“In view of the conditions which confront us in this city,” the Rev. William T. Manning, rector of Trinity Parish, wrote in 1910, “There is great significance in the record of such a work as that which is carried on, day in and day out, by Trinity Parish.”
The conditions of the city, particularly Manhattan’s lower wards, were dire in 1910. The city’s population had more than tripled in the previous 20 years, from 1,515,301 in 1890 to 4,766,883 by 1910. Trinity Church found itself surrounded by overcrowded tenements and desperately poor immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Italy, China, and Syria.
The demographic changes in Lower Manhattan had begun years before. Trinity’s outreach work in the neighborhood started in the mid-1850s. By 1910 Trinity Parish (at the time, Trinity Church and nine chapels) supported an array of schools, services, and organizations, including a Mission House run by Episcopal nuns. “Trinity Parish is dealing daily with all sorts and conditions of men,” Manning wrote, “And is doing a work which is as truly missionary as any in foreign lands, or on our own frontiers.”
The Mission House and the parish’s other undertakings were always under the official leadership of the all-male clergy. Many of the programs, however, were developed by women in Trinity’s congregation. This was especially true of programs aimed at improving the lives of working women and girls. Read on for profiles of two such ministries: the Kitchen Garden and the St. Paul’s Business Women’s Luncheon Club.
The Kitchen Garden
Around 1880, Miss Emily Huntington of New England developed a program known as the Kitchen Garden. The aim was to teach “little mothers”-- very young children who were left in charge of households while both parents worked-- basic housekeeping and cooking skills. Students sang catchy tunes about fire safety and cleanliness and drilled with tiny brooms and miniature table settings. Kitchen Gardens aimed to teach and also to provide music and fun to the girls of the tenements.
“The immediate aim was to rescue the poor little girls from the deep misery of their joyless state,” a 1901 New York Times article explained, “It seemed a shame that these mere children should pass a life in which there was nothing but labor and squalor.” The Kitchen Garden also “strengthens their hands to fight poverty, their natural enemy, and inspires them with an instinct to fight dirt and squalor.”
Trinity’s Kitchen Garden was based on Huntington’s program, and ran from 1883 until 1922. It was financed by one Trinity parishioner, Miss Elizabeth d’Hautville Kean.
Each May, students of Trinity’s Kitchen Garden would give an “annual entertainment” during which they demonstrated what they had learned. The Trinity Mission Record, a parish newsletter, reported:
“It was an extremely pretty scene. The little girls, in their pink dresses and white caps and aprons, marched two by two into the Mission Room to the music of the piano, and came to a halt on each side of the long tables. Before each child was a miniature table placed on the larger tables, all properly set with toy dishes, knives and forks, table-cloths and napkins. After the opening song the children sat down and chanted the uses of each article. After this they cleared the tables and washed the dishes with “invisible soap and imperceptible water.”
The class went on to “enact a mimic family wash”, make up large doll beds, and perform a “very pretty broom drill.”
Kitchen Garden graduates could take classes at the Cooking School, where they learned to prepare economical family meals, and studied marketing (grocery shopping) and physiology. Girls could also learn sewing in the “industrial school” held on Saturday mornings, and attend the day school at St. Paul’s Chapel.
While the Kitchen Garden was primarily a secular program, the Mission Record notes that every effort was made to place participants in one of the guilds--age-based clubs that promoted morals, manners, and religion--or the Sunday school.
The St. Paul’s Business Women’s Luncheon Club
In January 1907, the Rev. W. Montague Geer, longtime vicar of St. Paul’s Chapel, stuck his foot in his mouth. He was concerned that the downtown stenographers (almost all young women) who congregated in the churchyard were in danger of being seduced by their employers during the lunch hour.
In an interview with the New York Times meant to publicize his plans for a stenographer’s club that would offer “protection” at lunch time, Geer described the situation as he saw it:
“…Many of these young girls are like kittens—playful and naturally affectionate. A business man who occasionally employs a stenographer from another office recently said to me: ‘You don’t know what temptations we business men are subjected to.’
“The rush of business life is dangerous…”
Geer spent the next week trying to downplay his comments. “I wish to clear the air a little,” he told the Times, “I have been quoted as saying that the proposed club was to be a reformatory, and that such an institution was needed for the stenographers and typewriters downtown. I made no such statement.”
But Geer had, in the words of one young woman, “brought down upon his head the wrath of every stenographer in the city.” Young business women protested that they were competent to look after themselves. Employment agency managers weighed in against Geer’s claims of lecherous clerks.
Geer went ahead and called a meeting to discuss formation of a club. One hundred stenographers came. An “informal session” was held by the stenographers after Geer spoke, and they endorsed the club-- and the idea that it should be run entirely by their own contributions, rather than by any donations from their employers.
Sixty-five women signed up for the club, paying 25 cents for 31 lunch tickets. They met in St. Paul’s parish house, which was located in the west end of the churchyard. Membership soon swelled to 800, and a lunch room was created. Members purchased their lunches at cost.
“You can hardly realize what this Church means to me,” one member was quoted as saying in the Club’s annual report for 1910. “To get away from the rush outside, and step into the peaceful churchyard and up to this attractive room. The friendly greeting that always awaits me, the green plants in the window, the selected pictures on the walls…everything is so restful and it all makes life in the business world so much easier for me.”
The Club soon organized a library, a singing class, and ran a successful Ladies’ Employment Bureau. At the time, women stenographers were not well-paid— yet club members continuously paid for lunches for children in St. Paul’s kindergarten and supported other charitable programs.
Trinity Parish’s mission work with women came full circle in 1910. In December of that year, twenty-two year old Ortovia Bonasera, a veteran “little mother” who had raised her siblings and, from the age of 19, had also worked twelve hour days in a tailor shop, put her siblings to bed, “settled her father comfortably in the kitchen with his Italian newspaper,” and shot herself with a revolver.
Bonasera lived—she had missed her head, instead wounding her neck--and was taken to hospital under arrest for attempted suicide. The Club took up a collection for her, and sent $25.
As the Rev. William T. Manning wrote in 1910, “Because we believe in a God who came down here and cast his lot with us men, we must realize that His Church’s Social Mission, and His Church’s Social Responsibility are of the very essence of her life. We must not be less human, but more human.”
Author: Trinity Wall Street Communications
Created: March 18, 2009
Trinity Wall Street has played a pivotal role in the religious and civic life of the city and nation since its founding in 1697. This blog will answer readers’ questions and provide a glimpse into the fascinating and provocative history of the parish.