The year is 1846. James Polk is president of the United States, the Mormons are beginning their migration to what will become Salt Lake City, the liberty bell cracks while being rung in honor of Washington's birthday and the country is about to declare war on Mexico.
At the Second Parish of Scituate, William Moseley – a recent Harvard Divinity School graduate – is serving as pastor of the congregation that will later be known as First Parish of Norwell, Unitarian-Universalist. And on March 25th of 1846 the Ladies South Scituate Sewing Circle is formed for the purpose of (From the original constitution):
- One – to distribute clothing and other articles of necessary use, or comfort to such as need the relief.
- Two – to prepare at their several meetings said articles of clothing or articles which may be sold in aid of the society's funds.
- Three – to aid with any surplus means remaining after the first object is attained whatever benevolent enterprise a majority of the members at a regular meeting may approve.
- Four – to endeavor to promote the mutual improvement of the members.
44 members, paying yearly dues of 25 cents and six honorary members, paying $1, formed the original group. Thus began the organization that would eventually become today's Alliance of First Parish of Norwell. Initially the women met three times a month and in member's homes. One meeting was for sewing to make clothing for the town's "worthy poor" - as well as items to sell for the annual bazaar. Another meeting was for business and a third for literary purposes. The annual bazaar has continued through the decades to become our current Holiday Fair. Records show that in 1867 the profit from the bazaar was $406 – comparable to well over $6,000 in today's money.
The location of the fair changed as the town and church grew - some of the early ones were held at Fogg's Hall over the old South Scituate Savings Bank building. Then when the James Library was erected in 1880 the "Ladies Aid" made use of the new building not only for the annual bazaar but also for its meetings. And with the availability of a kitchen at the James they began to prepare monthly church suppers as an additional fund raiser.
The Ladies South Scituate Sewing Circle that our foremothers established in 1846 was part of the women's self-realization movement that was growing throughout the nation. Granted, at this time in our history, the accepted place for women to find fulfillment and develop self-reliance was mostly in the domestic realm. But, the fact that people were even considering the possibility that women might want to learn and improve their skills as a means to greater happiness while completing their daily rounds was something to be applauded. Lydia Maria Child, a Unitarian and an abolitionist, had written two books to help women in their accepted callings. The Frugal Housewife was published in 1830 and The Mother's Book came out a year later in 1831.
While the titles of these books may not seem very revolutionary when compared to our modern thoughts about women and their roles in society, historians have recognized what they call a "pragmatic feminism" within the pages of such books. Child herself, as one might imagine from the title of her books, was very concerned about the lack of domestic education available. She also thought when educating one's daughters, there was too much emphasis placed on the happiness to be found simply by getting married, or by paying too much attention to gentlemen callers. Margaret Fuller, another Unitarian known for her friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson and her editorship of the Dial, also wrote about the fulfillment of women, but with a more liberal view. She believed that when both men and women realized the truth of women's equality as a God given endowment and as a way to acknowledge divine love in our world, society and humankind could only improve and find great profit from such a philosophy.
Olympia Brown, who was born in 1835, was a product of the burgeoning women's self-realization movement. Wishing to preach the doctrine of God's eternal and unconditional love, she found a home with the Universalists and after attending seminary and demonstrating her skill as a preacher and pastor, was officially ordained by their Convention in 1863. Brown is possibly the first women to have been fully recognized and ordained by any denomination at the national level. Her first settlement was in Weymouth, MA in the late 1860s, and she was also instrumental in founding the New England Woman Suffrage Association while serving there. Imagine what the Ladies of the South Scituate Sewing Circle thought about that? Remember, their fourth purpose as stated in their original constitution was "to endeavor to promote the mutual improvement of the members." These women also allotted one meeting per month simply for literary pursuits, and another meeting for the business affairs of their group.
