By Ellen Schrader
Two weeks ago I set out to write a brief piece about the Episcopal Church Women (ECW) and its history at Grace. An odd feeling came over me as I held the notebook of the first secretary of what was then called the Women’s Auxiliary, dated Nov. 14, 1895. I was handling a book that had been handled by another woman from another time, yet we were linked by faith and a desire to serve our God. Mrs. E. L. Sprague was that secretary, wife of senior warden Elvin Sprague and part of the couple who reinvigorated the parish during those years. The local chapter was encouraged by a letter from the diocesan secretary of the Auxiliary ‘giving ideas of the good work which is being carried on in other localities.’ In a time when a spool of thread cost four cents and three yards of flannel cost 24 cents, the ladies paid the insurance premium for the church in the amount of $4.75. In addition, the Auxiliary paid for the rector’s fuel (wood), the janitor, renting tables and chairs from the Hannah Lay Co., electric lights, and a casket. In spite of all that, they managed to send $5.00 to the Industrial School for Boys of Southern Virginia, a home for delinquent children which opened in 1892. Bazaars, socials, and member dues were their primary mode of fundraising. Thus began our long history of women’s service to the parish and those in need.
By 1922, the ladies were contributing to children’s aid ($127.18) and the building fund ($334.91), and in 1925 disbursed $890 to the vestry. That same year, the Women’s Auxiliary national organization (including all its local chapters) was recognized by the National Church and women were appointed to national standing committees. Of note, General Convention declined to authorize women as licensed lay leaders that year.
During the 1950’s, the Rev. Francis Foley, Rector, asked the Women’s Auxiliary to split into two separate guilds, in order to accommodate the work schedules of some ladies, and the meeting preferences of others. St. Catherine’s Guild was made up of young mothers and working ladies, and St. Margaret’s Guild consisted of ‘mature’ ladies.
In 1965, the Women’s Auxiliary of the National Church became the General Division of Women’s Work (yes, really), and the diocesan and local Auxiliary units became the Episcopal Church Women. At Grace, St. Catherine’ and St. Margaret’s combined to become the Grace chapter of ECW.
In the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, ECW raised money by providing food for catered events, like graduation parties, weddings, and cocktail parties (check out the ads reproduced on this page). Many still remember the annual Peony Tea, the Silver Teas at Christmas, and that spring dinner that fed 800 people and raised a ton of money for outreach.
By 1980, ECW was providing funds annually (to the tune of $3000) to support the parish, local charities, the national church, and foreign missions. The group continued to disburse funds for use by the vestry, and supported the discretionary fund, among others. Locally, ECW supported a variety of charities, including Third Level Crisis Center and the Women’s Resource Center. Nationally, they continued support to seminaries, foreign relief efforts, and St. Gregory’s Abbey, among others.
By 1985, there was a notable decline in traditional women’s ministries nationally, and in 1988, ECW ceased to exist at Grace. In its place, The Rev. Mark Story, Rector, requested that ECW members become part of a group called Parish Life, continuing the work of the original Women’s Auxiliary. Parish Life remained active until it was disbanded in 2013 by the Rev. Daniel Richards, Rector. Its work has continued, through the individual efforts of its former members. ECW has been resurrected across the country, and is active within our diocese, but so far it has not found new life at Grace. What does our future hold?
This article could not have been written without the help of the 150th committee, especially Kathy Woods and Maxcie Latimer; and the information provided by the Episcopal Women’s History Project, available online at http://www.ewhp.org/resources/what-coulda-woman-do-in/.