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If These Books Could Talk:
Episcopal Church Women and Charity in the Diocese of Western New York.

Nancy Piatkowski

This paper was presented June 25, 2001
in Toronto Ontario Canada
(Re)Making Anglican Tradition(s) in North America
A Conference for Historians and Archivists Commemorating the
Tercentenary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts


This paper (a work in progress) will present a survey of material in the archives of the Diocese of Western New York (which until 1932 included the current Diocese of Rochester) related to the organization and development of the work of middle class women in social outreach and concern for the less fortunate as seen in the manuscript and printed records of Auxiliaries to the Board of Missions and selected women's guilds.

These records outline the study groups and programs the women set up for education in current affairs which often dealt with the missions they supported both in the United States and abroad. These groups often paralleled the women's groups set up in the secular world. Of primary importance is the concern for the less fortunate both within and without the diocese including the domestic and foreign missions

Official church records relate the sequences of birth, marriage and death showing ages at marriage, causes of death and the great infant mortality rate of the 19th and early 20th centuries as well as the actions taken by the male-led Vestries. However, they do not document the work of the women in the diocese and parishes. For this hidden history we must look to the manuscript notebooks of minutes and printed newsletters the women left behind. In these records dating back to the 1880s, there is great detail as how the various auxiliaries and guilds were organized, how events were planned, carried out, and how the money raised was distributed. Even today with the awareness of the role of women in society, many people do not realize the importance of these records and often discard them as irrelevant. However, the work of these early women has laid the foundation for much of what is done today by agencies of the church. It is the hope that with knowledge of this history, women of today's church may see more clearly the historical development of the role they are now in and may be given greater energy and vision for social response both within the church and in dialogue with contemporary societal systems.

The Beginnings

This project began about four years ago while organizing the historic records of the Church of the Ascension in Buffalo. I found the minute books of the Belle Riley Chapter of the Women's Auxiliary to the Board of Missions which was organized in 1915. At that time not knowing much about the Episcopal Church, I first of all asked, what is the Women's Auxiliary? and, who was Belle Riley? I soon found out about the Auxiliary and with a little digging, Belle Riley. I found that she was the daughter of Mrs. General Riley who organized the original parish Missionary Society in 1855 the year after the parish was organized.

Since I was appointed diocesan archivist by former Bishop David Bowman in 1998 I have found:

1. The handwritten minutes of the diocesan wide auxiliary from 1881 to 1905 bound together in one book. The Western New York Branch of the Women's Auxiliary to the Board of Missions was officially founded June 1,1881 at St. Luke's Church in Rochester NY in response to a request from Bishop Arthur Cleveland Coxe. This book was actually four smaller books of differing sizes bound together. The writing ranged from vary clear to illegible. I'd hoped to transcribe this material using a voice-activated computer program but it did not work as described.

2. One book of minutes from the Buffalo District 1912 - 1931. The diocese was originally divided into four regional sections and then into six before the diocese was divided into the Diocese of Rochester and Western New York in 1932 (see: map).

3. Unfortunately I have found no one complete set of minutes from any parish . Ascension is the most complete only because I was able to find and transfer what I found without question. In sorting auxiliary minutes from guild minutes some did not have the name of the group in the book so I had to read through them to see what types of projects they did and based on that I was able to determine which they were. The records I have found thus far include

Church of the Ascension (Women's Auxiliary, the Business Girls' Club and Evening Guild) St. Stephen's (Auxiliary)
St. Thomas (Auxiliary and Guild)
Church of the Holy Communion Women's League
St. Mary's on the Hill (Altar Guild)
St. Paul's Cathedral (Women's Auxiliary; St. Hilda's Guild)

4. . In 1999 the records of the Auxiliary and the Episcopal Church Women were transferred to the archives including a copy of every annual meeting report from the beginning in 1881 to the present Episcopal Church Women. These include the parish by parish annual report of what was done: the number of boxes sent, amount of money collected and to whom they was sent. The reports also include the parish officers as well as the diocesan leadership.

5. a few letters

6. A bundle of financial reports from 1915 to 1930 including canceled checks, receipts, and a Branch obligation form

To put the amounts raised and spent into a perspective I used a web site http://www.westegg.com/inflation/ which converts the dollar value of a given year to the year 2000 dollar value. (see inflation for an example). Specific dollar amounts referred to have been converted as $ [$].

I also read selected Diocesan newspapers and parish newsletters including The Messenger- St. James, Holy Communion, St. Clements- a joint parish newsletter; The Church Kalendar; Grace Church (Lockport) News- January 1894 - November 1905; and Our Diocesan Fellowship - 1920 - 1930.

