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The Souvenir of Western Women/Work of Unitarian Women in the Northwest

Work of Unitarian Women in the Pacific Northwest


THE one person to whom more than all others the Unitarian Church of the Pacific Northwest OAves its origin is Mary Ellen Frazar, who, together with her husband, Thomas Frazar, and their six children, came to Oregon in 1853. Both were natives of New England and thoroughly imbued with that spirit of liberal Christianity which at this era, largely owing to the influence of the saintly Channing, was rife in that section of our country. They found Portland a city of six thousand inhabitants and well provided with churches representing almost every denomination except the Unitarian, whose followers were neither numerous enough nor strong enough to have a society of their own. The Frazar family for some years held private services in their own home, but in 1863, having made the acquaintance of Mr. and Mrs. Charles W. Burrage, also New Englanders of the same religious faith, the two women, in December, 1865, with five others, namely, Mrs. Goodnough, Mrs. Cooke, Mrs. Wright, Mrs. Abbott and Mrs. Burrell, met at the Goodnough residence for the purpose of organizing a society "to promote and advance the cause," as the preamble reads. The organization effected two weeks later called itself the "Ladies' Sewing Society," and afterwards were added the words "of the First Unitarian Society. Portland, Oregon."

Three years before this date the Kev. Thomas Starr King, of San Francisco, a noted Unitarian minister and lecturer, had preached in Portland when upon a lecturing tour through the Northwest; and in 1866, a few months after the formation of the Ladies' Sewing Society, Dr. Horatio Stebbins came to Portland by invitation and for three Sundays preached in the basement of the Baptist Church. It was during this visit that the first Unitarian communion and baptismal service was held, the latter being at the suggestion of Mrs. W. W. Spaulding, a New England woman, at which seven children were baptized. The silver service used in this communion was bought by the "First earnings" of the Ladies' Sewing Society, and at this day is still in use. The society had in the meantime been holding its regular weekly meetings, where by sewing and getting up entertainments it was steadily raising funds for the cause it held so dear. In these ways and with an average attendance of but seven members, the society by the end of the first year had raised nearly four hundred dollars. The immediate result of Dr. Stebbins' visit was the formation in the following June of "The First Unitarian Society of Portland, Oregon."

And now these two societies bent all their energies to the purpose of building a chapel and engaging a minister. By the end of 1867 an appropriate building had been erected upon Seventh and Yamhill streets. Their first pastor, the Rev. Thomas Lamb Eliot, with his wife and infant son. had arrived from St. Louis just in time to assist in the dedication of the new edifice. The cost of the two lots, building and furnishings, had come to about four thousand dollars, one-fourth of this sum being the contribution of the Ladies' Sewing Society.

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It was not long after the arrival of the "young minister." as he at first was called, from his youthful appearance, before his parish began to realize that they were particularly fortunate in the minister who haa been selected for them, as he possessed a combination of qualities which especially fitted him for the work, largely missionary, which lay before him in this new country, and which made his future pastorate the success it has proved. His wife, too, rarely endowed intellectually and spiritually, seconded his et forts for the good of the church and the community generally so that in this, their life work, they labored together a.s one.

Dr. Eliot did not confine his efforts to the work of his church alone, but from the beginning took an active interest in all philanthropic and educational matters throughout the city and state. In all of this work he was ably assisted by the LadiesSewing Society. In 1876 whilst Dr. Eliot was absent for his health, never robust, a society was organized in the church called the "Christian Union," for the purpose of continuing the work of philanthropy, until this time carried on under Mr. Eliot's direction. Committees of the Christian Union, largely composed of women, kept up the work begun by their pastor of regularly visiting the county jail, county farm, and insane asylum, a private institution in East Portland, and carrying to them all, literature and good cheer.

In 1880 Dr. Eliot and Miss Helen F. Spalding, at the time the president and vice-president of the Christian Union, inaugurated a series of lectures oi? Social Science, which were given in the chapel. These practical talks on Education,

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Municipal Reform, Temperance and kindred subjects, carried on continuously for eight years, paved the way in no small degree to the formation of most of the charitable institutions now doing such valuable work in the city and state; to the amelioration of the bad conditions prevailing in the jails and county farm; to a law establishing in the state penitentiary a library at the expense of the state; and other important work.

In 1879 the new Unitarian church edifice next to the chapel was completed and dedicated, and the name. "Church of Our Father," bestowed upon it by Dr. Eliot. For seven years previously the Ladies' Sewing Society had been devoting its energies towards swelling the sum required for the building, and were able to give two thousand of the twenty thousand dollars that it cost. Mr. and Mrs. S. G. Reed gave twelve hundred dollars towards the expense of the fine organ; this being just half the sum it cost.

And now, in 1892, as the name "Ladies' Sewing Society" no longer indicated the real trend of its activities, it was changed to that of the "Women's Auxiliary." becoming soon after a branch of the Women's Unitarian Conference of the Pacific Coast. Again in 1902, and this time at the instance of Mrs. Cressey, wife of the present pastor of the church, the Rev. George Croswell Cressey, it changed its cognomen to one which will probably be its final one, calling itself the "Woman's Alliance," and also joining the National Alliance of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Women.

Another important society of the Church of Our Father, started in 1886, is the Post Office Mission, whose work is the distribution of liberal religious literature through the mails and in other ways. The Frazar Loan Library and the Free Reading Room, both established by the late Mrs. Rosa F. Burrell in memory of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Frazar, are managed by the Mission.

Among the pioneer women in this society who lent an unfailing hand in all good work we would name Mrs. Lurena A. Spalding, Mrs. Betty Farmer and Mrs. Charles W. Burrage.

It may not be out of place to mention here (although a little to one side of the denominational work of Unitarian women) three large bequests, the influence of which will be felt in the religious, educational and philanthropic work of the Northwest for many years to come: $200,000 by Miss Ella Smith, one-half of which went to the Portland Library: $50,000 by Mrs. Rosa F. Burrell, placed in Dr. Eliot's custody; $2,000,000 by Mrs. S. G. Reed, the greater part of this latter sum to be used to erect an institution of learning known as the Reed Institute. These women were members of the Church of Our Father, and from the tenor of their wills one cannot but see what a deep impression the life and character of their beloved pastor had made upon them.

It is now thirty-nine years since the Ladies' Sewing Society came into being, and of the seven women who formed it but one is living, Mrs. C. W. Burrage, of Canyon City, Colorado. It has held weekly meetings every Wednesday. Many thousands of dollars have been earned by its faithful members, and it has ever been an incentive and comfort to the pastor and the general society of the church.

Dr. Eliot, who received the degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1889 from Harvard University in recognition of his faithful and efficient services in so many directions in the Northwest, after a service of twenty-five years, in 1892 resigned his pastorate to younger men. He is still, however, actively interested in every movement for the public advancement, and as a member of many of the boards of the city and state organizations, finds his time more than occupied. Mrs. Eliot, who stands as a type of motherhood, has yet found time in her busy life to enrich the literature of the West by her pen, and she, as well as her husband, the Pastor Emeritus of the Church of Our Father, are looked upon as they deserve to be from the points of years and service as the virtual heads of the Unitarian Church of the Pacific Northwest.