Almost a generation later, several other women, such as Mary Safford and Eleanor Gordon would follow in Brown's footsteps. Growing up in Iowa, these two and the other women ministers whom they encouraged and mentored would accept pulpits in the midwest that were either too challenging or paid too little for the male ministers who grew up and were educated in the east. Knowing the dedication and time needed to be a wife and raise a family, most of these women also chose to remain single, devoting themselves to their religious callings. The efforts they might have given a family were then poured into the expanded lives of their congregations as they developed and added to enrichment and service programs that built upon the work that many women were already engaged in as volunteers within their churches. As ministers, their attention to these types of programs added import and recognition to the realm of women's church work in a way that had not been seen previously.
It was also during this time period that the national organizations of the Association of Universalist Women and the Alliance of Unitarian Women were founded in 1869 and 1890 respectively.
In the early 1900's two women's organizations existed side by side here at First Parish – the "Ladies Aid" Sewing Circle described earlier AND an Alliance Branch of the Unitarian Society – with many women belonging to both groups. In June of 1919 the groups voted to merge and become The Ladies Aid Alliance of the First Parish Church of Norwell.
By the 1930's the Women's Alliance held their annual bazaar in the newly built Town Hall – now the Cushing Center - and continued there until 1954 when the current Parish Hall was added to the church.
Other fundraisers over the history of the organization included Strawberry Festivals, an antiques auction, selling of chocolate, silver polish, and magazine subscriptions to name a few. Their income allowed for a distribution of monies to the work of the church, to UU "good works", to community service, dues and Alliance expenses. In 1946, for example, they gave $1111 to the church budget – the equivalent of over $14,000 today!
Perhaps their most visible mark on the larger community was the establishment, in 1949, of a Kindergarten for the use of Norwell families as there was no kindergarten in the public school at that time. Now known as First Parish Preschool, it is in its 67th year providing outstanding early childhood education to the children of the community.
As a merged organization they continued the work of the earlier Sewing Circle and added the connection of a national organization that would become today's Unitarian Universalist Women's Federation. The ties with the Women's Federation would continue for many years until the end of the 20th century.
The Women's Alliance of First Parish in the 1970's was a group of women who held monthly programs and book review meetings and who single handedly ran the amazing Harvest Fair event that included a full scale dinner in the evening. The group had a history of being an activist organization in both the church and the broader community. Their budget, funded primarily through the fair, provided outreach to numerous local and national charities. The sub-committee that oversaw this outreach was known as the Service Committee and eventually would separate from Alliance to become what is now our Fogg Service Committee. Alliance also funded many church projects including buying the china and silver-plate flatware we use today, paying for the electrification of Kent House, maintaining the décor of the Parish Hall as well as upkeep of the Meeting House, and providing the "Collations" (or receptions) following memorial services for church members.
As society and culture has changed, and in particular the lives of women have changed, so has the focus of Alliance. No longer coordinating what is now the Holiday Fair (though still overseeing the bake table!), Alliance is self supporting but no longer funding major projects in the church. The group plans three programs and three book reviews each year that are open to any who wish to attend – and members gather for a holiday and a spring luncheon. In 2004, the bylaws were amended to change the name to Alliance of First Parish (without reference to gender) to be more inclusive.
The Ladies South Scituate Sewing Circle has been a force for good since its inception. While as a group, it may not have been on the forefront regarding women's liberation issues, the women who have participated in this sisterhood have always actively worked towards promoting the eternal and unconditional divine love that is present in all. Whether through sewing clothes for those in need, raising money for our church, showing their love for this institution by the way they care for its members and the building, or working for the improved education and enrichment of themselves and others, this group of women has done wonderful things. Our Alliance has, at the very least, promoted a pragmatic feminism and theology that have benefitted innumerable people. This has been no small feat given the conventional demands of family life, and the limits that society has given women even in today's contemporary society. This continued effort of the sisters in our midst has given our movement vision.
Today, 170 years after the founding of the Ladies South Scituate Sewing Circle, the current Alliance has 25 members from the church and wider community and is co-chaired by Prue Miller and Sue Sulc. Though its activities have changed as society and culture has changed, Alliance continues to provide camaraderie, intellectual stimulation, and community support to its members. Consider joining us as we "endeavor to promote the mutual improvement of our members."
*History compiled by Rev. Lise Adams Sherry and Susan Robinson