Mrs. San Antonio enters the church and turns her brothel into a rescue house

This story is part of a series on Texas public radio called “Running Red-Lights.” The podcast and additional reporting focus on the history of sex work in San Antonio and the women who ran the industry but were not allowed to make history.

Mary Volino was a successful lady in a brothel in San Antonio in the late 19th century. One day, she decided to turn her business into a rescue house.

The first time Owen Jones heard of Mary Volino was in a unified Methodist confirmation class in 1989.

She was a well-known and successful lady in a brothel in San Antonio in the late 19th century. One day, she decided to turn her business into a rescue house. Travis Park Church – where Jones was approved – teaches its story as part of its history to demonstrate the power of religious belief, Jones said.

Kathleen Creedon

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Texas Public Radio

Travis Park Church is located in downtown San Antonio. According to his history, a brothel owner once heard of the church’s street fire extinguishers and decided to convert.

For years, however, the church did not even know the first name of Volino. All they had was acronyms.

It was not until Jones – a former member of the Church – received his master’s degree in theology from the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. One of his final projects was simple: write an article on any topic in united Methodist history.

“I was in my last semester of seminary and I finished as if I was ready to go out. So to be honest, if we were all really honest, my goal was to write the easiest four-page article imaginable and end with this lesson,” he said.

He thought back to his experience in the church, and he recalled a story he was taught about a brothel owner who was rescued by the church.

The original intention was to understand her first name. In the decades of this story, the church referred to Wallino only as M. Or ML Volino. Jones turned to Baxer County court records and found her almost immediately. She was arrested for prostitution.

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Kathleen Creedon

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Texas Public Radio

Owen Jones is a former member of Travis Park Church. He first heard the story of Mary Volino’s conversion in a confirmation class in 1989, and then went on to research more about her story when he was in seminary school.

But once he found her name, Jones wanted to know more about Volino. He discovered a new detail he had never been taught: Volino was in serious debt.

There are actually two versions of the story of Mary Volino that Jones heard when he was growing up. The first is the one he heard in his confirmation lesson passed down through the generations: A lady from a great brothel heard a street preacher and attended an awakening at Travis Park Church the next day, where she confessed Jesus Messiah as her Lord. Goel, and then converted her brothel into a house for “rebellious” women.

In the second story, her conversion was made possible by the community member, a woman named Sarah Ostrom.

Ostrom has already formed a friendship with Volino and encouraged her to participate in the revival. This story is where Jones says he might get into trouble as a member of the clergy.

“The truth of the matter is in the Methodist church, the power is in the laymen, the power is in the people, not in the clergy,” he said. “Clergy can be leaders of the institution, can be leaders in worship, can be preachers. But really, when a church is effective, laymen are the ones who do the work of the kingdom of God.”

Jones claims that the loss of her daughter led her to grief – and later, to God.

He also admitted to a possible third version of this story. A lady of a large brothel is in significant debt. The church offers to clear it of this debt and gains ownership of the house.

“It was the kind of tentacles of the church to the ministry, if they had a financial part in it, that could be bad and good. I think it allowed it to be free from debt and live a different way,” Jones said.

No matter what the version of the story, some sure details: The once-profitable brothel put her in debt. Jones is not exactly sure how she got into so many debts, but she owed nearly $ 6,000 according to records by Baxer County officials.

After the house was converted, there were between 20-30 women, and by the beginning of the century there were more than 60 women in the house. The women cooked and cleaned for the others who lived and worked at home and received study and training classes at work to prepare for their departure from home.

The house still exists today, although its name has changed. Once the home of the Methodist mission, it is now called the place of providence.

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Kathleen Creedon

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Texas Public Radio

Providence Place was originally called the Methodist Mission House and was created in the late 19th century when the Church of Travis Park paid Madame Mary Volino’s duty on its brothel.

“We were the place most people would call Aunt Jane or Aunt Susan, where families sent their pregnant daughter to live, give birth to the baby and then return home,” said CEO Judith Bell.

Providence Place has undergone a series of focus changes – from adoption agency in the early 19th century to serving the local deaf and hard of hearing community. Its current CEO, Judith Bell, said the organization is now returning to its roots, the roots that Wallino planted more than a century ago.

“Our main focus is on treating trauma awareness and meeting the women where they are. Without judgment, just meet where they are, develop a place where they can rest. So stop, you know, take a deep breath and then start their rehabilitation journey,” she said.

Providence Place serves women in a Hebrew housing program that focuses on survivors of assault, domestic violence and human trafficking. They also have a program for young women who are aging outside the foster care system, but have chosen to stay in extended foster care and for women who are unprotected, Bell said.

Currently, they have the capacity to care for about 40 women, including pregnant women or women with children. Bell said she thinks Wallino would be proud of how the mission grew, even though the conversion was real.