There were a few bound volumes of the Spirit of Mission pre-1881 and a few loose copies from the 1920s.


What have I found out about the Auxiliary thus far:

There would be an annual meeting of the leadership of the Auxiliary which rotated throughout the diocese. Julia Emery would come from New York City to attend the annual general meeting. If she couldn't attend, she would send a letter of instruction and encouragement.

The women traveled by train and lodged with women from the host and neighboring parishes. I found a newspaper clipping and a handwritten note giving the train schedule tucked in one of the books as well as the notice that the ladies would be met at the station and taken to their place of entertainment. A web search produced a map showing the railroads in the diocese in 1890 so transportation was relatively available. Another verification of this was found in the 1918 Ascension minutes- a request from Good Shepherd Church asking for their ladies to host (entertain) out-of -town delegates. As a friend observed, ladies did not stay in hotels alone.

The annual reports give the final report of what was done, district by district, parish by parish including where the box was sent. What was to be included in the box, and how the material was paid for is where the parish minutes are invaluable. Unfortunately as pointed out above, these are few and far between. I have been a constant nag at workshops and meetings as well as using the diocesan distribution list and newspaper asking for material related to women.

The missionary box work was a primary concern. There was a diocesan box chair who assigned boxes to individual parishes or consulted with the parish chairs if the work of a particular box, because of its value, would be shared with a neighboring parish thus the joint box. There was also direct contact by missionaries via letter or a visit to talk to the auxiliary about their work. They did not hesitate to articulate what they needed for themselves or their people. These missionaries were a regular part of the meetings of the Auxiliary as was the packing of the box. The goods to be shipped would be displayed for all to see and admire.

From the reports and minutes we can see the boxes were sent to

1. the South for Negro work (early reports referred to them as the freedmen or the colored) or with the poor mountain whites There are two letters from Clara Barbour of the mission at Saluda North Carolina thanking the ladies of St. Stephen's for the boxes and asking for material for their sewing.

2. Alaska especially to Bishop Rowe and Deaconess Harriet Bedell, who was from the Diocese.

3. Out west including Utah, Wyoming, Navajoland. A newsletter in the Coykendall scrapbook asked that the packages being sent to Deaconess --- at Havasu be packed light enough so they could be loaded onto horses for the trip down the Canyon to the mission.

4. Missions in the Dakotas for work with Indians. A wonderful round robin letter to the junior auxiliary surfaced in a box of unsorted material. Unfortunately this is all I have found thus far from the junior auxiliary except what appeared in the annual reports. Money was sent to the lacemakers in Minnesota as well.

5. Money was sent to China especially to the hospital and St. Hilda's School at Wu Chang and to Japan and the Philippines. The missions sent brochures to the Auxiliary about the school and hospital and their work with the "pagans". Our Diocesan Fellowship in April 1923 and June 1924 printed a letter asking for specific workers (teachers, nurses, doctors) for the foreign missions (see mission needs).

For the boxes the Auxiliary would be provided with names, ages and sizes for all the members of the family or the needs of the particular mission or school. To include (re: Laura Ingles Wilder- The Long Cold Winter): clothing, household goods, shoes (new or second hand or money to buy new pairs), small dainty gifts for the females, clergy suits (In 1919 a special card party was held at ascension to raise money for a clergy suit @ $40 [ ]), money gifts, toys for mission schools. For example in 1924, St. Thomas' Auxiliary sent boxes of clothing to St. James Mission in Lydia Virginia with a value of $149.50 as well as twelve flannel petticoats to the Red Lake Mission in Minnesota; a box of handkerchiefs valued at $5 [$48.86] to Miss Mann, Philippines; clothing and cash for Alaska; $23.00 [$224] to the Japan reconstruction fund. The year's total was $425 [$4152]; Their Easter sale raised $150.00 [$1465.00] and their Silver tea - $7.00 [$68.00]. A more detailed list of what was included in boxes can be found at the box.

How they raised the money to pay for the material and other items is where the minutes are of great value. They held luncheons, dinners to directly raise money directly for them including dinners or pancake suppers sponsored by various flour companies including the Teco Pancake and Flour Co. The women would sell tickets while Teco supplied all the flour for the cookies and pancakes and sent their own demonstrator to make the pancakes.

