approach to the issues, a position that she articulated most clearly in her 1968 speech, “Review of Catholics and the Left.” As a self-defined “propagandist for Christian socialism,” she explained that she was “prejudiced against those who muddy the waters by individualistic acts: demand dialogue in churches undemocratically; offend sensibilities by vulgar language; burn draft records or pour blood on them” (Carlson 1968). In her denunciation of what she saw as the New Left’s vulgarity she found common ground with Dorothy Day, who also disliked “the rage and obscenities, the irreverence and smugness, the lack of humility” of many of the anti-war protestors (Loughery and Randolph 2020:316). Day, however, made her objection on moral grounds. For Carlson, it was a political objection. She argued that the “basic error of New Left—Catholic or not is anti-intellectualism. . . ‘I feel therefore I am,’” and contrasted that new movement to the Old Left of which she had been a part in which “not to ‘do your thing’ but to do the thing that will advance the movement” was the focus in order to bring “an end to racial and social and economic oppression of man by man” (Carlson 1968, punctuation as in original). For Carlson, social reform—indeed a revolutionary reordering of the existing socio-economic system—was the paramount concern. By contrast, Dorothy Day, influenced by Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, focused on “the little way,” in which it was about bringing about a “revolution in thought, not an adjustment of an economic system” (Loughery and Randolph 2020:139). The difference here was not just that Day’s activism was rooted in her pacifism and the Church’s prophetic tradition geared ultimately to an eschatological end, but that Carlson’s was still so grounded in Old Left Marxism. They both believed in changing hearts and minds; but for Day, that was the revolution, whereas for Carlson, it was the application of that change to the social and economic system that was so needed in the modern world.

Carlson’s Old Left perspective blended with her Catholic activism to produce the hybrid Catholic Marxist approach that she took to contemporary issues during the 1960s and beyond. It is also what attracted her to Slant, a left-wing Catholic group in England. Slant (the name was always italicized) was a movement that was formed in 1964 among “a group of undergraduates at Cambridge University and their clerical advisors” who launched a journal of the same name and “whose purpose was a radical examination of traditional Catholic theology so as to promote the social goals of the Gospel.” For Slant members those “goals implied a socialist revolution” (Corrin 2013:216). They expressed ideas that were “decidedly radical, in drawing imaginative connections between Christian theology and revolutionary Marxism” (Corrin 2013:224). Carlson began “a discussion with a number of selected students” and initiated a branch of Slant at SMJC among them and some faculty members. In so doing she practiced what she had preached: working to effect social change “through the more laborious process of educating and propagandizing” (Carlson 1970).


Carlson’s lay apostolate reveals the diversity of Catholic laywomen’s witness in the mid- to late-twentieth-century United States. But it also was unique to her somewhat unusual life path. Part of her focus on effecting social change included a particular feminist agenda that had its roots in her years at the College of St. Catherine, where she learned from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet the importance of developing her intellectual talents to put in the service of God by serving others. This service included pursuing graduate education and a career outside the home through which she could minister to others, as she did in her role as a vocational rehabilitation counselor from 1935 to 1940. During her years in the Socialist Workers Party, Carlson developed her feminist identity further and solely through her engagement with secular Marxist influences. She approached the “woman question” as a Trotskyist, seeing the class struggle as central to women’s liberation from capitalism, which she understood as the source of all oppression. When she returned to the Catholic Church in 1952, Carlson maintained these positions but integrated them with her renewed Catholic faith. Drawing on certain facets of Catholic social teachings and the liturgical and Catholic Action movements, Carlson argued in “The Catholic Woman Apostolate” that the “creator must have endowed women with qualities of mind and soul to do his work,” which included work outside the home that made a difference in society (Carlson 1959). In this way her feminism resonated with some of the Catholic laywomen who redefined Catholic womanhood to include an affirmation of their calls to work in the world that have been studied by historian Mary J. Henold (2008). But Carlson diverged from these women almost as much as she did from her former Trotskyist sisters. She did not root her understanding of Catholic womanhood in essentialism or complementarity (a doctrine promulgated by twentieth-century popes beginning with Pope Pius XII that asserts the essential difference yet equality of the sexes); nor did she base it solely on a Marxist view of the primacy of the class struggle. Instead, she combined the Catholic influences from her childhood with her working-class experiences and Trotskyism as she worked for social justice in her years at St. Mary’s Junior College. [Image at right] The result, in Carlson’s case, is a woman who challenged both capitalist oppression and patriarchal structures in the pursuit of liberating women and serving God.

Carlson’s lay activism also reveals some of the diversity that existed in the American Catholic Left during the Cold War era, specifically Marxist Catholic alternatives that rejected violence while demanding, as a gospel mandate, revolutionary social and economic change. Through her speeches, correspondence, and campus organizing work, Carlson attempted to bring something to the American Catholic context that was, according to historian David J. O’Brien, largely missing—a way “to develop the social and political dimensions of the [then] present revolution in the church” (O’Brien 1972:213). By blending her Old Left perspective with her Catholic activism, Carlson created the Catholic Marxist approach that she took to this work.


Image #1: Grace Holmes Carlson, Minneapolis, 1941. Photo Acme 10-29-41, courtesy of David Riehle.
Image #2: Grace Holmes and her fellow graduates, College of St. Catherine, 1929. Graduates of the Class of 1929, Photo 828, f. 7, box 166, University Archives Photograph Collection, Archives and Special Collections, St. Catherine University. Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Image #3: Grace Holmes Carlson campaigning for vice president in 1948. Photo of Grace Carlson at podium, f. 1948 Presidential Campaign—Aug. 1948, box 1, Grace Carlson Papers, Minnesota Historical Society. Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Image #4: Grace Carlson with Sister Anne Joachim Moore, 1981. St. Mary’s School of Nursing, Series 8, Photographs, Box 11, Archives and Special Collections, St. Catherine University. Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Image #5: Grace Carlson in her office at St. Mary’s Junior College, 1983. Grace Carlson, 1983, St. Mary’s School of Nursing, Series 8, Photographs, Box 11, Archives and Special Collections, St. Catherine University. Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minnesota.


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Publication Date:
30 March 2022