“Every time I tell this story, inevitably someone comes up to me and says, ‘I was adopted into a Methodist mission home’ or ‘I adopted my child from the Methodist mission home’ or some version of this story,” Jones said.

Pre-conversion

Jones speculates that Wallino – nee Burns – was born between 1848-1851, but there is no solid evidence.

She got married twice. First to Peter Burns, and together they had a daughter named Gracia. Both Peter and Mary were active in the Red Light District: they owned several properties during the late 1970s. He disappeared from court records after about 1880, and Gracia died young, Jones said. The circumstances of the deaths of those on both sides are unknown.

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Kathleen Creedon

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Texas Public Radio

Judith Bell points to a hat rack, originally placed on the front door of Madame Mary Volino’s brothel. This is one of the few surviving passages from the original Methodist Mission House, according to Bell.

She was later married to Mike Volino, an Italian immigrant with whom she had her second son (known), William, who also died young. Mike was a musician, playing with his brother in the bars and lounges of the Red Light District. Jones said that was probably how they met.

Mike bought a property in the area, and together they operated a living room.

But even before Mary met Mike in the early ’80s, she had already worked under the nickname Madame Claude Duvall and was one of the most successful brothel owners at the time.

She met her guide and ex-wife, Blanche Dirwood, around 1877. She “boarded a plane” at Dirwood’s home. They remained friends even when Mary became a contestant.

She has acted in several names as a lady in the red light district of San Antonio: her birthplace, Mary L.. Burns; Her first nickname, Claude Duvall; Mary A. Palmer; Mary Volino.

She bought her infamous brothel at 223 San Saba. It was a two-story mansion with over 32 rooms, Jones notes in the latest article he submitted. Although she was one of the most successful in San Antonio’s Red Light District, she accumulated $ 6,000 in debt

After “conversion”

In his study, Jones found that the church almost immediately began hosting worship services for the girls and women of the house after settling Volino’s debt. Some of the women who worked under Volino continued their work in other brothels when her home became a rescue house, but others remained.

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Kathleen Creedon

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Texas Public Radio

Judith Bell, CEO and President of Providence Place, presents a picture of the original Methodist Mission House.

Volino served as the house matron. She took care of the women there and promised donations – probably the same men she once did business with, Jones said.

The number of women cared for at home increased rapidly in its early years, but by 1904, Volino was preparing to leave San Antonio. She quickly sold her property and assets, and then she disappeared from court records in Baxer County.

“For 100 years, no one really knew where she was going,” Jones said. In his research process, Jones located it in Provence, Oklahoma, a developing boom city.

Jones used findagrave.com to find her. It’s a popular site where people post pictures of tombstones. When he first searched for “Volino” and found a situation in Oklahoma, he ignored it because he was focused on finding it in Texas.

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Kathleen Creedon

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Texas Public Radio

Providence Place, formerly known as the Methodist Mission House, was originally located downtown San Saba (above). Before moving to its current location opposite Whitby Road (below), the organization operated at Baylor Scott Hospital in the 1960s (center).

When he looked again at findagrave.com, Jones realized that the number of tombstones with the last name “Volino” matched the number of Volinos he expected to have, even though he did not see a tombstone for Mary Volino.

So he drove to Oklahoma, where he found Volino’s great niece.

“I was so nervous, like, I couldn’t believe I was sitting in front of someone who not only had a direct connection with her (Volino), but lived with her like in the same house, lived with her,” he said. .

Volino’s niece, Virginia, was the daughter of her husband’s brother’s wife. The family never spoke of Mary Volino after an incident in a family that included money.

“Virginia’s mother, Sally, told the children that Mary, a quote, ‘took all the money from us kids.’ Therefore, Virginia was not really excited to have a conversation with me,” he said.

Jones said that in addition to the family drama, the interview was embarrassing because Virginia did not know about Mary’s life as a lady. Although Virginia was reluctant to talk about it, another family member – who Jones said served as a sort of defense attorney – encouraged her to help document their family history.

When Jones left Virginia’s home, he realized he had never hit a “record” on his record.

Virginia died a week after their call.

There are few solid facts in Mary Volino’s life. We are not sure when or where exactly she was born. We are not sure why she decided to move to Provence. We also do not know why she left.

Volino’s last record is in the 1920 census; She is registered as 71 years old.

There is no evidence that Wallino remained a member of the Travis Park Church community after its so-called conversion. Jones said she does not appear on membership lists, which does not prove she was not a necessary member. There is simply no proof.

There was no funeral for Wallino when she died, nor does she have a proper grave. Her older niece, Virginia, told Jones she was buried in the Provence cemetery, where there is a marker that has gone unnoticed.

Volino is one of many ladies who have made San Antonio’s Red Light District a success and whose history has not been preserved. Unlike the others, part of its heritage is remembered through institutions like Providence Place and Travis Park Church.

Please contact us with questions or comments at redlights@tpr.org.

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