They ran dinners for groups such as the Brotherhood of St. Andrew to make money. They sponsored raffles, rummage sales, card parties, silver teas, house parties and fairs. They would run their own or participate in a parish run fair where they would have a theme booth. In 1915 at Ascension, the Auxiliary participated at the Church Christmas Sale with a Puritan Booth. At these fairs they would sell fancy goods, aprons, towels, and quilts as well as baked goods A "parcel post station" sold mystery gifts. Around the same time someone had the idea to get the use of a picture show house to raise money. They also had birthday penny parties where each person gave a penny for each year of their life. The women did direct sewing to make money sewing new quilts, recovering old ones and making mattress pads. Church of the Ascension reported making sixteen quilts that were either sold or sent to the missions. Ascension held card party to raise rental money for sewing machine ($17.50) and borrowed a second from a member to facilitate their box work The women sold soap, towels, cards and gift wrap and even canned goods to each other, their families and friends. In the 20s and 30s the women would have parties at the local bakery. A dry cleaner/laundry offered them money for new clients signed up. The local gas company would provide their community room for parties. The gas company would have demonstrations of cooking. The women were allowed to charge those attending. Hat shows were also mentioned as well as what the equivalent of a "Tupperware party".

Everything was done by committee. They decided what to make, who would make it. They appointed a committee to shop, to cut, to serve tea and plan luncheons. They held frequent meetings for business and planning as well as sewing. All day sewing "bees" would be with a box lunch served or lunch provided by a committee who were always thanked with a "rising thank you.".

After the first years I found they sewed and provided visitors, hosted parties and teas for local agencies including:

- The Church Home and Orphanage
- The Church Mission of Help founded in 1922 to help delinquent and homeless girls. The Auxiliary reported in Our Diocesan Fellowship that they made weekly visits to the "poor unfortunates" in the Venereal Ward of the City Hospital.
- The Brent Home for Children
- The Charity Organization which was founded by Maria Love, a member of Trinity Parish, to do social work and deal with poverty in Buffalo.
- The Red Cross (especially during World War I). There was concern that this work would interfere with their box work which was seen as their major commitment. They divided their time between the two after a vote of the membership. In 1917-18 Ascension supplied eight pairs of pajamas, six hospital shirts, fifteen kimono dresses, and sixty-eight bed socks. They also rolled bandages and made compresses
- White Light Mission
- The Ingleside Home- a home for unwed mothers which closed in
- The Seaman's Institute in NYC- knitted socks, scarves, sweaters
- local hospitals including Children's and the Homeopathic (now Millard Filmore Hospital)

In the 1920s a Diocesan Supply House which acted as a clearing house for all type of material including supplies "necessary for proper conduct of divine service", used clothing etc. was founded. It was located in rooms at the Diocesan Headquarters which was at 237 North Street near Elmwood.

Devotional Life

Their meetings always opened with prayer. A guide to the auxiliary in the life of the church includes not only the history of the Auxiliary but how to enlist others and devotions. Regular corporate communions were scheduled which often coincided with the triennial presentation of the United Thank Offering. Lent seemed to be the time for extra education and devotions often under the umbrella of the Missionary Study Club. The Auxiliary educational secretary would select a current book such as The Conquest of the Continent by Hugh Latimer Burleson in 1911.

World Events

They seemed aware of the world events but not as a major part of the organizations' concern unless it impacted their box work. This included the work they did for the Red Cross during World War One. Discussions were recorded of the propriety of having refreshments during the winter and war time. A mention of the influenza (Spanish Flu) epidemic came in a report of a member's death. After the 1900 Galveston hurricane and the 1924 Japanese earthquake monies were collected for the reconstruction fund.

Within their own community they sent cards and plants for illness, death. They had parties and picnics. They opened their homes for meetings, luncheons and money-raising parties. The women from St. Stephen's reported a trip to Niagara Falls on the trolley in great detail.

During the Depression they provided for the needs of their parish members, the haves helping the have-nots. The Church of the Holy Communion Women's League and the Ascension Guilds and Business Girls' Club met the challenge of unemployment and families in need by providing clothing, food, coal, small loans and occasional work for local families.

After World War Two , St. Stephen's women "adopted" an Italian family and sent them regular boxes of food, school supplies and clothing. There was reference to letters having been received from the family but unfortunately none of them survived. St. Paul's adopted a family in France and sent their packages through CARE.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, I plan to continue locating material from the parishes in the diocese and begin to research some of the ancillary organizations such as the Church Mission of Help and the Brent Home For Children. I need to begin an analysis of the material after more research into the period. What I have found is that they were strong, determined women. They had a sense of what they were about and went to great lengths to accomplish their goals.

 I am still looking for primary material - minutes, reports, letters and photographs. If you have anything that you would like to contribute to this project, please contact me and I can arrange for a meeting to go over the material with you.

Nancy Piatkowski
swampcrone@prodigy.net

or by mail

c/o The Archives
1114 Delaware Avenue
Buffalo NY 14209

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